Wineskins Archive

February 6, 2014

Bowling Alone (Sep-Oct 2001)

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Through eyes of a specialist on ancient cultures, Bible scholar James Walters reviews the new book on American culture and community, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community | Robert Putnam, Simon & Schuster 2000, 516 pages, $26.

By James Walters
September – October, 2001

Until 1995 Robert Putnam, a professor in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, was “an obscure academic” (Putnam’s self-description). In January 1995, he present a paper titled “Bowling Alone” at a conference in Sweden that was subsequently published in the Journal of Democracy. Reaction to the essay propelled Putnam to near stardom – he appeared on talk shows and in People magazine. It was no doubt one of the most widely discussed scholarly journal articles ever written. The author has an explanation for the response it evoked: Putnam believes that he “unwittingly articulated an unease that had already begun to form in the minds of many ordinary Americans.” The book reviewed here is Putnam’s attempt to expand the argument of the original 1995 essay and the evidence that supports it.

The thesis of Bowling Alone is that America’s stock of “social capital” has declined substantially over the past few decades, threatening our political system, our economy, our schools, and even the health and happiness of individuals. Putnam defines social capital as “connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.” The phrase carries similar freight as the more familar phrase “ciic virtue,” but places more emphasis on the role reciprocal social relations play – people doing things for one another or for the community expecting a direct return (specific reciprocity), or expecting to benefit by the similar generosity sometime in the future (generalized reciprocity).

The book s divided into four major sections. The first section makes the case that social capital has indeed declined by looking at trends in voting, giving blood, volunteering, church attendance, card playing league bowling, having neighbors to dinner, and others. The second section asks whether these declines really matter by seeking to determine the impact of low social capital. In the next section Putnam investigates the causes for the decline, nothing four primary culprits, the first two of which he thinks are responsible for 75 percent of the decline:

    1. Generational change, specifically the aging and passing of the WWII generation, a group that has generated rich stocks of social capital


  • TV viewing and its effects, particularly that of privatizing leisure



  • Time/money pressures and especially the social capital effects of women entering the full-time work force



  • Urban/suburban sprawl that not only cut into leisure time because of commuting but also separated the people with whom one works from the people with whom one lives


The fourth section offers advice for reversing these negative trends by looking at how the effects of urbanization and industrialization on social capital at the end of the nineteenth century were addressed by a period of “civic inventiveness.” This period saw the formation of numerous community institutions that have endured for a century (e.g., Shriners; Salvation Army, PTA, Rotary, NAACP, League of Women Voters, etc.).

Putnam’s original 1995 essay was criticized by many sociologists especially for failing to consider that declining numbers in older community organizations (e.g. PTA, Rotary) may have been offset by the emergence of new forms of civic interaction like soccer games, special interest groups (e.g., NRA, Sierra Club) and self-help groups. Putnam responds to his critics in this book by adding extensively to the data on which his original hypothesis was based (especially through the use of attitudinal surveys) and by showing that most of the increases in group memberships over the past few decades have been “check writing” memberships that never involve showing up for anything. He does admit that evangelical churches evidence some rise in attendance numbers and in the creation of social capital; however, he notes that unlike more traditional mainline churches, evangelical churches have a greater tendency to spend their social capital on themselves rather than outsiders.

Putnam concludes the book by exhorting Americans to reverse the negative trend he has identified through acting on six resolutions. Unfortunately, this chapter feels thin compared to the rest of the book. His suggestions may be condensed as follows:

    1. Teach our young to be more socially involved to strengthen social capital


  • make workplaces more conducive to fostering social capital



  • Design communities to encourage face to face interaction and to reduce workng commuting



  • Spur a new pluralistic “great awakening” that expands the social capital production potential of faith-based communities



  • Watch less TV; connect with others instead



  • Discover ways to use the arts to convene diverse groups


Bowling Alone is a monumental accomplishment. Putnam has answered most of his critics and in the meantime has offered readers a wide-ranging analysis of contemporary American society. With financial support from several major foundations Putnam put together a team of research assistants who worked for over five years (with a multi-million dollar budget) locating and analyzing a massive amount of social data. Over 500,000 face to face surveys, many of which had never been studied for these purposes, were analyzed (the book is loaded with graphs and tables). By gathering and publishing these statistics alone, Putnam has made a significant contribution. No doubt social scientists will be fighting over the interpretation of these for many years to come.

What does this mean to Christian communities?
There is much here that should interest religious communities as well. In addition to the general alarm Putnam sounds regarding the decline of social capital, the distinction he makes between two types of social capital has profound implications for interpreting the social situations of contemporary churches. He compares “bonding social capital” to superglue because it cements social relations in homogeneous groups. Families, ethnic enclaves, conservative evangelical churches and exclusive country clubs tend to be rich in bonding social capital that strengthens solidarity because it is inward-looking. “Bridging social capital” on the other hand is outward-looking. It results from communal interaction between people who otherwise move in different circles. Public schools, PTAs and Rotary clubs tend to be repositories of bridging social capital. Whereas bonding social capital is better for providing a network of support during a crisis, bridging social capital is better for linking individuals to external assets and dispersing information. Consequently, bridging social capital is more helpful than the bonding variety for locating a job or finding an apartment because those belonging to groups with only bonding social capital tend to know the same people.

Did early Christians have Social Capital?
The study of Christian origins, particularly the communities reflected in Paul’s letters, suggests that early churches were rich in bonding social capital. The family language that is so common in Paul’s correspondence suggests this. Moreover, the radical choice that was required for those converting to Christianity and the resistance they received from outsiders reinforced the boundaries that distinguished believers from unbelievers. Though less familiar, there is evidence of bridging social capital as well. Paul’s comment in 1 Cor. 9:22 that he routinely “became all things to all people that he might save some,” reflects a way of life that must have been rich in bridging social capital. Moreover, it was his willingness to associate freely with gentiles – violating the boundaries of some Jewish and Christian communities – that brought him such harsh condemnation and resistance.

A couple of other texts in 1 Corinthians reveal important assumptions about how he imagined his churches would interact with outsiders. In 1 Cor. 5:9-13 Paul attempts to correct some Corinthian believers who thought they should not have social interaction with outsiders who were immoral. Paul treats their misunderstanding as absurd by saying that those doing so would have to “go out of the world.” Moreover, Paul’s attempt to limit tongue speaking in the Christian assembly when there was no interpreter – because unbelievers who wandered into the assembly would think they were mad – also reflects the apostle’s desire to promote positive interaction with outsiders (1 Cor. 14:22). Paul’s advice in 1 Cor. 10:27-11:1 is consistent when he encourages believers to accept dinner invitations – the most common social activity in the Greco-Roman world – from pagans if their consciences permitted them to eat whatever was served (i.e. meat that had been sacrificed to idols). In such settings Paul encouraged believers to avoid offending those with whom they dined whether they were Jews, pagans or fellow believers. Clearly, Paul’s example, and his instruction to churches, encouraged the formation of bridging social capital that was critical to the spread of earliest Christianity.

How contemporary Christians – or churches – manage their own stocks of bonding and bridging social capital has important implications for the depths of community they experience and for the social networks that are available to them for outreach. As America’s stocks of social capital continue to decline there is a growing opportunity for Christian witness. However, it is unclear whether the boomers in our churches will answer the call to turn off their televisions, move outside their domestic fortresses, and actually become involved in the lives of other humans.

James Walters is director of urban initiatives for Heartbeat, Inc., Norwich, Vermont.

The heart of the book is the evidence Putnam marshals to make the case that social capital in America has in fact sharply declined. He isolates eight broad areas as indicators of social capital.

    1. Political Participation: Voter turnout has declined over the last quarter of the twentieth century especially among boomers and Xers. Moreover, grassroots participation has declined sharply as financial capital (writing a check) has replaced social capital (local organizing) in contemporary politics.


  • Civic Participation: Active involvement in face-to-face organizations has dropped dramatically being replaced in some cases by “check writing memberships.”



  • Religious Participation: Americans are going to church less, and the churches they are increasingly attending (evangelical churches) are less engaged with the wider community and more focused on personal piety.



Workplace Connections: Structural changes in the workplace – shorter job tenure, more part-time jobs, temporary jobs, and independent consultancy – inhibit workplace-based ties. Moreover, workplace ties tend to be casual and enjoyable, not intimate and deeply supportive.


  • Informal Social Connections: Using two yiddish terms Putnam differentiates between machers (people who make things happen in the community) and schmoozers (people who spend many hours in informal conversation and communion). Although Americans are still connecting, both machers and schmoozers are on the decline, especially machers. We spend less time in conversation over meals, we exchange visits less often, and we engage less often in leisure activities that encourage casual social interaction. We know our neighbors less well, and we see old friends less often.



  • Altruism, Volunteering, and Philanthropy: In the last decades of the twentieth century,despite increasing prosperity, the generosity of the average American sank. Trends in volunteering are less encouraging than often assumed by researchers because volunteering that can be done by senior citizens – a socially-involved generation that is living longer than previous seniors – is up while most other volunteering is down.



  • Reciprocity, Honesty, Trust: Surveys show that the percentage of those who believe that “most people are honest” has declined sharply – especially among boomers and Xers. Therefore, we rely increasingly on formal institutions, and above all on the law, to accomplish what we used to accomplish through generalized reciprocity that depended on social capital.



  • Small Groups, Social Movements, and the Net: Not all of the evidence points toward civic disengagement. Youth volunteering, internet (computer mediated communication), grassroots activity among evangelicals, and self-help support groups are all on the rise. These developments, however, are not sufficient to offset the dramatic losses in other areas.


– James WaltersWineskins Magazine

James Walters

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