on the page magazine

issue no. 1, winter 2000–2001
outsiders & community


Should You Bowl Alone?

a review of Robert Putnam's book on the decline of social capital in America

by Nada Djordjevich

Recently a colleague told me about his son's school:

Everyone comes out for everything. The whole town, it doesn't matter if they have kids or not. There might be just one little kid standing on stage whistling and all the parents will come out to watch. The grandparents will come, the neighbors, as if it's Mardi Gras. And you should see Little League games.

According to Robert Putnam's book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster), Michael's working class suburb is an anomaly in a nation increasingly governed by the old Groucho Mark joke, "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member."

"By almost every measure, life in the United States today is the best it has ever been," writes New Republic editor Gregg Easterbrook in the New York Times Magazine. His measurements—risk of war, pollution, life expectancy, material supplies—do not incorporate the factors that, according to Putnam, a Harvard University professor, compose the quality of community life. And, while Easterbrook attributes the studies of growing unhappiness (unipolar depression, mistrust, general malaise) to an American culture of complaint, Putnam argues forcibly and well that the decline in membership in everything from bowling leagues to nonprofits to political parties affects individual and societal sense of well being.

In other words, we don't really care if we make more money and are not at war, if we bowl alone.

Declining participation in all forms of American society

Do you bowl alone?
Bowling is the most popular competitive sport in America, more popular than soccer, jogging, softball, and golf. Even though tens of millions of Americans bowl each year (for example, in 1996 90 million people bowled), they don't know either the people in the neighboring lanes or the folks behind the shoe counter (see this issue's interview with Paul Tough and Emily Koehn's poem on classical bowling). In the mid-1960's, 8% of men and 5% of women participated in bowling leagues; now only 2% of Americans bowl in a league.

Have you hosted a dinner party lately?
In the past two decades, the number of occasions on which people have friends over for dinner has declined 45% from about 14 times per year to about 8.

Do you stop at stop signs?
Putnam looks at factors that describe a general decline in following the rules of society. For example, he describes a stop-sign study conducted at several suburban intersections throughout New York State in which 37% of all motorists in 1979 did not stop; by 1996 the number of drivers who failed to stop had climbed to 97%.

Do you vote?
Despite increased education and voting rights over the past three decades, voting in America is down by nearly a quarter, to less than 50% of eligible voters.

Are you an activist?
Since the mid 1970s, there has been a steady erosion of activist participation by people under 30; meanwhile the number of senior citizens joining protests has increased. And all Americans are 30% less likely to attend public meetings and 40% less engaged in party politics than we were 25 years ago.

Do you read a newspaper?
While Americans over 60 continue to read the newspaper at about the same rate as they did in 1972, Americans between the ages of 30 and 44 have decreased their newspaper reading from 72% to 34%, and reading by 18-29 year-olds is down from 49% to 21%. The number of people following the news in other formats—television news, the Internet—has also declined (Putnam doesn't discuss radio), and interestingly enough, those who rely primarily on the Internet for news are actually less likely than their fellow citizens to be civically involved.

Do you watch a lot of television?
A 1995 study showed that television absorbed almost 40% of the average American's free time in 1995, an increase of roughly one-third since 1965.

Putnam uses a variety of sources, including Roper Social and Political Trends and the DDB Needham Life Style, Gallup polls, crime statistics, newspapers, and anecdotal evidence (e.g., the end of hitchhiking, letters between club members) to detail American's social and civic patterns over the past century. His work outlines the growing decline in memberships in formal organizations (political parties, sports leagues, PTA, YMCA, church) and informal communities (local bars, dinner with friends, card games). Most significantly, he provides evidence of the importance of social connections to individual and community wellness.

If we're a nation of lonelyhearts and losers who don't have friends over, don't join teams, and don't vote, according to Putnam, we all lose out. In areas of high social capital, like my friend Michael's neighborhood, and particularly in states like Vermont, Minnesota, and Montana (see Rick Stern's Letter from Missoula if it surprises you that Montana's up there), children are healthier and watch less TV, there's less crime, people are less likely to cheat on their taxes, schools function better, and levels of educational attainment increase. Folks also complain less of their health, make more money, and their kids will make more money. On the other hand, if you're in a region of low social capital, say Nevada or Alabama, you're more likely to say that you'd do better than average in a fistfight.

Putnam writes that "regular club attendance, volunteering, entertaining, or church attendance is the happiness equivalent of getting a college degree or more than doubling your income." And only participating once a month (you don't need to become Reese Witherspoon's ultra-go-getter character in "Election") will make you less likely to likely to state, "I wish I could leave my present life and do something entirely different," and more likely to believe, "I am much happier now than I ever was before." Not only is membership associated with general feelings of happiness, but also there is a strong connection to health. Putnam describes a number of longitudinal studies that suggest this "rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half. If you smoke and belong to no groups, it's a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining. These findings are in some ways heartening: it's easier to join a group than to lose weight, exercise regularly, or quit smoking."

According to a number of surveys cited in the book, my generation has lived up to its slacker name: we don't vote, work on community projects, attend church, or interest ourselves in politics; we're proportionately more depressed and suffer more from insomnia, headaches, and indigestion than older generations; and, unlike our grandparents, most of us don't believe people can be trusted. We are, however, slightly less greedy than the generation "y" coming after us.

The weakest section of Putnam's book is his description of the reasons for the decline in participation, related to our general malaise. This section, composed in a stylistically awkward murder mystery tone in which he lines up possible suspects, lacks the conviction of other chapters. At the end, he produces only "guesstimates" in which he apportions blame without any real data to support his figures. His best "guess" is that pressures of dual-income families are the cause of 10% of the decline; suburbanization, commuting, and sprawl account for another 10%; television is responsible for about 25%; and generational differences explain about 50%. In other words, in apportioning culpability he argues that my generation is largely to blame; but, of course, we didn't invent the televisions, build the highways, or arrange the tiny boxes of suburban sprawl, so it's rather a circular argument.

Putnam also takes on an evangelical tone near the end of the book that may cause some readers to cringe: "Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 Americans will spend less leisure time sitting passively alone in front of glowing screens and more time in active connection with our fellow citizens." And in another passage he writes, "Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 significantly more Americans will participate in (not merely consume or 'appreciate') cultural activities from group dancing to songfests to community theater to rap festivals."

Despite some of these problems, Putnam's argument is a strong one. His original essay, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," published a few years back in the somewhat obscure Journal of Democracy, received much attention from the mainstream media. How many professors and their wives make it to the cover of People magazine? And the book, with its generally solid arguments and fascinating data, should become common reading, since it addresses issues fundamental to retaining a civic society (like voting, public education) and to promoting a healthy and wealthy one. And it may serve as a wake-up call: it's not too late to stop bowling alone and to start meeting your neighbors, have dinner parties, and live longer and healthier lives.

Plus, who can resist a book with graphs like the one charting the likelihood of a person giving another driver the finger, based on the number of hours a week the person watches television?

Nada Djordjevich is the publisher of On the Page.

return to top of page
more reviews in this issue
all reviews outsiders home

home about OtP our staff guidelines events links OtP suggests
contact us copyright