Book Review: Bowling Alone

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Bowling AloneI recently finished Bowling Alone (2000) by Robert Putnam which has been very influential in Sustainability discourse.  My first response upon completing it was skepticism that very many of those referring to the book had gotten past its jacket summary-its title activity, lonesome bowling , is far more gripping than reading every page of this tome.1)Interestingly enough, I am apparently not the only one who finds bowling not to be the most enjoyable of options, Bloomberg reported on bowling lanes disappearing across the USA In brief the book describes the rise and fall of social capital in America during the 20th century.  What is social capital you ask? In Putnam’s own words:

“The central premise of social capital is that social networks have value. Social capital refers to the collective value of all “social networks” [who people know] and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other [“norms of reciprocity”].”2)From Putnam’s Bowling Alone website
The value and importance of social capital for Sustainability is something I have always taken for granted but having begun my higher education studies after the publication of Bowling Alone, I did not fully appreciate how much that was given a solid footing by this monumental work. The majority of the work is dedicated to tracing the dramatic rise of social capital in the US as measured by involvement in clubs, having dinner with friends, civic activities, volunteering etc. Putnam does this principally by using what seems like an endless array of graphs 3)I am still counting them…. Fortunately for you I have created a master graph which captures the essence of all of them in one image.

One graph for Bowling Alone

Yes, you guessed it, social capital peaked in the post-war period. As though those folks needed more pats on the back, they are already called the “Greatest Generation” for goodness sakes, just rest on your laurels already!

So having established that social capital is good and that it has been declining during the previous three plus decades, Putnam takes a stab at testing different causes behind this decline. He finds that urban sprawl, television and increased time at work (particularly because of women joining the workforce) are significant contributors to the change. But the biggest contributor by far is generational change.Each generation from the boomers on, participates less and less in the activities Putnam includes in his measure of social capital. Yet besides ascribing some of this to each generation watching more television, he is not really able to explain why each generation is behaving so differently. The reality is that age cohort differences abound, such as with attitudes towards gay marriage and while it is important to discover when these differences exist, these differences are unsurprising and does not in and of itself explain the change.4)In 2013 Pew found that 70% of Millennials supported gay marriage as opposed to just 31% of the oldest cohort press release

3 Things I Liked

  1. Extensive Data: Putnam and his colleagues gathered a huge amount of data from disparate sources, processed and compiled it into a digestible format. He did his best to not make any claims that were not backed up by at least some data which he could present.
  2. Cataloging of an Important Historical Trend: The changing nature of social capital in the USA throughout the 20th century is a very important story whose factual character was laid out in such a clear and decisive manner that the historical trend identified by Putnam can hardly be refuted even by the most contentious academic critic.
  3. Importance of Social Capital: Psychologists have shown that humans are innately loss averse. So perhaps it took evidence that social capital was being rapidly lost to shake us awake to its importance and centrality in building Sustainable societies.

3 Things I Didn’t Like

  1.  Too Much Data: While Putnam deserves plaudits for collecting and analyzing so much data, the book itself presents far too much of it directly. Generally graphs were presented and then interpreted, over and over again, most of which really belonged in the appendix. It is the authors job, particularly in book format, to interpret and present data him or herself while referring to sources, citations and appendices if the reader wishes to further verify the claim or follow-up. One gets the impression that Putnam hoped to drown all potential criticism in a deluge of data.
  2. Reliance on Narrative: Putnam attempts to use statistics to explain the trends of social capital in the 20th century but ultimately he falls back on telling a story of the populists and progressives igniting a movement which exploded with the solidarity of WWII before falling prey to television, changing work patterns, and less neighborly generations. Unfortunately us humans are easily convinced by such story telling, but they are little good in sussing out the truth.5)Nicolas Taleb calls this problem "the Narrative Fallacy" and it is one of his favorite whipping boys. Recently Slate.com bemoaned the problem in journalism
  3. Golden Age: Institutions whose decline he bemoans were often racist, homophobic and sexist. To be fair he catalogs this and caveats what he says about this golden age of social capital. This golden age was communal but inwardly and exclusively so (white, straight, male as well as parochial) and I for one don't particularly mourn that loss.6)In Our Divided Political Heart, Dionne describes two countervailing American ideals, liberty and community, which he believes have been fundamental since the founding. From that standpoint the 40s and 50s were too communal at the cost of Liberty and a shift was necessitated to more liberty and individual rights to restore the historical balance.

Aaron's Approbation

In summary Bowling Alone will continue to be a seminal and important book for Sustainability but I would only ever recommend that someone read a summary and/or skim the full text, unless a sleeping aid is needed. In the end I have two other major concerns.

1) I feel that Putnam may have it all backward. The question is not what is causing the decline in social capital in the USA but what unusual situation caused it to rise so high in during this brief window (some of which he considered e.g. WWII). Was it the economic global dominance of the USA during this period? 7)The USA was responsible for over 25% of world GDP in the '50s has since steadily declined to around 18% Or maybe it was due to a historically anomalous dip in inequality which has been carefully cataloged and recently published by Thomas Pickety?8)Capital in the 21st Century, the surprise bestseller, discusses among other things how inequality has almost always been high and dipped low in the middle of the 20th century before beginning to return to historic levels.

2) Ultimately the question which remains unanswered is whether a decline in membership to social clubs and other such indicators reveals a true decrease in social capital and/or in the quality of life of individuals. I would be hypocritical if I said that we need more social capital when bowling leagues, Elks clubs and hosting dinner parties one or more times a week, sound less desirable to me than watching paint dry (or reading Bowling Alone for that matter). The key point for Achieving Sustainability is not to mourn the passing of such institutions, but to foster new ways of generating social capital through volunteering, voting, online networks, games, schools and many other ways that offer opportunities in the future.

Aaron Redman is the founder of Achieving Sustainability and what passes for an administrator in these parts. Currently he is working on his Sustainability PhD at ASU while raising a baby daughter and taking advantage of nap time to foment discussions on this here blog.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Interestingly enough, I am apparently not the only one who finds bowling not to be the most enjoyable of options, Bloomberg reported on bowling lanes disappearing across the USA
2. From Putnam’s Bowling Alone website
3. I am still counting them…
4. In 2013 Pew found that 70% of Millennials supported gay marriage as opposed to just 31% of the oldest cohort press release
5. Nicolas Taleb calls this problem "the Narrative Fallacy" and it is one of his favorite whipping boys. Recently Slate.com bemoaned the problem in journalism
6. In Our Divided Political Heart, Dionne describes two countervailing American ideals, liberty and community, which he believes have been fundamental since the founding. From that standpoint the 40s and 50s were too communal at the cost of Liberty and a shift was necessitated to more liberty and individual rights to restore the historical balance.
7. The USA was responsible for over 25% of world GDP in the '50s has since steadily declined to around 18%
8. Capital in the 21st Century, the surprise bestseller, discusses among other things how inequality has almost always been high and dipped low in the middle of the 20th century before beginning to return to historic levels.
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