Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam

This one's a doozie. I don't recommend it unless you are a naturally optimistic and mentally stable person. I read Bowling Alone as part of my quest to understand social capital. I'd heard of it before, but it came to my immediate attention because it was referenced in War and Peace and War.

Putnam's thesis is that by many measures, social capital in America increased after World War II to its zenith in about 1960, and has been falling ever since. (The book was written in 1999, but my suspicion is that downward slide has continued into the oughts. It would be interesting to see an update.) Putnam looks at a variety of indicators from a variety of surveys, mostly the General Social Survey (GSS) and the DDB Needham Life Style archive.

Bowling Alone is long, dry, and somewhat repetitive. It's broken up into several sections: 1) what's going on, 2) why is it happening, 3) why is it a bad thing, and 4) as Lenin says, "what is to be done?". I skipped large chunks of (3) since I'm already convinced that social capital is important and correlates strongly to a bunch of important things that I'd like to keep having, as well as the fall of empires.

A bunch of charts and graphs that Putnam cites are worth perusing and available here.

Social capital has been falling since 1960

The following indicators followed the general pattern: peak in 1960, followed by decline through at least 1999:

  • Percentage of voters (PV) who worked for attended a political meeting.
  • PV who attended a public meeting for school or town affairs.
  • PV who served as an organizer for a local club/organization in the past year.
  • Number of club meetings attended per year.
  • Average weekly church attendenance.
  • Percent of labor force that is unionized.
  • Membership in professional organizations.
  • Frequency of whole family dinners.
  • Frequency of card playing.
  • Total giving by living individuals as a percentage of national income.
  • Percent who say "most people can be trusted".

As Putnam diagnoses the problem, some striking trends stuck with me:

  • Trend towards social engagement under an umbrella of a church, and increasingly, an employer.
  • Trend towards "privatized religion": belief without a specific congregation. Non-organized religion gives personal meaning but no social capital.
  • Passive consumption up, active participation down. In sports, there are fewer players but more viewers. In music, fewer players, more listeners.
  • Membership in organizations increasingly is a cheap way to indicate political preference without dedicating substantial time or money to the cause. It's also not social: most don't engage in person or discuss it with friends.
  • Depressing generational shift in what constitutes a good life and what community means to people. More people want more money, and fewer care about having a job that contributes to society. Patriotism wanes, materialism waxes.

As well as some concepts that were new to me:

  1. Bonding vs. bridging social capital: Bonding social capital is within a group or community whereas bridging social capital is between social groups, social class, race, religion, etc. According to Putnam, bonding social capital is good for “getting by” and bridging is crucial for “getting ahead”.
  2. Generalized reciprocity: gift giving without the expectation of an immediate return, but with the vague understanding that someone will someday return the favor.
  3. Thick vs. thin social trust: very related to the above. Thick trust means you trust a specific person for past deeds you know of personally, while thin trust is akin to generalized social reciprocity where everyone in a community is trusted by virtue of being a member.
  4. Mahers vs. schmoozers (from Yiddish): Mahers invest time in social organization, schmoozers: those who spend time in informal conversation.

At the end of the section, Putnam's carefully hedges any predictions about the internet, after a discussion about how wrong predictions about the telephone's effect on social fabric were. This also serves as a sobering reminder that social capital was well on the downswing by the advent of the internet. Thus, Facebook or other oft-maligned internet-related entities cannot be the sole cause.

A society characterized by generalized reciprocity is more efficient than a distrustful society, for the same reason that money is more efficient than barter.

Because of TV, urban sprawl, working women, etc

Putnam is explicit that he thinks many mostly weak factors have led to the trends he's observed. But he outlines a few that seem to be the strongest:

  1. Women that are forced to work for financial reasons. This population seems to have had the biggest drop in social capital. In contrast, women that work part time by choice seem to be pulling social capital up. (~10% of cause.)
  2. Suburbs, more car dependence, more time in cars, more cars per household. Instead of living near work, restaurants, and shops, each facet of life is in a different suburb. At the time of writing, the average american spent 72 minutes a day in cars, 70% of trips done alone.
  3. Much of America's increasing free time has been channeled into watching TV. Average American watches 3 hours a day. TV watching correlates strongly with civic disengagement, especially non news watching, and channel surfing. (~25% of cause.)
  4. World War II was unique. The fact that it followed the great depression meant that it had a leveling effect on most of society. In contrast, Korea and Vietnam were both highlighted by social inequality in troop selection and recruitment.
  5. Controversial discussion about race as a cause of disengagement. Black % of population has increased, but blacks actually are involved in more organizations than whites, due to religious and race-based groups. But they tend to be less trusting than whites (for good reason.)

Putnam destroys the deterministic capitalism argument posed by Marxists, that capitalism inherently is incompatible with social cohesion. Capitalism has been a feature of American society for centuries while social capital has ebbed and flowed. That said, increased globalization means there are fewer small corporations with strong local ties.

Putnam makes many references to Alexis to Tocqueville, referring to him colloquially as the patron saint of social capital. I was surprised to learn that relative social capital levels throughout the states haven’t really changed much since Tocqueville's travels in America in the 1830s. Generally speaking, the more virulent slavery was, the lower the social capital. Areas high in Scandinavian immigration, correlated strongly with high social capital. These trends remain today.

What to do? Look to the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Putnam draws analogies from today to the Gilded Age (1870s to about 1900). One parallel is the way in which a surge of new technology disrupts social capital. The advent of electricity, new mass media: the radio, a train network which allowed much faster access to cities. The latter was especially important since automation of strength was wreaking havoc in traditional rural life. More and more jobs were to be found in urban factories. A centralization of companies were named after their illustrious founders. And this all led to an increasing gap in inequality. The analogies to today are clear: ubiquitous affordable air travel, automation of menial intelligence threatening some jobs, the advent of the internet.

Then as now, waves of immigration threaten the unum in our pluribus.

In the Progressive Era (1890s to the 1920s) that followed, huge amount of reforms were undertaken. The Progressive Movement was a big tent, considered the only movement in the US that captured the whole population. It came as a response to a huge amount of technological change during the Gilded Age. Confusingly, there is no direct connection between the current Progressive movement and its origins in the late 20th century. Here are some developments that came around then: birth of unions, eight hour work week, birth of child oriented groups, boy scouts, kindergardens, playgrounds, high schools.

(Clearly I should read more about the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era.)

(I should also look into Amitai Etzioni's work on communitarianism. Sounds like he has some practical suggestions.)

(Bowling alone seeds an update. It would be nice to see the figures updated for the last 25 years. A lot had changed: decline in real income, millennial maturation, Gen Z emergence.)