Bowling Alone and the Decline of Social Capital

This summer, I've been working my way through Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, a book that analyzes various studies in social participation between the early 1960s and late 1990s, and hypothesizes that much of our social participation has been experiencing a great decline the past several decades. The book is full of interesting tidbits: political participation, volunteering, religious attendance, and informal social gatherings are all on the decline. Some of the few memberships experiencing increases are those that require the least amount of interaction--ones where membership is guaranteed by simply paying annual fees. In other words, symbolic participation has become more common while face to face interaction is decreasing. We're also less likely to cultivate hobbies that require group participation: participation in sports, music, bridge clubs, and of course, bowling leagues, are all down.

The implications for these declines are both far reaching and difficult to measure. For example, when it comes to politics, not only has there been an overall decrease in voting and campaigning, but less people are running for office now than in previous decades. As Putnam puts it, we can't measure for sure how this has impacted our society, but it's difficult to believe that this has had no impact at all. On the individual level, these social participation declines manifest themselves in different ways. With less social capital accumulated through neighborhood groups or community volunteering, we've become more distrustful as a society. Not only does this bear an emotional burden, but it also results in changing career demographics, as demand for both police officers and lawyers has spiked the past several decades.

The question that's been most pressing for me as I've read this book is how these trends have changed the past two decades. The book no doubt covers the most recent and relevant historical events close to when it was published, but it's hard to believe that events like the internet, 9/11, and social media have not impacted the trajectory of our social participation (or even how we choose to measure social capital) in one direction or the other.

Full disclosure--I have not yet finished reading Bowling Alone, and have thus far just covered the chapters in Section Two: Trends in Civic Engagement and Social Capital. By next week I'll have completed the more intriguing sections covering the "Why" and "So What" of these data points. Stay tuned for another blog post summarizing my complete thoughts on the full book, and an update as to whether Putnam or other sociologists have published any recent articles about social participation trends of the past two decades.


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