Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone is a critical look at the trends of socialization in the United States over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Putnam identifies a negative trend in recent years, as group membership and activities are in decline. The concept of “social capital” is introduced as a metric by which to observe and quantify the connections between individuals and the trust between them. Social capital grew exponentially throughout the early half of the 20th century, as common experiences like the World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and other collective experiences and traumas gave people common experiences to bond over and unified them against a common target.
The first type of social capital is bonding social capital, which is formed when people bond over shared feelings and experiences, as occurred during aforementioned events from the first half of the 20th century. From there, however, it develops into bridging social capital, which helps individuals overcome socioeconomic status and improve themselves financially as well as socially. Bridging social capital can bring about the radical social change that was seen during the civil rights movement. The common experiences shared by those living in the early twentieth century led to a natural increase in bonding social capital, and this spurred the creation of great social union and generational identification.
Putnam goes on to discuss how many government programs established organizations that greatly contributed to the development of social capital through the first half of the twentieth century, and this encouraged greater societal unity. Some organizations that Putnam identifies are the Boy Scouts, the NRA, and the NAACP. Group membership and the ensuing shared identification helped significantly boost the amount of interaction that people had and gave them a stronger sense of community belonging and engagement.
The decline in social capital, according to Putnam, is not related to the increase in the size of the government, race, changes in the form of the family unit, the economy, or a lack of education. Instead, he believes that four specific causes contribute the most to the change: the increased pressures of time and money, the increasing distance and lack of connectivity between living spaces due to urban sprawl, overexposure to television, and stark generational differences that inhibit inter-generational bonding. He addresses several methods to adjust the social climate and hopefully improve social capital. His suggestions include making workplaces more inclusive of family life, increasing urbanization and communal living, creating technology that focuses on face-to-face interaction, increasing religious participation, and improving educational practices, among other things. If these things are addressed, Putnam believes Americans can make great strides to improve social capital.