(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, has a Web site at It includes a sidebar illustrating trends that trouble him. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, for example, American attendance at club meetings went down by 58 percent. Family dinners declined by 33 percent. Inviting friends to one’s home decreased by 45 percent. The sidebar supplements those findings by posting two other claims: A ten-minute commute slashes social capital (“features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit”) by 10 percent, but joining a group reduces by half the odds that one will die next year.

Bowling Alone, the best known of Putnam’s several books about contemporary democracy, provides a detailed analysis of American inclinations like those on his home page. The book defends the following thesis: In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a crucial tide turned in the United States. For most of the twentieth century, Americans had been increasingly involved in community life, but that trend reversed in disturbing ways. As Americans pulled apart, community vitality weakened. Putnam analyzes the causes and consequences of this sea change and suggests how to correct its treacherous impact.

Putnam’s Web site contains a link to some of his articles. The most influential, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” appeared in a 1995 issue of the Journal of Democracy. It attracted more popular attention than essays in scholarly journal usually do. The reason was not so much the novelty of Putnam’s thesis—the decline of community life in contemporary American culture is scarcely a new theme—but the fascinating way in which Putnam illustrated his claims by turning to the sport of bowling. The article drew its share of criticism too, for brevity suggested a frail database for its claims. Challenged by the article’s reception, Putnam turned his essay into a prelude to this lengthy book, which incorporates notes, charts, appendices, opinion polls, and interview statistics brimming with information as the author faithfully follows the journalist’s “two source” rule: Report nothing unless the finding is confirmed by at least two independent sources.

Why was bowling so indicative? Updating his 1995 perspective, Putnam’s book contends, first, that among competitive sports in the United States, bowling is the most popular. Its image may not be the most fashionable, but bowling’s solid middle-American character makes its appeal so wide-ranging that more Americans participate in the sport than ever before. This participation, however, contains a striking difference. While the percentage of American bowlers increased by 10 percent between 1980 and 1993, league bowling declined by more than 40 percent. Putnam’s projection is that this rate’s continuation would make league bowling extinct before the year 2010. Putnam acknowledges that Americans, strictly speaking, are not bowling alone. Informal groups are typical, but, comparatively speaking, Americans are bowling alone because informal groups alone cannot replenish social capital.

Social capital is the governing concept in Bowling Alone, which uses American participation in the sport of bowling as an illustrative metaphor for the critical issues that occupy Putnam’s attention. The author differentiates physical, human, and social capital. Physical and human forms of capital, says Putnam, refer to “tools and training,” which are key resources that enable individuals to be productive. Social capital refers to connections, networks, and relations among people, especially when those links are enriched by civic virtue and deepened by reciprocal obligation. None of these forms of capital appears out of the blue. Nor can they be taken for granted. It takes attention, effort, and commitment to provide, grow, and enhance them.

A society that expects to thrive can ill afford to be without sound social capital, for that resource fosters what Putnam calls “sturdy norms of reciprocity.” At the heart of those norms is a sense of mutual trust. Where such trust is found, people can count on each other for help, support, and commitment that encourage and create shared causes. Quoting baseball’s Yogi Berra, Putnam says that the reciprocal features of social capital he has in mind are largely summed up in the adage: “If you don’t go to somebody’s funeral, they won’t come to yours.”

Putnam’s analysis of social capital highlights three further points. First, social capital is not unequivocally good. Social networks, even reciprocal obligations, can serve causes that are unjust and destructive. Putnam wants to minimize the forms and functions of social capital that promote “sectarianism, ethnocentrism, corruption” and bolster those that encourage “mutual support, cooperation, trust, institutional effectiveness.” Unfortunately, such concepts and distinctions do not produce an...

(The entire section is 2066 words.)