SUMMARY

Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000), chaps. 1, 9, 10, 15, 16 and 22: pp. 15-28, 148-180, 183-188, 277-84, 287-95 and 350-63.
Alternative Title: Trends in declining social capital and civic engagement in the late 20th century, what this means for future equality and a sense of community among Americans
Chapter 1: Introduction
1. Putnam paints a picture of the engagement of individual Americans in civic groups. In the 1990s participation in these groups declined markedly, after having grown steadily with the Baby Boomers. He says participation had only risen until the 1990s with the exception of the Great Depression, but does not indicate the starting point for this rise (pre-Great Depression?). Part of the reason was increased leisure time that came with better standards of living. Part of it was the optimism of the Baby Boomers. Observers predicted ever more increasing participation.
2. To measure civic engagement he starts off with anecdotes (e.g. membership records of charity clubs, NAACP, high school bands, voting records, higher esteem of politics as a career, trust in neighbors, etc).
3. All of this optimism and engagement was except for marginalized Americans (e.g. based on race and gender). Younger Americans were more engaged than older Americans (although typical civic engagement peaks in middle age).
4. Couch this discussion in the theory of social capital
a. “social networks have value,” “social networks and norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them,” 19).
b. The concept of social networks is reoccurring in the literature since 1916.
c. Social connectedness is at both individual and collective level.
d. Networks foster norms, like reciprocity, the Golden Rule
e. Societies based on generalized reciprocity are more productive than those based on mistrust.
f. Social capital is not always for the greater good (e.g. KKK, Tim McVeigh)
g. Social networks vary in formality (e.g. familiar faces on the street vs. incorporated organizations)
h. Some bridge (are inclusive, external-focus), while others bond (are exclusive, internal-focus). Measures of bridging vs. bonding social capital over time do not exists, but their distinction is important to the book.
5. Social capital is an extension of an old debate in the US about “community” vs. individualism.
6. Declensionist narratives (postmodern nostalgia for golden days in light of current social decline) influenced the debate about community.
7. Despite being at the height of civic engagement in the 1980s, a survey of Baby Boomers reported that Americans feel detached from society.
8. Research questions: “Is life in communities as we enter the twenty-first century really so different after all from the reality of American communities in the 1950s and 1960s?”
a. In other words, what is a real change (decline) in social engagement and what is perceived, and why do people perceive it this way?
b. Are there new ways of engagement in society?
9. The problem of data: There is none! So use multiple data sources to compensate. Use broad operationalizations of concepts like engagement.
10. The book addresses:
a. Engagement in politics, clubs, religion, informal groups, trust, altruism,
b. Counterexamples that show increased, or continued, engagement
c. Why these trends could be the case
d. So what?
e. Remedies
11. Putnam would claim that he is a proactive declensionist.
Chapter 9: Against the Tide? Small Groups, Social Movements, and the Net
1. This is the beginning of Section III about counterexamples to the supposed decline in civic engagement.
2. There may be other ways that Americans are engaging e.g. more small groups, social movements, and “computer mediated communication.”
a. Small groups include secular and non-secular groups, discussion groups, self help groups. These have a low link to public life.
b. Social movements include black civil rights, free speech, anti Vietnam war, gay rights, women’s liberation, Earth Day, farmworkers, pro-life, pro-choice. These movements drew from social capital of small groups. Movements build social capital: by building new links and identities. There is a debate over whether social movement organizations do as well as movements that draw on natural, preexisting groups and networks.
c. More on telecommunications below
3. What was the meaning of this “tide” of engagement? Was it a “the birth of an era or merely the climax of one?” (155). Although most researchers say participation declined after the 1960s, it seems Putnam hypothesizes that the movements of the 1960s started a trend.
a. The environmental movement is a huge exception, but Putnam says this is due to their direct mailing tactics for education and fundraising. As such member commitment is low.
b. Participation in conservative religious groups is also strong.
4. What about evidence for the elite-challenging participation 1960s being now conventional?
a. Popular referenda and initiatives were on the ballot more in the 1980s and 1990s, but in few states.
b. Washington DC saw more protests, but maybe mostly by media-savvy organizations.
c. There are more protests nationwide, but the abortion issue accounts for one third.
d. Grassroots activism (e.g. gay rights, pro-life, student groups) is still up.
5. Telecommunications in the third major counterexample:
a. Telephone use shot up since 1960s, but it is difficult to understand its impact.
b. Internet diffused 10 times as quickly as the telephone by 1999
i. Is virtual social capital an oxymoron?
ii. “Voting, giving, trusting, meeting, and so on had all begun to decline while Bill Gates was still in grade school” (170).
iii. Studies show no correlation between Internet usage and civic participation.
iv. Potential advantages and disadvantages:
1. Community, communion and communication are closely related.
2. Internet can distribute information to distant people.
3. More egalitarian, because you can see the people or know their history.
4. Danger of too many opinions.
5. Social inequality due to lack of access.
6. Lack of non-verbal communication
7. Cheating and reneging are more common.
8. There is evidence that virtually communities are most effective when they build on existing social capital.
Chapter 10: Introduction (to Section III, ‘Why’)
1. After increasing social engagement, suddenly Americans are less engaged in the normal ways.
2. The new trend is this: “Thin, single-stranded, surf-by interactions are gradually replacing dense, multi-stranded, well-exercised bonds” (184).
3. WHY?
4. To solve this we have to:
a. Look for concentrations of effects (e.g. the most affected population)
i. The problem is that social affects bleed into other populations.
ii. All social groups seems equally affected.
iii. If we start with education as a predictor, we get confused, because education has increased over the past 50 years, but civic engagement has not, maybe due to busyness, hard economic times, suburbanization, etc.
iv. There are so many possible factors that we must narrow it down with criteria:
1. “Is the proposed explanatory factor correlated with social capital and civic engagement?”
2. “Is the correlation spurious?”
3. Is the propsed explanatory factor changing in the relevant way?”
4. “Is it possible that the proposed explanatory factor is the result of civic disengagement, not the cause?” (188).
Chapter 15: What Killed Civic Engagement? Summing Up (conclusion to Section III, ‘Why’)
1. Here is a summary of the main suspects for changing civic engagement:
a. Change in American family structure. The loosening of family bonds is real.
b. Race as a factor in social erosion is difficult, because the civil rights movement happened before the social erosion.
c. Big government, or the welfare state, is alleged to have crowded out private initiative.
d. Big business, capitalism and market are also blamed for causing social erosion.
e. Other factors include: time and money pressures, suburbanization, electronic entertainment (TV), generational change.
Chapter 16: Introduction (to Section IV on ‘So What’)
1. Americans had a foreboding sense of social doom in the 1990s.
2. Social cohesion makes us healthier, wealthier and wiser.
3. Social capital helps:
a. “Resolve collective problems more easily” (288)
b. Makes community advancement easier, productivity
c. “Widening our awareness of the many ways in which our fates are linked”
d. Contributes to psychological and biological processes.
4. Putnam created an index of “Comprehensive Social Capital” (291) with 14 indicators
5. The 50 US states vary greatly on this index, see page 293. The South ranks the lowest.
Chapter 22: The Dark Side of Social Capital (conclusion to Section IV on ‘So What’)
1. The drawbacks to social capital are exemplified in the concept of “joiners.”
2. Is too much fraternity (i.e. of liberty, equality, and fraternity) a bad thing?
3. Does social capital lead to group-think and is that a bad thing? Is it conformity? Intolerance?
4. Tolerance has grown in the US (see index on page 353). Imagine, Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, about witch hunts in the colonial Northeast of the US was published in 1953.
5. Does solidarity come at the cost of freedom? Evidence shows that:
a. Engaged individuals are more tolerant.
b. “Citizens of high-social-capital states are far more tolerant of civil liberties and far more committed to racial and gender equality than citizens of low-social-capital states.”
c. Greater tolerance is due to replacement of earlier less tolerant generation.
d. Late generation Xers are less engaged than early baby boomers, but equally tolerant.
e. Therefore, we should expect decreasing social engagement, and steady tolerance.
f. Since disengagement poses a threat (e.g. Tim McVeigh), we should beware.
6. “Is social capital at war with equality? […] No. Community and equality are mutually reinforcing, not mutually incompatible” (358).
a. Although the late 20th century saw both increasing inequality (gap between rich and poor) and increasing social erosion.
7. What about fraternity, or social cohesion, fighting against itself?
a. I.e. social capital forms frequently in opposition to something else, like Jews against anti-semitism.
b. It all depends on the type of social capital (bonding vs. bridging) and the context.