Book Review: Bowling Alone

It’s been awhile since I’ve offered a book review, so I figured I’d cap off my latest read with a review – it’s one of the best ways for me to process the things I’ve read.  I recently came across this latest book: Bowling Alone, referenced in another book I was reading.  I had never heard of Bowling Alone, but upon doing a little research found out that it has been a wildly successful sociology book since published ten years ago.  On the surface, the book seems as though it would be overly daunting for the casual reader – 400 pages of stats and figures from the sociological spectrum of the United States over the past 200 years.  Putnam, however, manages to take the overload of information, present it in an engaging fashion, and then drive home his thesis with relevance that connects with any reader.

Putnam’s premise behind the book is the statistical reality that over the past forty years participation in bowling leagues has drastically dropped all the while overall participation in bowling has risen (Total bowlers increased between 1980 – 1993 10% while league participation dropped 40% – p. 112).  Thus, “bowling alone” becomes the symbol for the wider reality in social participation studied by Putnam.

Throughout the book Putnam thoroughly addresses all walks of society illustrating with charts, graphs, and numbers how civic participation has steadily decreased since a spike after WW II.  Controlling his statistics for just about every demographic possible, Putnam shows how this reality has affected all aspects of society – the poor and the wealthy, the educated and the uneducated, all races, everybody.  The first third of the book lays out his findings as this reality has affected politics, civic participation, churches/synagogues, work place connections, philanthropic organizations, personal and neighborhood relationships – everyone.

The second third of the book Putnam hypothesizes why this reality has taken place.  Through following many plausible options, the author settles on several that have impacted “social capital” in the United States: pressures of time and money (while Americans have generally made more money in this time, they regularly reported feeling more stressed at their jobs and needing more money), mobility and sprawl (the time spent in transit to and from work has gradually risen throughout this time of declining social involvement), two of the most significant contributors to this reality have to do with social evolution: women equaling men in the work place and thus pulling out of social participation, and the escalation of technology – people watch more television in isolation.  Finally, another highly contributing factor has to do with generational replacement in society – the older generations of highly involved people have been replaced with generations that don’t vote as often, have their neighbors over for dinner as often, etc.

The final third of the book is split between an exploration of the impact and then a final suggestion for bettering contemporary social capital.  The impact of declining social capital may be the most  ground-breaking aspect of Putnam’s work.  Through rigorous statistical backing, Putnam shows how low social capital is connected to less safe neighborhoods, worse children’s welfare, poorer economic viability, a weakened democracy, and even poorer health.  This section of the book calls the reader to wake up.

The final section offers a powerful parallel between the current age and the Gilded Age into the Progressive Age – from the late 19th into the 20th century.  Putnam does a great job of paralleling these ages from the perspective of lost social capital and then finding into the Progressive Age.  I found this chapter to be a poignant way of bringing all of his findings together and putting some real-life possibilities for changing the plight of poor social capital in today’s world.

The only thing missing in the book is a 2010 update.  Much of the technological sections are in need of update, as the contemporary reader can’t help but wonder how the novel realities of Facebook, Twitter, and the onslaught of mobile technology has both helped and exacerbated the situation Putnam describes.

Overall, there is a reason why ten years after publication this book remains an important and groundbreaking study of the impact of social involvement for American citizenry.  It’s a valuable asset for ministers as the statistics illustrate something that we all strive for: bettering real, authentic relationships with the people around us.  Bowling Alone sheds much light into why we face such an uphill battle in our quest to foster such relationships in our communities.

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