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Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community [Hardcover]

Robert Putnam
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

19 Mar 2001
Once we bowled in leagues, usually after work; but no longer. This seemingly small phenomenon symbolizes a significant social change that Robert Putnam has identified and describes in this brilliant volume, "Bowling Alone." Drawing on vast new data from the Roper Social and Political Trends and the DDB Needham Life Style -- surveys that report in detail on Americans' changing behavior over the past twenty-five years -- Putnam shows how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and social structures, whether the PTA, church, recreation clubs, political parties, or bowling leagues. Our shrinking access to the "social capital" that is the reward of communal activity and community sharing is a serious threat to our civic and personal health. Putnam's groundbreaking work shows how social bonds are the most powerful predictor of life satisfaction. For example, he reports that getting married is the equivalent of quadrupling your income and attending a club meeting regularly is the equivalent of doubling your income. The loss of social capital is felt in critical ways: Communities with less social capital have lower educational performance and more teen pregnancy, child suicide, low birth weight, and prenatal mortality. Social capital is also a strong predictor of crime rates and other measures of neighborhood quality of life, as it is of our health: In quantitative terms, if you both smoke and belong to no groups, it's a close call as to which is the riskier behavior. A hundred years ago, at the turn of the last century, America's stock of social capital was at an ebb, reduced by urbanization, industrialization, and vast immigration thatuprooted Americans from their friends, social institutions, and families, a situation similar to today's. Faced with this challenge, the country righted itself. Within a few decades, a range of organizations was created, from the Red Cross, Boy Scouts, and YWCA to Hadassah and the Knights of Columbus and the Urban League. With these and many more cooperative societies we rebuilt our social capital. We can learn from the experience of those decades, Putnam writes, as we work to rebuild our eroded social capital. It won't happen without the concerted creativity and energy of Americans nationwide. Like defining works from the past that have endured -- such as "The Lonely Crowd" and "The Affluent Society" -- and like C. Wright Mills, Richard Hofstadter, Betty Friedan, David Riesman, Jane Jacobs, Rachel Carson, and Theodore Roszak, Putnam has identified a central crisis at the heart of our society and suggests what we can do.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd (19 Mar 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684832836
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684832838
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.5 x 4.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 150,816 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

Few people outside certain scholarly circles had heard the name Robert D Putnam before 1995. But then this self-described "obscure academic" hit a nerve with a journal article called "Bowling Alone". Suddenly he found himself invited to Camp David, his picture was in People magazine, and his thesis at the centre of a raging debate. In a nutshell, he argued that civil society was breaking down as Americans became more disconnected from their families, neighbours, communities, and the republic itself. The organisations that gave life to democracy were fraying. Bowling became his driving metaphor. Years ago, he wrote, thousands of people belonged to bowling leagues. Today, however, they're more likely to bowl alone:

Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values--these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighbourhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness.
The conclusions reached in Bowling Alone rest on a mountain of data gathered by Putnam and a team of researchers since his original essay appeared. Its breadth of information is astounding--yes, he really has statistics showing people are less likely to take Sunday picnics nowadays. Dozens of charts and graphs track everything from trends in PTA participation to the number of times Americans say they give "the finger" to other drivers each year. If nothing else, Bowling Alone is a fascinating collection of factoids. Yet it does seem to provide an explanation for why "we tell pollsters that we wish we lived in a more civil, more trustworthy, more collectively caring community". What's more, writes Putnam, "Americans are right that the bonds of our communities have withered, and we are right to fear that this transformation has very real costs". Putnam takes a stab at suggesting how things might change, but the book's real strength is in its diagnosis rather than its proposed solutions. Bowling Alone won't make Putnam any less controversial, but it may come to be known as a path-breaking work of scholarship, one whose influence has a long reach into the 21st century. --John J Miller


William Julius Wilson Harvard University "Bowling Alone" is a tour de force. Robert Putnam has amassed an impressive array of evidence for his original and powerful thesis on the decline of social capital and civic engagement in the past several decades. This thought-provoking book will stimulate huge academic and national public policy debates on the crisis of the American community.

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NO ONE IS LEFT from the Glenn Valley, Pennsylvania, Bridge Club who can tell us precisely when or why the group broke up, even though its forty-odd members were still playing regularly as recently as 1990, just as they had done for more than half a century. Read the first page
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling reading for a wide audience 11 May 2000
By A Customer
This latest book from political scientist Robert Putnam brings together a vast amount of factual information and data charting the decline in what has come to be known as "social capital" in the United States. Although the book is entirely focussed on the United States, the description of how civic engagement as revealed in community involvement, volunteering, voting behaviour and even informal socialising, has declined since the mid-1960s raises questions for non-American readers about whether this may be happening elsewhere and if so whether it matters. In a very clearcut and easy style, Professor Putnam reviews a growing amount of research in the US and beyond which shows that the degree to which individuals and communities are connected to each other makes a significant difference to a range of outcomes including school achievement, health, political democracy and levels of trustworthiness to mention only some - even when other factors such as income, wealth and ethnic conditions are taken into account. Some of the possible reasons for a recent decline in "social capital" are discussed and many of these will sound familiar to readers outside the US - increasing hours at work, TV watching etc. However, the most intriguing aspect is that differences between generations is what counts most. In other words, for the US at least, people born since the 1950s are less inclined to volunteer, vote, join associations and play an active role in networks. Some challenges and possible avenues for "rebuilding civic society" are discussed which will be of vital interest to a wide audience in the US and beyond. For the serious analyst or pundit of data sources and related topics, there is an extensive list of references and data sources.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A wake up call 5 Jan 2002
By A Customer
This book brilliantly identifies something that most of us were aware of at some level - the fact that the level of social awareness and engagement is dropping in contemporary societies. Where the book is important is in detailed analysis and interpretation of seemingly rock-solid data. The conclusions are difficult to argue with. Television, generational attitudes, urban sprawl and the pressures of work have combined to fragment communities and contribute to an unhealthy level of social isolation.
Don't be put off however by the detailed references to statistical analysis. Putnam is like everybody's favourite lecturer - somebody with the skill to make a potentially dry area of research into hot news that has to be heard and discussed.
This book refers to American societies. Why then should anybody outside of the U.S. read it? Well, try these reasons:
- Certain causes have certain effects no matter where you are. Extra commuting time, for example, will always lead to less community time.
- Many Western societies are either evolving towards an American model or at least have the potential to do so. Those of us outside of the U.S have a chance to make things different.
- Reading Putnam's discussions of the ill effects of lack of community would lead one to suppose that this too could be at the root of some problems worldwide. These surveys need to be conducted anywhere that concern exists for the preservation of community structures.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Near canonical work of applied social theory 3 April 2009
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Review the literature on Social Capital, and one name comes to the forefront again and again: Robert Putnam. It is this book which not only established him in the field, but more or less defined the future course of international study. But, although social capital is the central theme of this book, Putnam is less concerned with defining it (he gives at least three differing definitions, that I counted) as with demonstrating that it is not what it used to be.

Pages and pages of graphs all show a similar curve - gently rising from the 1900s, dipping for the Great Depression before rising again, dipping again for the second World War, rising sharply to peak in the sixties, before tumbling to a short plateau in the eighties, and then tumbling relentlessly from then on. This 'Putnam curve' (my words, not his) applies to Parent Teacher Associations, Card playing, civic activity, and, of course, to the rise and fall of league bowling, which is what gives this book its title. The graphs are supported by much reasoning, and by careful exclusion of other factors which might paint a false picture. The result is as compelling as it is far reaching.

Putnam's four factors which he believes contribute to the decline in social capital, or generalised reciprocity, as he at one point puts it, are perhaps less clearly demonstrated than the problem itself. They are: pressures of time and money, suburbanisation (with its commute to work), electronic entertainment (especially the television), and generational change, as more civic generations are replaced by less civic ones.
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