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4.0 out of 5 stars What made people go bowling alone?, 12 Sep 2011
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This review is from: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Paperback)
Much has been written about the social climate of Western countries, but - although I have not read everything I feel safe enough to say that - almost none of that is as good, well-researched, extensive and clear as the work of Robert D. Putnam in this book. The book is very well structured: it simply follows the adagium of: what is the problem, why is this happening, is the problem really a problem and finally some lessons to be learned. Each of these sections is littered with good questions, nice clarifying phrases, helpful graphs and insightful tables.

The problem, according to Putnam, is as follows: since the 1950s and the 1960s society - at least in America - has changed, people experience less of the community around them and are also less active within that community. Basically, he sees a few causes for this change: pressures of time and money, more mobility and greater urbanization, the rise and influence of technology and mass media, and finally he concludes that there are real differences between the pre- and post-WWII-generation. In chapter 15 Putnam even goes so far as putting some percentages on these causes, explicitly leaving room for other contributors to the aforementioned changes in society and civic engagement.

I like this way of reasoning, because it sheds light on the causes that led can be shed on, the things that definitely have been contributors to the changes he describes. On the other hand, it leaves enough room for other explanations, relating for example to the individual or to local changes--society is quite locally-bound and influenced.

His two final chapters are not as strong as the previous ones. In the 23rd chapter he describes how the time of the Industrialization changed society and what the so-called Progressives used as their main piece of action: they opted for social innovation and found ways to reinvent society, social capital and civic engagement. Highly interesting stuff, but a tiny bit too simple. What these methods were is not mentioned in the same extensive and thorough way as the previous research from the first 20 chapters.

Basically the same is true for the last chapter in which Putnam tries to come up with a new social agenda for a number of groups: he wants this group to do this thing and that group to do another thing. The goals he wants to achieve are clearly articulate in each of the chapter's section, but the measures he proposes lack backing and come from an academic point of view: society can't be molded out of an arm-chair. This chapter would have been much stronger if Putnam would have used more space to describe his goals, other people are more able than he is to put these goals into measures and plans.

A small question that has been in the back of my head since I started reading this book, what is Putnam's philosophy toward life? And, why does he believe that community is good? According to the book, both of these answers can be answered in a pragmatic way: it is good because (1) social capital allows citizens to resolve collective problems more easily; (2) social capital greases the wheels that allow communities to advance smoothly; and (3) social capital widens our awareness of the many ways in which our fates are linked. But that does not answer the question why individualism is not preferred over agains communalism; in other words, what is wrong with bowling alone?
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