“Bowling Alone,” Robert D. Puttnam

flickr photo by ianguest http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/20465076125 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

I’m not sure what I was reading when I caught a reference to Bowling Alone, but it piqued my interest sufficiently for me to take out a copy. Sub-titled ‘The Collapse and Revival of American Community,’ it explores in a rigorous way that sense we have of people becoming disengaged with society, of a loss of community and reduction in civic participation.

The reference point Puttnam (2001) uses is social capital; the value we accrue from and provide towards other members of society through the interconnections we share. Across a range of indicators (political, civic and religious participation; workplace and social connections; volunteering and philanthropy; reciprocity, honesty and trust), he notes a rising trend of improved social capital through the first six decades of the 20th century, then from there, an inexorable decline. He considers several factors likely to be responsible for the recent downward trend, including increased pressures on our time, financial anxiety, residential mobility and suburban sprawl, electronic communications, changes in family make-up, generational changes. Although he concedes it is only his finger-in-the-wind sense of what the data say, but the most powerful factors appear to be advent of television and the slow replacement of the ‘long-civic generation’ born in the early part of the century with their less involved children and grandchildren. In conclusion, he suggests what the potential social, political and economic consequences might be, then offers some tentative, rather general suggestions as to what might be done.

The expression ‘tour de force’ is commonly used by reviewers, but the book, like the preceding research (Puttnam, 1995) also attracted considerable critique. Some was aimed at methodology, some at either choice of data sets or the analysis thereof, some at the underpinning theory and some intimated the book was rather lightweight or populist. It seems that any academic attempting to write an accessible volume treads a fine line between being sufficiently detailed to satisfy robust scrutiny, whilst taking care to provide a readable narrative. Tough to cover all the bases. Perhaps there was also an issue because of the extent that Bowling Alone and Puttnam were picked up by the press and the political classes as a rallying point.

For me, social capital was another area with which I had little more than a passing acquaintance, so I was grateful for how far the book reached, especial thanks being due to the digestible form. I appreciated being provided with both micro- and macro-perspectives; how the behaviour and attitudes of individuals have effects on society as a whole, but also how global events have an impact on the same individuals. The causality arrow shifts back and forth it seems.

I’m not sure however how well social capital was defined; it all seemed rather … fuzzy! In addition, the metrics for changes in social capital were (perhaps as a consequence?) proxies, rather than direct measures, though Puttnam acknowledges this. (Puttnam provides useful supplementary resources and further discussion on social capital through the ‘The Saguaro Seminars‘ site)

Given my area of interest, it will come as no surprise that I thought that the digital received too little attention, but in all fairness, at the time of the research, penetration into the average household was still minimal. In the intervening fifteen years and with the advent of mobile personal technologies, I wonder whether the downwards trend in social capital has been further exacerbated? Looking at fellow bus travellers with earphones plugged in, listening to their personalised choice of music, or friends sitting together in a bar, yet all hunched over their individual mobile (cell) phones, it would be easy to take a pessimistic view. How interesting it would be to track each of Puttnam’s many trendlines forward to 2015 and see what the data have to say now. In the following video, Cook has indeed brought forward a couple of the metrics, though it’s interesting to speculate what the data are actually showing.

Since Bowling Alone was published, we’ve experienced major world events which might have had an impact on the trends Puttnam proposed. I wonder about the effects of the economic crash of 2008, the ongoing financial crisis in many countries and the effects of austerity measures. What will have been the impact of the major terror attacks and the rise in jihadist groups? As social media penetrate further into broader society, especially into the millennials group, will the outcome be positive or negative?

So what implications does what I learned from Bowling Alone have for my study? Many of the formative terms used in the book resonate with what might be occurring when teachers are using social media for their professional learning. The notions of reciprocity, trust, participation, community, culture and networks are doubtless concepts which will be of significance, though in what ways and to what extents? Are there metrics which could be conceived, similar to those in the book, which might make a quantitative aspect to my study appropriate? This is something I’d not really considered, but undoubtedly different individuals within Twitter will have different amounts of social capital, so what does that mean? Can we conceive of a topographical landscape of social capital overlaid on a social network? Is there such a thing as a social capital gradient between individuals? Can social capital flow uphill? Does it redistribute at all?!
Just mentally riffing, but definitely a few more new directions to consider

Putnam, R.D., 1995. Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of democracy 6, 65–78.
Putnam, R.D., 2001. Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster.


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