Bowling Alone: Robert Putnam’s vision of Social Capital

Putnam Bowling AloneRobert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000) is the great classic of social capital, referred to in almost everything that is dealing with community and connection.


Before getting into why that is, a hilarious aside of how worried people in power get (and academics when embedded in that) about people having too much time on their hands. You know there are some hardcore assumptions about working class people in this

1958 study under the auspices of the newly inaugurated Center for the Study of Leisure at the University of Chicago, which fretted that “the most dangerous  threat hanging over American society is the threat of leisure,” a startling claim in the decade in which the Soviets got the bomb. (16)

So what is social capital?

Whereas physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to properties of individuals, social capital refers to connections among individuals — social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called “civic virtue.” The difference is that “social capital” calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations. A society of many virtuous but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.

The term social capital itself turns out to have been independently invented at least six times over the twentieth century, each time to call attention to the ways in which our lives are made more productive by social ties. (19)

This is what I love, that social capital is all about connection. It is all about relationships. What I hate? The word capital. But ah well, it’s done and dusted and a term thrown around hither and yon now, and so must be engaged with. Unlike the capital of Marx’s title, reciprocity is the key here:

Social connections are also important for the rules of conduct that they sustain. Networks involve (almost by definition) mutual obligations; they are not interesting as mere “contacts.” Networks of community engagement foster sturdy norms of reciprocity… (20)

And, of course, such close and tight-knit relationships do not always lead in good directions — the more I write about white mobs, the more clear this becomes. So some care is needed in thinking about how this works. More thought is needed about the nature of these connections.

Social capital, in short, can be directed toward malevolent, antisocial purposes, just like any other form of capital … Therefore it is important to ask how the positive consequences of social capital — mutual support, cooperation, trust, institutional effectiveness — can be maximized and the negative manifestations — sectarianism, ethnocentrism, corruption — minimized.

Of all the dimensions along which forms of social capital vary, perhaps the most important is the distinction between bridging (or inclusive) and bonding (or exclusive). (22)

This is such a key distinction. I think a lot can be done with this… Whereas a Freirean or a Frommean would think about how one or the other leads to a more full expression of our humanity, a more full life, a better society, a truly radical reimagining of our relationships, the use of ‘capital’ tends to lead us down another road:

Bonding social capital is, as Xavier de Souza Briggs puts it, good for “getting by,” but bridging social capital is crucial for “getting ahead.” (23)

I don’t know what getting ahead means, and for people of wealth and privilege, bonding capital is good for both. So this takes us sliding down into a more apolitical, neutral concept. But we don’t have to go that way.

Even so, anything that pulls away from the mad idea that we do it all ourselves is great:

our national myths often exaggerate the role of individual heroes and understate the importance of collective effort.

So a central question of the book is, is it true community is really on the wane? Reading Raymond Williams on the Country and the City, it’s clear there’s a nostalgia in every generation. Putnam writes:

Debates about the waxing and waning of “community” have been endemic for at least two centuries. “Declensionist narratives” — postmodern jargon for tales of decline and fall — have a long pedigree in our letters. (24)

But Putnam seeks to establish whether or not this is true — and finds it to be true:

The dominant theme is simple: For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities, but a few decades ago — silently, without warning — that tide reversed and we were overtaken by a treacherous rip current. Without at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities over the last third of the century. (27)

And so we enter the great lists of just what is declining.

The Great Declines

Declines in Political Participation

I like the need to measure different kinds of change, to make this distinction between

social change that is intracohort — the change that happens within a generation, an intercohort — the change that happens when a generation dies off. (34)

And Putnam does find a decline.

Financial capital — the wherewithal for mass marketing — has steadily replaced social capital — that is, grassroots citizen networks — as the coin of the realm. (40)

Declines in Civic Participation

Looking at 32 national chapter-based associations (PTA B’nai B’rith, Knights of Colombus etc…), again, more decline (though still, better than 1900):

bowling-alone-23-728(p 54)

On average, across all these organizations, membership rates began to plateau in 1957, peaked in the early 1960s, and began the period of sustained decline by 1969. On average, membership rates more than doubled between 1940-1945 and the peak and were slightly less than halved between the peak and 1997. (55)

Declining religious participation

I don’t know that I think that this all that terrible a thing — because I think we’ve seen a real rise in religious participation lately and it’s fucking terrifying. But liberation theology and Black radical traditions are a whole different thing.

Religiosity rivals education as a powerful correlate of most forms of civic engagement. (67)

…the more demanding the form of involvement — actual attendance as compared to formal membership, for example — the greater the decline. In effect, the classic institutions of American civic life, both religious and secular, have been “hollowed out.” (72)

The result is that the country is becoming ever more clearly divided into two groups — the devoutly observant and the entirely unchurched. (75)


Informal Social Connections

In Yiddish, men and women who invest lots of time in formal organizations are often termed machers — that is, people who make things happen in the community. By contrast, those who spend many hours in informal conversation and communion are termed schmoozers. (93)

I like this distinction. I like too the realisation that cities weren’t the evil, atomising places they were once theorised to be.

Some early sociologists though that this thicket of informal social connection would not survive a transplant o the anonymous city, that urbanization would doom both friendship and extended kinship. However, experience showed that even in the most densely populated urban settings, social filaments linking residents were steadily regenerated. The density of social connections is lower in cities … but twentieth-century urbanization was not fatal to friendship. Urban settings sustain not a single, tightly integrated community, but a mosaic of loosely coupled communities … (96)

Despite this,

we are connecting less every year, and schmoozers more and more common than machers. But even ‘informal social connectedness has declined in all parts of American society.’ (108)

Still, I’m not such that schmoozers and machers really describe all the informal connections within communities.I’m not so sure that this captures what I think of when I think of informal support networks, how people survive on low incomes. Another way Putnam measures loss is in restaurants and cafes and bars giving way to fast food —

These cold numbers confirm the gradual disappearance of what social commentator Ray Oldenburg calls “the great good place,” those hangout that “get you through the day.” (102)

And I’m not sure that fast food in some places isn’t actually filling that role still, though in a different way.

Altruism, Volunteering, and Philanthropy

The second two of these three are hard to measure unless you’re talking about middle classes and formal organisations I think, which captures only a fraction of connection…

Reciprocity, Honesty & Trust

There is an important difference between honesty based on personal experience and honesty based on a general community norm — between trusting Max at the corner store because you’ve known him for years and trusting someone to whom you nodded for the first time at the coffee shop last week. Trust embedded in personal relations that are strong, frequent, and nested in wider networks is sometimes called “thick trust.” One the other hand, a thinner trust also rests implicitly on some background of shared social networks and expectations of reciprocity. (136)

This is an interesting concept, this thick and thin trust. I like the ways that Lyn Lofland and Elija Anderson take this in different directions thinking more about the connections people make and the spaces they make them in, building of course on Jane Jacobs.

Small Groups and Social Movements

Ah, social movements… I agree mostly with both of these statements, though always worry when terms like ‘social movements’ are thrown around as kind of everyday things, when in fact I think they are fairly rare, and what we have are groups engaged in building movement.

Social movements and social capital are so closely connected that it is sometimes hard to see which is chicken and which egg. Social networks are the quintessential resources of movement organizers. (152)

Social movements also create social capital, by fostering new identities and extending social networks. (153)

Why the Decline?

Why, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s and accelerating in the 1980s and 1990s, did the fabric of American community life begin to unravel? Before we can consider reweaving the fabric, we need to address this mystery. (184)

Pressures of time and money

Longer working hours, increased financial worries and sense of financial vulnerability mean people don’t get together. Putnam notes that one practical way to increase engagement is to make it possible for men and women to work part time if they wish (and still continue to live a decent life). Amen to that.

Mobility and sprawl

First the creation of suburbs — this is pretty anti suburb, though it doesn’t get into how suburbs fostered a white sense of community by coming together to fight like hell to keep everyone else out. They are now hoist with their own petards.

Eric Oliver found that the greater the social homogeneity of a community, the lower the level of political involvement; “By creating communities of homogenous political interests, suburbanization reduces the local conflicts that engage and draw the citzenry into the public realm.” (210)

A good quote from Lewis Mumford: “suburbia is a collective effort to lead a private life.” Putnam continues:

Now, however, the privatization of suburban life has become formalized and impersonal. Gated communities are innately introverted, as traditional urban neighborhoods were innately extroverted. (210)

Putnam quotes Kenneth T. Jackson, great scholar of the suburb and the KKK, about a ‘weakened sense of community, increase in social life feeling privatized’ (211)

He looks at commuting:

Car and commute demonstrably bad for engagement, the more commuters in  community the less engagement of all members of community, even those who don’t commute (213)

Spatial fragmentation between home and workplace bad for community life. (214)

He looks at sprawl (these are all picked up in Urban Sprawl and Public Health, and Walkable Cities) and gives the main reasons sprawl is bad: Time taken in commute, social segregation and increased homogeneity, disruption of community “boundedness”, separation from work, home and shopping. (214)

Technology and Mass Media


Nothing — not low education, not full-time work, not long commutes in urban agglomerations, not poverty or financial distress — is more broadly associated with civic disengagement and social disconnection than is dependence on television for entertainment. (231)

So What? Why We Should Care

Social capital has many features that help people translate aspirations into realities. (288)

That’s always nice. This is a pretty good list of why connections are good for us, even if I worry about some of the language. Greasing the wheels for example.

  1. social capital allows citizens to resolve collective problems more easily.
  2. … greases the wheels that allow communities to advance smoothly. Where people are trusting and trustworthy … everyday business and social transactions are less costly.
  3. … widening our awareness of the many ways in which our fate is linked… Joiners become more tolerant, less cynical, and more empathetic to the misfortunes of others… (288)
  4. The networks that constitute social capital also serve as conduits for the flow of helpful information that facilitates achieving our goals.
  5. Social capital also operates through psychological and biological processes to improve individuals’ lives. Mounting evidence suggests that people whose lives are rich in social capital cope better with traumas and fight illness more effectively. (289)

Putnam goes on to measures how social capital makes a difference in our lives looking at 5 variables: child welfare and education, healthy and productive neighborhoods, economic prosperity, health and happiness, and democratic citizenship and government performance. (290)

There’s some stuff here too about how inequality and social solidarity are incompatible — the more unequal a society, the less social capital. It’s significant how badly former slave states perform along every index. Of course, books like The Spirit Level have since picked up on this and broadened the analysis to be global.

child welfare and education:

— higher social capital rates statistically highly correlated with babies healthier, fewer teen parents, lower dropout rates, less violent crime, suicide, homicide, lower child abuse rates, higher test scores (informal social capital more highly correlated than formal for student achievement)

healthy and productive neighborhoods,

Higher social capital correlates to lower crime, less lethal violence, also home to survival networks

economic prosperity

support networks for jobs, loans, ideas etc

health and happiness

huge benefits to health (see the Marmot report, not quoted here but all the same findings…)

democratic citizenship and government performance

higher public-spiritedness, local organizations become schools for democracy, the more isolated people, the higher tendency to extremism, need more forums for debate, meaningful engagement in big issues…

The Dark Side — Babbitry

Shows tolerance has increased between 1960s and 1990s as disconnection from civic life decreased…. But still studies find that more engaged people are more tolerant. Given growing inequalities and disengagement, perhaps this all explains the trouble we are having now?

So, social capital.







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