July 15, 2010

On Bowling Alone

Putnam, in _Bowling Alone_, traces the decline in group membership that happened in the later part of the twentieth century. He shows that we now lack a certain cohesiveness, termed `social capital,' that the generation before the boomers had in spades. In this book, which is heavily researched and supported with much evidence, he shows that this decline is real, that it is bad, there were analogous declines in American history, and tries to find the driving forces behind the decline. Don't tell my wife, but he sees the biggest factor as being the rise of television. Call it anomie, or call it lack of social capital, I feel Putnam's critiques in my own life every time I stay on my couch and watch television instead of going out and making and reinforcing social links.

Putnam also makes some prescriptions for what can be done to turn around our lack of social capital. Interestingly, these prescriptions are made in 2000 for full implementation in 2010. My sense, as I was reading them, is that we have not made adequate progress towards his stated goals. I don't think this is his fault or ours. One thing that struck me while reading this book is that while the book was written only ten years ago, it feels really dated. He was on the other side of the rise of social media, wars, the Bush presidency, cable news, 9/11, and everything else from our turbulent last decade. Many of these factors have helped, in my own opinion, ameliorate the distances we suffer from, while at the same time reinforcing the sense of the `other' we have with those who disagree with. I don't have the data nor the background to do this, but a reexamination of the decline needs to be done in light of these outside changes. I do not suspect that the broad scope would be different, but the details sure would be.