Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

Author:Quesenberry, Preston

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. By Robert Putnam. * New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. Pp. 541. $26.00.

The present historical moment may seem a particularly inopportune time to review Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam's latest exploration of civic decline in America. After all, the outpouring of volunteerism, solidarity, patriotism, and self-sacrifice displayed by Americans in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks appears to fly in the face of Putnam's central argument: that "social capital"--defined as "social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them" (p. 19) (1)--has declined to dangerously low levels in America over the last three decades.

However, Putnam is not fazed in the least by the recent effusion of solidarity. Quite the contrary, he sees in it the potential to "reverse what has been a 30- to 40-year steady decline in most measures of connectedness or community." (2) As an example of how the current "war on terrorism" could generate a durable civic renewal, Putnam points to the burst in civic practices that occurred during and after World War II, which he says "permanently marked" the generation that lived through it and had a "terrific effect on American public life over the last half-century." (3) If Americans can follow this example and channel their current civic sentiments into war-related civic activity, Putnam believes the "new mood" we have seen over the past few months might endure for decades to come. (4)

To those who have already read Bowling Alone, Putnam's recent enthusiasm for war and its capacity to generate social capital might come as something of a surprise. The book contains only a handful of pages on the topic of war-generated solidarity and instead emphasizes the possibility of civic renewal in a peacetime context. Despite this pronounced lack of emphasis, however, a closer inspection reveals that war is really the primary reason Putnam offers to explain the much higher levels of civic engagement during the 1940s to 1960s--and the absence of war's influence is implied to be the biggest reason for the civic decline that has occurred ever since. Putnam does not directly state this conclusion--in large part, it seems, because he wants the reader to believe that a civic renewal is possible absent war. However, Putnam does not provide any reason to think that the high levels of social capital enjoyed during the war and postwar years can be achieved in a peacetime context.

If, indeed, the much ballyhooed decline in civic engagement is simply a return from war-generated heights to what is arguably a more "normal" level, those seriously interested in spawning a major civic renewal in a peacetime context need to shift their focus. (5) Specifically, social capital enthusiasts should seek to identify those structural aspects of the American political economy during peacetime that create norms and economic conditions that systemically tend to produce lower-than-wartime levels of civic engagement and solidarity, and propose structural solutions that might, like war, reverse these tendencies.


Understanding the importance of war in Bowling Alone first requires a review of Putnam's findings. Putnam found only a small number of relevant, century-spanning data sets; those few that he did find, however, all tell an impressively similar story about the rise and fall of social capital, measured by membership rates in national chapter-based associations (p. 54), unions (p. 81), professional associations (p. 84) and, of course, bowling leagues (p. 112).6 Civic engagement increased by varying degrees during the first third of the century, slumped during the Great Depression, leapt dramatically in the 1940s and 1950s, and then began a steady decline by the middle to late 1960s. The majority of Putnam's data show only declines in social capital over the last twenty-five to thirty-five years. (7)

An interesting point that Putnam makes again and again about all of these trends is that they are generational. In other words, civic engagement has not declined equally among all age cohorts. The older generations--those born from 1910 to 1940--are still highly civically engaged. It is the younger generations born after World War II--the boomers and the Xers--who are dropping out in droves. "Each generation that has reached adulthood since the 1950s has been less engaged in community affairs than its immediate predecessor," Putnam notes (p. 254). Thus, when it comes to explaining the thirty-year decline in social capital America has been suffering, Putnam pins the vast majority of the blame on a rather vague culprit: "generational change." (8) Generational change is obviously not much of an explanation, however, for it begs an enormous question: What caused the generations born before 1940 to be so much more civic than those born after? Toward the end of his chapter on generational change, Putnam rather hurriedly offers his answer to this central question: World War II (p. 255).

In the few pages Putnam devotes to explaining how World War II could have helped mold the values and civic habits of what he calls "the long civic generation" (p. 255), he suggests that the "wartime Zeitgeist of national unity and patriotism that culminated in 1945 reinforced...

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