Putnam, Robert D. "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital." Journal of Democracy 6 (1), 65-78 http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/journal_of_democracy/v006/putnam.html. Link Accessed: 2003-07-22.

Keywords: social capital, electronic networks, civic engagement


Putnam’s conclusion is that norms and networks of civic engagement powerfully affect the performance of representative government, social connections and civic engagement.

Putnam claims the quality of governance is determined by the presence (or absence) of civic engagement. Organized reciprocity and civic solidarity are a precondition of a successful civic society.

The theoretical framework of “social capital” -- credited to James S. Colemen – is believed to be the basis for successful civic engagement and social correctness.

Putnam claims that life is easier in a society built of social capital (dense networks of social interactions such as civic engagement that fosters sturdy social norms, and the development of social trust, broadening participation and sense of self.)

Putnam asks: Whatever Happened to Civic Engagement?

According to Putnam, there is plenty of evidence to support growing social disengagement, for instance:
Engagement in politics and government had fallen steadily
There have been significant drops in weekly churchgoing
Union membership has fallen
Participation in parent-teacher organizations have dropped
Membership in traditional women’s groups have declined
General volunteering has declined
Substantial membership drops in fraternal organizations
Bowling in organized bowling leagues has plummeted

However, more Americans then ever are bowling - alone.

Traditional forms of civic engagement maybe in the process of being replaced by new forms of engagement. Countertrends are developing, for example, the growth of membership oranizaitons, called tertiary associations in which the only act of membership is to pay dues and receive a newsletter, most members are unaware of each other’s existence. Also on the rise are organizations that support social connectedness such as; non-profits and support groups.

From the evidence it is concluded that American social capital in the form of civic associations has significantly eroded over the last generation.

Good Neighborliness and Social Trust

Putnam says, the most fundamental form of social capital is the family – the loosing of family bonds is consistent with the decline in social capital. In addition, Putnam claims that Americans are less trusting now then they have been in the past.

There is close correlation between social trust and associational membership. This is true across time, individuals and countries. From the 1991 World Values Survey:

The greater the density of associational membership in a society, the more trusting the citizens.

Americans are more trusting and engaged than people from other countries.

Trends indicate that American social capital has deteriorated significantly.

Why is U.S. Social Capital Eroding?

Among other things, the technological transformation of leisure; privatizing or individualizing time that used to be spent on social capital formation. TV is the most recent culprit, the Internet is next. These technologies enable individual tastes to be satisfied solitary without the advantage of positive social externalities associated with other forms of entertainment.

What is to Be Done?

Questions to be considered:

What sort of organizations and networks promote the generation of social capital?
What of macrosociological crosscurrents?
What is the impact of electronic networks on social capital?
How does public policy impinge on social capital formation?

Putnam claims government has and can influence how, when and where social networks are formed. The concept of a civil society and the preconditions for democracy go hand in hand.