Bring Back The Quilting Bee


The Collapse and Revival of American Community

By Robert D. Putnam

Simon & Schuster -- 541pp -- $26

Recently, I gave a talk on the New Economy to the St. Paul (Minn.) branch of the American Association of University Women. This chapter of the organization is active in promoting education and equity for girls and women in the area. Similar formal and informal associations are found in every community. Americans gather together to worship, read books, play bridge, arrange bake sales, invest money, caucus, and volunteer for all kinds of community services. The groups range from the Rotary Club to the Seafarers International Union to the Elvis Presley Burning Love Fan Club. The 19th century social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at American eagerness to band together: "Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types--religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large, and very minute."

Nevertheless, Americans are less engaged in their communities now than at any time in the past century, argues Robert D. Putnam, author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. For the first two-thirds of the 20th century, Americans were deeply involved in their neighborhoods, towns, and cities. But over the past three decades, baby boomers, Gen Xers, and younger generations have gradually withdrawn from civic life. We are getting together less often and talking less to one another. For example, from 1980 to 1993, the total number of bowlers increased by over 10%, yet league bowling fell by more than 40%. We are bowling alone rather than with our neighbors.

Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, gathers an immense amount of data to document the decline in civic engagement. He delves into surveys and statistics to trace the fading pattern in activities such as voting, religious participation, and union membership. The author's 1995 Journal of Democracy article, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," spawned a national debate among scholars and social commentators. This book is largely an answer to his critics and an elaboration of his basic thesis. But Bowling Alone is no dry social science text. Beneath the scholarly language is an impassioned polemic calling for a renewal of social relationships and group membership in America. The book concludes with seven goals for civic revival by 2010. Putnam's seven-step program for a better society ranges from creating a more family-friendly workplace to containing urban sprawl to developing new forms of electronic entertainment that get viewers off the couch and into the community.

"Social capital" is the core idea behind his analysis and agenda. Like physical capital (a computer) and human capital (a college education), social capital (an association) affects economic growth and vitality, Putnam argues. Social capital is the sum of complex, dense networks of connections, values, norms, and reciprocal relationships in a community. The stronger the ties that bind, the greater the potential for civic cooperation and trust that can improve everyone's quality of life, and vice versa. "Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness," writes Putnam.

What accounts for the decline of social capital over the past three decades? A primary offender is generational change, says Putnam. Members of the community-oriented generation shaped by the experience of World War II are being replaced by their more individualistic children and grandchildren. Putnam largely blames the clefts in relationships among the younger generations on the rise of electronic entertainment, especially television, video games, and the Internet. Instead of wandering down to the local tavern or the Elks Lodge in the evening, we are sitting at home watching sitcoms or gunning down digital ghouls.

Bowling Alone strikes a chord. Many people with demanding jobs feel they don't have the time to attend community meetings, let alone enjoy long evenings with friends and neighbors. Foundations and think tanks are responding by funding civic-engagement projects and holding conferences on social capital. Type "social capital" or "civic society" into any Web search engine, and you'll pull in an eyeful. You can't open a metro-area newspaper without coming across an article or editorial calling for more community involvement and political participation.

How convincing is Bowling Alone? Putnam makes a strong case that the intangibles captured by the term social capital are vital to a community and economy. Yet at moments, he seems to be arguing that we would be a better society if only we listened more to All Things Considered and watched less Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. This complaint feels a tad too familiar. So does the rest of Putnam's litany of factors gnawing away at our stock of social capital: the pressures of time and money, the rise of two-income couples, increased commuting time, and urban sprawl. And while he mostly avoids a nostalgic tone, he's plainly uncomfortable with our high-tech, urban economy. He yearns for the smaller communities of the past. Finally, the last third of his argument borders on being a tautology: All our social ills stem from the decline of social capital and can be resolved by restoring social capital.

The argument has another problem. It underplays the fact that, by many measures, American society is better off than at any time in the past half-century. Crime rates are dropping at a remarkable pace in communities around the country. America's major urban centers are enjoying a renaissance that shows up in a flourishing restaurant culture and music in the park (not to mention rising home prices). Immigrants are restoring neighborhoods in major cities. A record number of Americans volunteered in their communities last year. Alcoholics Anonymous, gay and lesbian support groups, evangelical religion, and other social movements are thriving. The Internet is creating new networks and communities.

Bring Back the Quilting Bee

Putnam is well aware of these countertrends but seems to feel that they have little force against his accumulated data. My own feeling is that his narrative works better as history than as social prognostication. Putnam ends up documenting the decline of a particular type of social capital tied to an industrial economy--even as more heterogeneous, eclectic forms of social capital emerge in the Information Age. Indeed, Putnam as social-capital activist rather than scholar hopes he is wrong. His last chapter is a call to begin reweaving the fabric of our communities. It's also the least convincing chapter of the book.

Still, Bowling Alone is well worth reading. The topic is important, and the passion infectious. Putnam gets you thinking about the challenges to community in a high-tech economy. And that is worthwhile.

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