Felipe’s notes on our discussion of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (Jan 29)

The readings from Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam introduced some basic concepts such as:

Social capital: the connections among individuals

Bridging: establishing connections between individuals of varying backgrounds—example, the civil rights movement

Bonding: establishing connections between homogenous, inward looking groups—example, a fashionable country club

Discussion of the reading centered around four points:

1. There was general agreement that civic engagement, to use the author’s term, had decreased. It was suggested that perhaps each generation feels that the previous generations was more connected and had more social interaction. Another point was that perhaps historic events such as the Depression stimulated mutual concern and as time passed the impact of such events faded. Also women present a different picture than men, especially the mid-20th century stay-at-home mom who was often isolated. Finally the question was raised of how to determine if on-line social networking increased or decreased civic engagement.

2. We discussed how global finance capital decreased social engagement. Roger noted that around the world finance capital was destroying jobs thus preventing young couples form marrying. The question then arose if it was global finance capital per se that impacted social engagement, or if it was just its current more virulent manifestation which has concentrated wealth so greatly.

3. We considered the statement from the reading: “…a well-connected individual in a poorly connected society is not as productive as a well-connected individual in a well-connected society.” It was not clear if the quote referred to productivity in its strictly economic sense, or if it meant that a well connected individual could be more effective at achieving any goal, whether economic or social. In any case, the point was that a person’s connections are more valuable if they link to others with good connections.

4. The final consideration was how the reading related to the Occupy Movement. Nicole noted that Occupy started out as a bridging movement in that it brought together individuals with different backgrounds (though from observing the group, not different racial groups). Inevitably as groups within the Occupy Movement come together, a bonding process also occurred. This is in keeping with the author’s observation, “Many groups simultaneously bond along some social dimensions and bridge across others.”

5. Comments by note taker: Bowling Alone was published in 2000 so its latest data is from the 1990s. Thus it fails to consider the more recent impact of on-line activity and of recently increased wealth concentration. The book also treats U.S. society as a single entity, and thus misses how the actions of different social strata vary. Charles Murray in his book “Coming Apart” (Crown Forum, 2012) takes a different approach—which we might want to look at sometime—in that he considers how different economic strata of U.S. society have different social values. Our attempts to use older members of our group to comment on how society evolved over the period considered in Bowling Alone were not very successful due to a. skewed age distribution of group members (i.e. Few had memories of a half century ago) and b. since 1960s experience of the note taker were punctuated with acid and tear gas, it hardly reflected a representative sample of U.S. society.

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3 thoughts on “Felipe’s notes on our discussion of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (Jan 29)

  1. For what it’s worth, I’m working on a book now that outlines how “bridging” social capital among different classesi in America has declined over the last 30 years, and in particular, how a frightening gap has grown up between young people from upper middle class backgrounds (who have more social capital than ever–more time with parents, more involvement in church and community groups, more involvement in extracurricular activities, more social trust–and young people from working class or lower class backgrounds–white as well as non-white, so this is about class not just race–have much less social capital on all these dimensions–less time parents, less involvement in church, community, or extracurriculars, and so on. From a social capital perspective since the late 1980s we have moved more and more toward a two-tier, segregated society. (For what what it’s worth, this is a contrast between the top 25% and the bottom 25%, not 1% vs. 99%.)

    I’m honored and pleased that you used Bowling Alone as a jumping off point.

    Bob Putnam

    • Hopefully Mr. Putnam’s new book will provide an antidote to Charles Murray’s much-ballyhooed “Coming Apart,” which, while it does illustrate America’s class problem, thinks the solution is to scare the poor straight, so to speak, by taking away the “European-style welfare” that is purportedly corrupting them. Right. Then maybe we can become like Honduras, say, or Brazil, which don’t have any of that corrupting welfare, but instead enjoy some of the world’s highest crime rates. The Mara Salvatrucha gang in Central America perhaps constitutes a model community for Mr. Murray: tight-knit, effective in their business practices (drug smuggling and extortion, mostly), patriarchal, religious (dig all those tattoos of Jesus). Just saying.

  2. And we’re honored and pleased that you responded to our post!

    We’re also looking forward to your new book. If you want any more info on what we do or talk about, let me know and I’ll send an email to the address associated with your comment.

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