Is Bowling Together Sociologically Lite

May 13, 2001

286. "Is Bowling Together Sociologically Lite?" Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 30, No. 3 (May 2001), 223, 224.

Bowling Alone. The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. 541 pp. $26.00 cloth. ISBN: 0-684-83283-6.

Robert Putnam's new book raises crucial questions for the analysis of the social and moral future of American society. He demonstrates that the old, 1950s social fabric, and the white male dominated social bonds on which it was based, have largely frayed. Numerous kinds of civic engagement have declined, including participation in voluntary associations, public life, and religious activities. Putnam documents well that the anomie that followed this disengagement has had numerous ill effects on individuals and on society that are usually associated with the breakdown of social order, such as the increase in violent crime. The unavoidable question therefore is: What is going to fill the gnawing social vacuum? While he addresses this question largely in terms of a need to recreate social connectedness or community, it cannot be adequately answered, I shall argue, without examining the sources and content of a new shared moral culture.

To begin with, I should note that while there is no widely accepted definition of "community," as I see it the way the term is widely used implies two necessary attributes: first, a web of affect-laden relationships among a group of individuals, relationships that often crisscross and reinforce one another, and second, a measure of commitment to a set of shared values, norms, and meanings. Putnam is uncomfortable with the term community and prefers the term "social capital" that he defines as "social bonds and norms of reciprocity." He hopes the term gives community a scientific gloss, one in line with what is considered the queen of social sciences, economics. The notion of "norms of reciprocity" reflects the same assumption that is at the heart of neoclassical economics, the view that people can be understood as rational and self-interested agents who construct norms because they are useful. However, norms are not just the product of economic action, but, to a significant extent, reflect basic moral values. For instance, people are much more likely to vote if their community considers it their civic duty to vote (especially if they internalize these expectations), but there is nothing reciprocal about voting.

About two thirds of Bowling Alone is devoted to the social bond element of community. Indeed, this book can be read as being concerned mainly with participation or civic engagement rather than with a social-- moral order of society. Bowling Alone was preceded by a 1995 article in which Putnam published his first findings on the decline of social connectedness in the United States since the 1960s. The article captured the nation's imagination, but also generated criticism from some social scientists (including a book-length disagreement by Everett C. Ladd), who argued that there has been no decline in social bonds but merely a change in formations. Putnam went to work and collected, from secondary sources, a mountain of evidence in support of his original thesis. His findings constitute the main body of the book at hand. Several of his critics were convinced; some continue to contest the data.

It is impossible to evaluate here the merit of the massive data. Examining a few pieces would not help, as Putnam readily concedes that one item or another may have a weakness, but he argues convincingly that the sheer bulk of data that points to the same conclusions serves to reinforce them regardless of any individual item. Let me merely say that I am largely swayed. Putnam has documented well what Robert Nisbet, Robert Bellah and his associates, William Kornhauser, Robert Park, Philip Selznick, and Amitai Etzioni (and before them Tonnies and Durkheim) have maintained.

What, then, about the other part of community-shared moral values? If communities (social capital if you wish) are to be recreated, restoring social connectedness is necessary but not sufficient. The reasons communities need shared moral cultures may be obvious to sociologists, but they ought to know that this observation is a major bone of contention between communitarians and liberals in the political theory sense of the term. It suffices here to note that without shared values, communities are unable to withstand centrifugal forces (a neofunctional argument) and that if one studies those entities that are commonly viewed as communities, they tend to have a core of such shared values (an empirical argument). For these reasons, the mainstays of community cannot be bowling leagues, bird watching societies, and chess clubs. While these may provide some measure, albeit rather thin, of social bonds, they are trivial as sources of new formations of shared moral values, as Nina Eliasoph showed in her recent book Avoiding Politics. While Putnam never addresses this part of community building directly, he has some rather intriguing observations and suggestions on the topic, in effect deriving moral formulations out of social bonds. This requires some explanation.

Communities, Putnam is fully aware, exclude people. There are no communities that do not draw a line between members and outsiders. Many liberals find this attribute of communities so contrary to their view of a free society that they prefer to view people sheerly as individuals, and rely on the state to protect their rights (from the same state, by the way). Many communitarians ignore the issue and merely extol the merit of communities in satisfying essential human needs for attachment and identity. I prefer to think about communities as nestled in states that protect the rights of individuals, limiting what communities can do to members and others (e.g. discrimination). Putnam follows a different line. He much prefers what he calls "bridging" social capital, in which bonds of connectedness are formed across diverse social groups, to "bonding" capital that cements only homogenous groups. In one of the best passages of the book he compares social bonds at integrated work places (bridging) and the opposition by local communities to school busing because if would weaken local community ties (bonding). He sees the first as a model for the future, the second as a mixed blessing.

This approach does take us part of the way. But it does not deal with the question of how to deal with other major normative risks communities do pose-that both kinds of social capital pose. For instance, if the Sicilian Mafia (itself a bridge of five communities), would "bridge" with the Russian and Israeli mafia in New York City, this would still leave room for concern. And if one bridges liberal communities with macho ones, one cannot assume that liberal values will win. In short, those concerned with restoring community cannot limit themselves to the study of social bonds; they must analyze the mechanisms through which new moral cultures are formed and study what will prevent them from locking on to values that are incompatible with a free and fair society.

Putnam touches on the issue of the content of the values involved in communal revival in a closing chapter. He addresses those who see a tension between liberty and community. Putnam characterizes this tension as a myth, writing, "I have not found a single empirical study that confirms the supposed link between community involvement and intolerance." This is but one of several key examples in which Putnam, both a leading political scientist and a positive thinker, a former dean of the JFK School of Government and a public advocate for social change, denies the reality of the hard moral choices societies face. One hopes that, in his next book, Putnam will more directly address these and other normative issues raised by his study of connectedness.