Last year, Americans donated over $190 billion to charity, gave roughly 20 billion hours of their time as volunteers, and participated in nearly 2 million tax-exempt organizations, not to mention the still greater number of less formal groups through which they performed an astonishing range of public-spirited works. Indeed, except for a minor dip in the early 1990’s, Americans have been giving and volunteering at an ever-increasing rate for over twenty years.

Yet despite this apparent vitality, all is far from well with civil society in America—or at least so argues the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam in his much-talked-about new book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community1 By Putnam’s lights, the United States is in fact suffering from a severe breakdown of civic and social ties, a development that is partly responsible not only for the public’s heightened mistrust of government but even for the growing incidence of depression and suicide. Nor is this withdrawal from civic engagement something new: with the exception of older Americans, Putnam claims, it has been going on for more than 30 years.

How can two such different pictures be reconciled?



It was the 19th-century French observer Alexis de Tocqueville who first suggested that voluntary associations in America had a value that went well beyond their own immediate goals. Such groups, he wrote, by taking on tasks that would otherwise have to be performed by government, kept the state from growing too powerful. More importantly, they taught those who participated in them both the norms of community life and the skills of cooperation necessary for sustaining a democratic society. In a phrase coined by the distinguished sociologist James S. Coleman, who devoted much of his career to developing Tocqueville’s insight, associations helped people to acquire “social capital,” a commodity every bit as valuable for getting ahead, Coleman maintained, as its more familiar financial counterpart.

Himself a strong proponent of this view, Putnam first sounded an alarm about the erosion of social capital in the United States in a 1995 article in the Journal of Democracy. Since the mid-1960’s, he reported with distress, the membership rolls of a great variety of long-established groups—religious congregations, civic and fraternal orders, labor unions, the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross, parent-teacher associations (PTA’s)—had steadily fallen. And as for the organizations whose ranks had actually grown during this time, many of them, like the American Association of Retired Persons, demanded little more involvement than the writing of a check. Even the country’s less formal venues for socializing seemed threatened, Putnam suggested. The whimsical title of his article, “Bowling Alone,” came from his discovery that fewer people were joining bowling leagues, a matter of no small concern to bowling-alley proprietors whose revenues depend heavily on the convivial sharing of beer and pretzels.

The article was an intellectual sensation, propelling its author to meetings with President Clinton and appearances on television and in the popular press. But it also attracted a stream of critics, most of whom took issue with Putnam’s findings.

Of these the foremost was the late Everett Carll Ladd, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut. In a book-length response to Putnam published in 1999,2 Ladd argued that American civic life was not in decline but rather was “churning.” If PTA’s had lost members, other school-centered parents’ groups had sprung up in their stead. If mainline Protestant congregations had shrunk, evangelical denominations were experiencing a boom. Even the drop in bowling-league participation had been offset, Ladd noted, by a rise in the popularity of soccer clubs.

For Ladd, the individualism at the heart of the country’s conception of citizenship gave Americans no alternative but to cooperate with one another. This being so, ebbs and flows in organizational membership should be seen as stemming not from any broad disaffection with civic groups or public life per se but from uncertainty about how best to work together during changing times. The very concern sparked by Putnam’s lament was itself, Ladd suggested, a sign of America’s still-abundant supply of social capital.



Five years in the making, Putnam’s new book is both a response to Ladd and other critics and an elaboration of his original thesis. Unleashing a torrent of new data, he presents a rich and comprehensive picture of associational life in the United States, one that seemingly clinches his case for the decline of civic engagement.

Yes, Putnam concedes, new parent-teacher organizations have come into existence; but the proportion of parents involved in them and in old-fashioned PTA’s remains lower than it was at the beginning of the 1960’s. Yes, new religious denominations are flourishing; but total church membership has dropped by about 10 percent in the past four decades, and church attendance even further. Nor is the pattern any different for clubs, labor unions, and political groups. As for sports, although soccer and other clubs have become more numerous, and bowling continues to attract young people as well as their elders, this has not been enough to offset declining participation in football and baseball—and fewer people of any age want to bowl in leagues.

Indeed, Americans are less involved in all sorts of once-commonplace social activities, from playing cards and visiting neighborhood bars to entertaining friends at home, and a diminishing share of families say that they even manage to eat dinner together. The groups Americans do join tend to be of the self-help variety, like Alcoholics Anonymous, which chiefly address personal problems rather than fostering social skills. Or they are cause-related organizations based on such things as opposition to abortion or concern for the environment, and thus either build upon preexisting social networks (like evangelical churches) or ask little of their supporters beyond money and an occasional letter to a public official. Only two or three of the major environmental groups, Putnam writes in direct response to one of Ladd’s criticisms, even have local chapters.

Then there is charitable giving. Although it has risen substantially in absolute terms since the 1980’s, it has not kept pace with the growth of American incomes, which suggests that the nation has become not more but less generous. Putnam agrees that volunteering has been on the rise, but here too appearances are deceiving: most of the new activity reflects the involvement of members of the World War-II generation who are retiring earlier and healthier and who possess, he speculates, a uniquely strong sense of civic obligation.



As Putnam well knows, civic life in the United States has always had its ups and downs. By his own account, concerns over the health of American society ran high in the early decades of the 20th century, as Progressive reformers worried about assimilating a flood of immigrants. Even in the decade after World War II—a period touted by Putnam for its social-mindedness—critics pointed ominously to the rise of the rootless “mass man” and bemoaned the lack of real community in the bedroom suburbs built to house returning veterans and their families.

Still, for Putnam, it is only since the advent of the baby boomers that a truly dramatic change for the worse has occurred. “For the first two-thirds of the 20th century,” he writes, “a powerful tide bore Americans into ever deeper engagement in the life of their communities.” But over the last three decades, “[w]ithout at first noticing, we have been pulled apart from one another and from our communities.”

What happened? Putnam fingers a number of possible culprits: suburban sprawl, time-and-money pressures, the increased number of women in the work force. Each, in his view, has played a role; but the most devastating solvent of all in American civic life, he believes, has been television, especially of the escapist variety.

By taking time away from community activities, “desensitizing” habitual viewers to reality, and glorifying materialism over public and social values, the flickering images that now dominate so many American living rooms account, by Putnam’s calculation, for as much as 25 percent of the drop-off in associational ties. For individual citizens, he guesses that every additional hour of television watched each day translates into a 10-percent decline in “most forms of civic activism.” “At the very least,” he concludes, “television and its electronic cousins are willing accomplices in the civic mystery we have been unraveling, and more likely than not, they are ringleaders.”



Has Putnam succeeded in answering his critics? To a large extent, he has. But a few caveats are in order. To begin with, his statistics frequently exaggerate the degree of decline over the years. Thus, rather than comparing the actual memberships of the PTA or the Boy Scouts in 1960 to their actual memberships today, he adjusts the figures to take into account the proportion of eligible boys or parents in a much larger pool. If an association’s growth has not kept pace with the relevant population, he deems it to have “lost” members—even if it has gained. This, to my mind, is a stretch.

Nor are today’s communities really being “pulled apart” in the fashion suggested by Putnam’s imposing charts and graphs. Organized labor, for instance, has certainly had a tough time of it since the late 1970’s, when it counted some 20 million members. But the movement’s 16 million current members are nothing to sneeze at, and hardly signal an organizational catastrophe. Once again, unfortunately, such impressive absolute numbers—as opposed to figures showing mere percentage changes—are hard to find in Bowling Alone.

This is not to say, however, that Putnam is wrong in his basic picture. Though the baby boomers and their progeny still have many years ahead of them in which to deepen their civic commitments—they will enjoy long retirements, after all, and inherit trillions of dollars—there can be no doubt that they are not nearly as engaged with their communities as the dwindling generation of Americans who came of age during and immediately after World War II. Given the weight of habit and tradition, Americans are unlikely to abandon associational activities any time soon, but those activities will continue to matter less than they once did, both to individuals and to society at large.

The question remains why. In his explanation of how we reached this state of affairs, Putnam probably underestimates some factors and overestimates others. Changes in the country’s industrial structure, for example, may have played a greater role in the downturn of labor unions than he concedes, and he pays too little attention to geographic shifts, particularly the population explosion during the past 30 years in the South and Far West, regions historically less hospitable to civic associations. Nor does he sufficiently credit changes in the tax code, whose lower marginal rates, and thus weaker incentives for giving, have probably contributed to the failure of charitable contributions to keep up with rising incomes.

And television? Putnam’s grand claim in this regard has some plausibility; not only has there been a remarkable rise in viewership in recent decades, but numerous studies do document the passivity and social disengagement of regular watchers. And yet, as Putnam himself recognizes, none of this establishes that television caused our civic woes; its popularity may, rather, be a result of those woes.

Instructive in this regard is the example of the World War-II generation, which also grew up under the sway of a new and potentially hypnotic form of electronic entertainment: radio. As in the case of television, the advent of radio was greeted by fears that it would exercise too much control over its listeners; the loudspeaker even became a symbol of totalitarian authority. Yet the spread of the radio into virtually every American home hardly kept listeners from socializing or taking part in the affairs of their communities. To the contrary, its introduction coincided with an almost unprecedented burst of civic activity.



According to Putnam, still another difference separates Americans raised during the Depression and World War II from those who came of age in the 1960’s and afterward; the latter, he writes, have lacked “great collective events” to bolster their civic identities. This gets closer to the truth, but should be rephrased: what really sets the eras apart is not the recent lack of grand events but rather their new and troubling character.

Unlike the massive economic downturn and the global conflict weathered by the previous generation, the defining moments in American life over the past 30 years—the cold war, the civil-rights movement, the rise of the youth culture, feminism—are notable for their divisiveness. Instead of reaffirming common values, they often pitted sharply divergent norms against each other. Rather than reinforcing existing community standards, they frequently denigrated and challenged them. By now, the ongoing “culture war” produced by these conflicts has reached into every corner of American society, and nowhere more damagingly than in our associational life.

This, indeed, is a central theme of Robert Wuthnow’s Loose Connections: Joining Together in America’s Fragmented Communities (1998),3 a book that has, regrettably, received much less attention than Bowling Alone. As Wuthnow shows, over the last three decades, civic and voluntary groups of every kind have been transformed in the name of one or another vision of social progress. As, for example, women sought to enter the professional world, the clubs in which they had formerly participated either embraced the new feminist agenda or, more often, simply fell by the wayside. At the same time, civil-rights laws and court decisions restricted the freedom of men’s clubs like the Jaycees and Rotarians to choose their own members, with scant concern for what this might mean for their survival. Churches and synagogues followed suit, altering their doctrines, clergy, and even membership requirements in order to be more “inclusive,” all the while losing much of their coherence, and their appeal, as social units.

Nor is the story any different for the larger institutions of the public square. Once Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was put in place, many nonprofit organizations converted themselves into delivery vehicles for government services, in the process becoming more reliant on professional leadership and less in need of volunteers and contributions. In the wake of campus upheavals, universities accommodated the demands of newly assertive faculty and students by setting aside many of their traditional rules and academic programs. In the name of greater democracy, political parties, too, adopted various reforms that, even as they took authority away from tight-knit groups of insiders, turned the parties themselves into fluid associations of voters, united only by a passing interest in candidates.

What such changes had in common, Wuthnow contends, is that they placed personal needs—rather than a sense of obligation to a particular community—at the center of civic participation. Joining a group became more a matter of individual fulfillment than an expectation of life in society, and leaving a group no longer presented the same dilemma as when it meant severing ties that defined one’s identity.

In Wuthnow’s judgment, it is the very “looseness” of these connections that has enabled many associations to survive and even grow. But the same looseness would also seem to go a long way toward explaining why the baby-boom generation has been so disappointing in terms of its civic and social engagement By demanding less of their members and relying more on professionals and government, today’s civic groups may have successfully adapted to the challenges presented by the culture war, but the costs have been very high. With certain notable exceptions (evangelical Christian groups and inner-city crime patrols, for example), America’s associations command less loyalty, are more difficult to lead, and, with commitment to the group seldom outweighing members’ commitment to themselves, engender less and less trust.

Though he is not always clear about how and why it has happened, Robert Putnam is, alas, right: many more of us are living off social capital, many fewer of us are replenishing it. Changing that reality will require a great deal more, on the part of individuals and groups alike, than a reduction in the number of hours spent in front of the television set.


1 Simon & Schuster, 541 pp., $26.00.

2 The Ladd Report. Free Press, 192 pp., $25.00.

3 Harvard University Press, 276 pp., $35.00.


+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link