Putnam: bowling alone or just bowling differently?

I’m sitting here at 2am reading and thinking about the work of Robert Putnam who is giving one of those inspirational internal lunchtime lectures at work tomorrow. Robert Putnam is a Harvard professor and author of Bowling Alone, a book about the supposed “decline in social capital” that, he says, has taken place in America over the past few decades. His argument is, essentially, that social capital in America has declined to the point that Americans are more likely to find themselves bowling alone rather than doing things face to face or getting involved in politics or various groups. Yep, yet another social theorist whose full of nostalgia for an idealised 1950’s America that probably never existed. On the Bowling Alone website, he lists 14 indicators of the “social capital index” (here). This include things like the following, my comments on each beneath them:

Agree that “I spend a lot of time visiting friends”

What on earth is “a lot of time”? I wouldn’t want to sound excessive in responding to this, nor am I sure if it’s about visiting friends in their home or visiting with friends. Does having a pint count? Is having 3 or 4 pints over an evening count?

Agree that “Most people are honest”

Let’s not be naive here mate! Most people are honest most of the time but to deny dishonesty in society is just plane stupid. And, in what respect, are we talking about honesty? Honesty when we get extra change after making a purchase? Honesty not to break into someone’s home? Honesty not to tell the tax man about supplementary income?

Attendance at any public meeting on town or school affairs in last year (percent)

I’ve never been to a public meeting. I have, however, submitted comments on development applications electronically and by post. It saved me having to trudge to the meeting.

Average number of club meetings attended in last year

I’m not a member of any clubs. However, I’m the owner of a couple of Flickr groups, participate actively in at least 3 different online communities, and go to the ocassional talk or digital art type event. Clubs are naff, people move from group to group more freely now than they used to and, I think, it’s liberating in comparison.

Average number of group memberships

See above.

Average number of times volunteered in last year

When someone asks me if I’ve volunteered in the last year, I think about going and building houses and Africa and things like that. Sure, that’s really worthy and it’s wonderful people do things like that. But I also volunteer less formally – giving a talk for a group of charities and not asking for payment, speaking at a university, offering advice in an email discussion, rebuilding a message board for a mate, etc.

Average number of times entertained at home in last year

Not a whole lot, but then most of my friends are scattered around the country and the World. It’s just not practical and, anyway, it’s often more interesting to meet with friends outside of the home, particularly in England where my fairly typical 2 up 2 down Victorian workers cottage can’t seat more than about 6 in the largest room anyway.

Average number of times worked on community project in last year

All the time, non-stop, but not in a “get your wellies and anorak on and help pick up the litter” kind of way. I do it online. I don’t like rain much.


My point? If you measure “social capital” using criteria that, let’s face it, is outdated and oldfashioned, of course you’re going to come up with numbers that make it look like people simply don’t engage with each other in meaningful ways anymore. But that’s simply not true. Much of the social network activity of old is now mediated electronically. We also have a lot more choice, not just in how we will communicate, but in which communities we will become involved in – geography, whilst important, is far less limiting now than it once was.

The social revolutions of the 60’s and 70’s happened, in part, as a reaction of the baby boomers who grew up in the ’50’s against the repression of that era. Yet, if you’re going to try to measure social capital in the way Putnam does, you have to view declines in formal membership in religious and social organisations as a bad thing. I disagree. Kids today are more likely to meet up in one of their homes to play a video game, or meeting in the local shopping mall to hang out, than they are likely to be a member of some boring group like the Boy Scouts where they have to wear a uniform and tie nots. Young adults are more likely to discuss the pros and cons of organised religion whilst smoking a spliff in the park than to discuss it as part of a Sunday prayer group. Parents aren’t going to join the PTO and sit through hideously long meetings when they can fling an email to the school head teacher or chat with other parents whilst collecting their children from football practice.

The world has changed, our way of communicating and building social networks has changed. Local is still more important to must of us than the global but or involvement in “groups” is less formal than ever before. That goes for organised religion and party politics as well – both in decline but with many who point to this and say good riddens rather than chasing it down the street. Let’s not confuse these changes, many of which can are are viewed by many as positive, with a loss in social capital. People aren’t bowling alone, they’ve just found something more interesting to do with their time.

So what should I ask him on Friday? Your questions here – by 12.30 BST please… ;-)