Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam

Reviewed and recommended by Stan V. Harward

Reviewed and recommended by Stan V. Harward

In the year 2000, Robert D. Putnam published his remarkable book entitled Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Few would argue with the central role “community” plays in maintaining our very democracy. One of the clearest description of community I have encountered is in M. Scott Peck’s book The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace (1987), where he says:

If we are going to use the word meaningfully we must restrict it to a group of individuals who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitment to rejoice together, mourn together, and to delight in each other and make others’ conditions our own. (59)

Just as an aside, this statement reminds me of Alma at the Waters of Mormon (see Mosiah 18:8–10), where he explains the vital nature of community within the gospel.

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and his research team have gone to great lengths to study and record the social trends with regard to community in America from the end of WWII until 2000. In a comprehensive and detailed analysis, Putnam traces changes in political, civic, and religious participation; in connections in the workplace, informal social connection; and in altruism, volunteering, and philanthropy. He also examines changes in reciprocity, honesty, and trust.

As you might imagine, there has been a consistent downward trend with regard to community in most of these areas. In a particularly compelling chapter, Putnam reviews a large body of research (over fifty years of data), looking at changes in children’s social and educational welfare that lead to positive or negative outcomes for children. In a state-by-state comparison, his research found that states like “North Dakota, Vermont, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Iowa have relatively healthy civic adults and well-adjusted kids; other states, primarily in the South, face immense challenges in both the adult and youth populations” (297).

In several chapters, Putnam provides the “why” for the general American decline as we face new challenges in terms of time and money, mobility and sprawl, technology and mass media, and generational changes in values.

Putnam’s book is filled with amazingly easy-to-read charts and graphs detailing all his data. In the last section of the book, Putnam uses many positive lessons from American history, with particular emphasis on the Gilded Age, Progressive Era, and during and after World War II, for creating a new agenda to recover from the erosion of social capital so necessary for community. He maintains this is our opportunity to strengthen our society—reaching toward true community.

Although this book is written from a researcher’s factual and technical perspective, it is remarkably readable and interesting. If you want to access a carefully detailed account in what has happened and is happening in our nation, Bowling Alone will not disappoint.