Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard University, immortalized the phrase “bowling alone” in an article and then five years later in a book ( 2000 ) of the same name. The phrase refers to a trend in which people who once bowled in leagues now bowl alone. For the author this trend symbolized a broader decline in social capital evidenced by the decline in civic associations, social infrastructure, social bonds, and public trust. This study joined other turn-of-the-century warnings about civic decline. More conservative studies focused on the loss of social values, whereas Theda Skocpol, professor of political sociology at Harvard, argued that both liberal studies like Putnam's and conservative studies missed the key historical transformation. According to Skocpol, many Americans had been members of large nationwide federated affinity organizations until the 1960s, when membership declined and civic organizations became professionally staffed, Washington-centered, and committed to social causes.
Critics of the bowling-alone thesis argue several points. Earlier advances in communications technology since the radio raised similar concerns about the loss of social relations. Forms of civic involvement have changed in the twenty-first century from formal organizations to social networks and social media. Members of the Millennial generation are as civically active as earlier generations, if not more so, but they use the new forms of involvement and serve as volunteers, not members, of civic organizations. And, of course, in the world of sports leagues, while bowling leagues have dwindled, fantasy sports leagues have proliferated and brought together tens of millions of participants.
SEE ALSO Civic Associations ; Civic Engagement ; Civic Health Index ; Civic Participation ; Social Contract .
Putnam, Robert D. “Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital.” Journal of Democracy 6, no. 1 (2000): 65–78.
Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.
Russell Sage College