Bowling Alone after (almost) 20 years

Robert Putnam published “Bowling Alone” in the Journal of Democracy, vol. 6, no. 1, January 1995. By September 25 of the same year, he was in People Magazine (smoking a pipe, standing alone in bowling shoes on a New Hampshire bowling alley). “We’ve become disconnected,” he said in the article, and “I think it’s at the root of all other problems.”

“Bowling Alone” has altered my own trajectory. It led to the National Commission on Civic Renewal, of which I was deputy director. The Commission called for a research center on youth engagement–noting the evidence, cited in Putnam’s original article, that the decline in social connectedness had been generational. That center is CIRCLE; I still direct it nearly 20 years later.

The original article quickly provoked a debate, with empirical and theoretical contributions. At the time, I thought one of the strongest counterarguments was in Jean Cohen’s 1999 chapter “American Civil Society Talk.” I am teaching Cohen this week, along with Putnam’s “Community-Based Social Capital and Educational Performance” (2001), which I take to be a more advanced version of the “Bowling Alone” argument.

In essence, Putnam argued that membership generated trust and reciprocity, which had  good outcomes for individuals and societies. A bowling league was a good example of voluntary membership. Shrinking bowling leagues would be a sign of decline if that exemplified a broader trend.

Drawing on Habermas, Gramsci, and various liberal thinkers, Cohen argued that laws or norms of free speech, free association, and deliberation yield certain kinds of associations that generate politically relevant discourse. That discourse produces better and more legitimate government. Bowling leagues are poor examples of civil society for Cohen because they do not involve political discourse. Unions, social movements, and advocacy groups would be better examples.

Cohen objects to the whole “decline” narrative. For Putnam, Baby Boomers were responsible for decline because their levels of associational membership fell. For Cohen, they were impressive because “they created the first environmental movement since the turn of the century, public health movements, grassroots activism and community organizing, the most important feminist movement since the pre-World War II period, the civil rights movement, and innumerable transnational nongovernmental organizations and civic movements–all of which have led to unprecedented advances in rights and social justice.” She ends: “we must drop the rhetoric of civic and moral decline.”

The debate is partly about method. Putnam finds strong empirical links between composites of membership, trust, turnout, following the news, etc. He tweaks his empirical model until it provides the best prediction of desirable social outcomes. He calls the composite measure “social capital” and offers theoretical reasons for its benefits.

Cohen, however, wants to disaggregate the various components that Putnam combines because she sees some as good and others as bad, from the perspective of left-liberal political theory. She is not interested whether social trust correlates with membership, or whether membership predicts trust in government. She sees membership in discursive associations as desirable, but trust in government as problematic. She also claims that Putnam omits important measures from his explanatory model. He should consider variation in legal rights, for example. (This part of her critique seems a bit unfair considering the methodology of Making Democracy Work.)

I think Cohen scores some valid points, but nearly 20 years later, I find myself increasingly sympathetic to Putnam. The reason is our political situation now. Cohen recognizes that the model of a liberal public sphere is far from perfect, but her argument depends on its potential. We must have reason to hope that free speech and democracy will allow people to form associations that generate reasonable public discourse and hold the government and market to account. Her positive portrayal of the Boomers rests on their success. They achieved “unprecedented advances in rights and social justice.”

But those advances have thoroughly stalled since 1999. We still have the legal framework that permits free association and free speech, but people are not using it very effectively. There are many reasons for that, but I think one is a declining capacity to associate. It now looks  as if the great social upheavals of 1955-1975 rested on a general culture of joining associations and norms of social solidarity. Those have eroded–probably not because of the social movements of the 1960s, but for other reasons, including economic change. The result is a civil society that has great difficulty generating the kinds of political movements that Cohen rightly values. Putnam looks prescient in noting the decline in the groundwork of effective political action.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.