Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital

Author

Putnam, Robert

Genre

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Overview

This controversial and influential article by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam makes the claim that "the vibrancy of American civil society has notably declined over the past several decades." His data show that fewer and fewer of us participate in everything from the PTA and the Jaycees to bowling leagues. Why does this matter? Putnam reminds us that Tocqueville, a keen observer of the American scene, and others have viewed direct civic participation as the key to America's "ability to make democracy work." The article also raises the question of what might account for this supposed decline in civic engagement--and what might be done to reverse it. Putnam followed this widely-read article with a fuller treatment of the same themes in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster, 2001).

Full Text*

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Source

"Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Robert D. Putnam, in Journal of Democracy, vol. 6, no. 1, p. 65-78, 1995

Type

Reading - Short Enough to Read Aloud.

Themes

Connection and RelationshipIdentity and CommunityOrganizing and ActivismServing and VolunteeringSocial and Political Change

Big Questions

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. What does Putnam mean by the term 'social capital'?
  2. What general trends does Putnam identify in this article? What are the significance of these trends for the author?
  3. What is the significance of bowling leagues for Putnam? Do you agree with him?
  4. What do you make of Putnam's analysis of support groups?
  5. What reasons does Putnam give for the decline in American civic associations over the last generation?
  6. How would you answer the question: "Is technology driving a wedge between our individual interests and our collective interests?"
  7. What do you find makes it easier for you to connect with others? What gets in the way?
  8. Is it important to be members of small groups or associations? Why, or why not?
  9. Do you agree with the conclusion that "High on America's agenda should be the question of how to reverse these adverse trends in social connectedness, thus restoring civic engagement and civic trust"? Why?
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