Saturday, April 26, 2008

Explaining the Bowling Alone Phenomenon

This week my critical thinking classes read and discussed Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" (the Journal of Democracy article, not the book). I had the students write an essay on it.

A number of students chose to weigh Putnam's explanations for the declining social capital in the US. Some speculated that since voter turn-out in the last two national elections had gone up, social capital's decline has been halted (which I think unlikely!). Others considered his explanation that the reason is the amount of time people spend watching TV and tried to extend that explanation to new media technologies. They were split on whether social networking sites (like Facebook) really create and maintain social networks.

There's one explanation which Putnam did not include which is prominent in my own mind--namely, whether there are cultural changes that have undermined Americans' interest in building social capital (and, especially, the kind of social capital that bridges demographic groups).

I can hypothesize that the reason that Putnam doesn't consider culture is that, as a certain kind of social scientist, he does not consider beliefs and values to be "real" or, at least, to be causally potent. I can see this reasoning--because it seems like if there is a change in beliefs, then that change is caused by something which can eventually be connected to a change that is not itself a belief. And yet, I think explanations that help themselves to words about beliefs can be quite enlightening.

For instance, it seems possible to me that a decline in social capital could be due to an increase in perceived threats, whether that is the threat of an economic downturn or the kind of amorphous threat that wartime brings. I would also like to consider whether people feel like there is more competition now than in the 1950s, and that they are competing over goods that are zero-sum. Just to take an example, there has certainly been a change in college applications and admissions.


Fred Goodwin said...

I haven't read the article, but I'm about 80% of the way through Putnam's book; he indicates that social capital was very high during the 40s, and peaked in the 50s-60s (during the Red Scare, although he doesn't use that term).

I'm not sure how that comports with your theory that social capital declines during period of preceived threats.

Evelyn Brister said...

Fred, I'm not exactly sure either. Was the perceived threat to the Red Scare--and the response to it--a lot like the current perceived threat from Islamic terrorists and our leaders' rhetorical response to it? Is there a difference between a Cold War and a hot one?

I've found myself thinking more in terms of cultural responses to perceived threats--whether those responses produce alienation from each other or solidarity.

In particular, although I'm no specialist on this, I think that Cold War rhetoric was more about the nation acting in unity, while if you listen to today's talk radio and other political media, the message is that Americans are competing with each other. It is a divisive ethos.