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Lots of options for you to think about, discuss, and share your opinion about surrounding civil society.Things we talked about in class:-is civil society really trending in the wrong direction – are we really (still) ‘Bowling Alone’?-talk to your parents, and others you know, are people still in groups/organizations? why or why not?-is technology ruining civil society?-are online groups the same as in-person groups? what counts? -is civil society only for old people?-is civil society just an American thing? what about other countries/regions? -does the trend in civil society have anything to do with the current state of American politics – Trump, polarization, political violence, ?Do some more reading and thinking about some of these questions, write it up. Share in class.please start you do not have to do the whole reading just part or skim it please buddy be positive and do not talk about trump


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Journal of Democracy
Journal of Democracy
Volume 6, Number 1, January 1995
Johns Hopkins University Press
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Bowling Alone:
America’s Declining Social Capital
An Interview with Robert Putnam
Many students of the new democracies that have emerged over the past decade and a half
have emphasized the importance of a strong and active civil society to the consolidation of
democracy. Especially with regard to the postcommunist countries, scholars and democratic
activists alike have lamented the absence or obliteration of traditions of independent civic
engagement and a widespread tendency toward passive reliance on the state. To those
concerned with the weakness of civil societies in the developing or postcommunist world, the
advanced Western democracies and above all the United States have typically been taken as
models to be emulated. There is striking evidence, however, that the vibrancy of American civil
society has notably declined over the past several decades.
Ever since the publication of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, the United States
has played a central role in systematic studies of the links between democracy and civil
society. Although this is in part because trends in American life are o en regarded as
harbingers of social modernization, it is also because America has traditionally been
considered unusually “civic” (a reputation that, as we shall later see, has not been entirely
When Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830s, it was the Americans’ propensity for
civic association that most impressed him as the key to their unprecedented ability to make
democracy work. “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition,” [End
Page 65] he observed, “are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and
industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand di erent types—
religious, moral, serious, futile, very general and very limited, immensely large and very
minute. . . . Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral
associations in America.” 1
Recently, American social scientists of a neo-Tocquevillean bent have unearthed a wide
range of empirical evidence that the quality of public life and the performance of social
institutions (and not only in America) are indeed powerfully influenced by norms and
networks of civic engagement. Researchers in such fields as education, urban poverty,
unemployment, the control of crime and drug abuse, and even health have discovered that
successful outcomes are more likely in civically engaged communities. Similarly, research on
the varying economic attainments of di erent ethnic groups in the United States has
demonstrated the importance of social bonds within each group. These results are consistent
with research in a wide range of settings that demonstrates the vital importance of social
networks for job placement and many other economic outcomes.
Meanwhile, a seemingly unrelated body of research on the sociology of economic
development has also focused attention on the role of social networks. Some of this work is
situated in the developing countries, and some of it elucidates the peculiarly successful
“network capitalism” of East Asia. 2 Even in less exotic Western economies, however,
researchers have discovered highly e icient, highly flexible “industrial districts” based on
networks of collaboration among workers and small entrepreneurs. Far from being
paleoindustrial anachronisms, these dense interpersonal and interorganizational networks
undergird ultramodern industries, from the high tech of Silicon Valley to the high fashion of
The norms and networks of civic engagement also powerfully a ect the performance of
representative government. That, at least, was the central conclusion of my own 20-year,
quasi-experimental study of subnational governments in di erent regions of Italy. 3 Although
all these regional governments seemed identical on paper, their levels of e ectiveness varied
dramatically. Systematic inquiry showed that the quality of governance was determined by
longstanding traditions of civic engagement (or its absence). Voter turnout, newspaper
readership, membership in choral societies and football clubs—these were the hallmarks of a
successful region. In fact, historical analysis suggested that these networks of organized
reciprocity and civic solidarity, far from being an epiphenomenon of socioeconomic
modernization, were a precondition for it.
No doubt the mechanisms through which civic engagement and social connectedness
produce such results—better schools, faster economic [End Page 66] development, lower
crime, and more e ective government—are multiple and complex. While these briefly
recounted findings require further confirmation and perhaps qualification, the parallels across
hundreds of empirical studies in a dozen disparate disciplines and subfields are striking. Social
scientists in several fields have recently suggested a common framework for understanding
these phenomena, a framework that rests on the concept of social capital. 4 By analogy with
notions of physical capital and human capital—tools and training that enhance individual
productivity—“social capital” refers to features of social organization such as networks, norms,
and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.
For a variety of reasons, life is easier in a community blessed with a substantial stock of
social capital. In the first place, networks of civic engagement foster sturdy norms of
generalized reciprocity and encourage the emergence of social trust. Such networks facilitate
coordination and communication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective
action to be resolved. When economic and political negotiation is embedded in dense
networks of social interaction, incentives for opportunism are reduced. At the same time,
networks of civic engagement embody past success at collaboration, which can serve as a
cultural template for future collaboration. Finally, dense networks of interaction probably
broaden the participants’ sense of self, developing the “I” into the “we,” or (in the language of
rational-choice theorists) enhancing the participants’ “taste” for collective benefits.
I do not intend here to survey (much less contribute to) the development of the theory of
social capital. Instead, I use the central premise of that rapidly growing body of work—that
social connections and civic engagement pervasively influence our public life, as well as our
private prospects—as the starting point for an empirical survey of trends in social capital in
contemporary America. I concentrate here entirely on the American case, although the
developments I portray may in some measure characterize many contemporary societies.
Whatever Happened to Civic Engagement?
We begin with familiar evidence on changing patterns of political participation, not least
because it is immediately relevant to issues of democracy in the narrow sense. Consider the
well-known decline in turnout in national elections over the last three decades. From a relative
high point in the early 1960s, voter turnout had by 1990 declined by nearly a quarter; tens of
millions of Americans had forsaken their parents’ habitual readiness to engage in the simplest
act of citizenship. Broadly similar trends also characterize participation in state and local
It is not just the voting booth that has been increasingly deserted by [End Page 67]
Americans. A series of identical questions posed by the Roper Organization to national
samples ten times each year over the last two decades reveals that since 1973 the number of
Americans who report that “in the past year” they have “attended a public meeting on town or
school a airs” has fallen by more than a third (from 22 percent in 1973 to 13 percent in 1993).
Similar (or even greater) relative declines are evident in responses to questions about
attending a political rally or speech, serving on a committee of some local organization, and
working for a political party. By almost every measure, Americans’ direct engagement in
politics and government has fallen steadily and sharply over the last generation, despite the
fact that average levels of education—the best individual-level predictor of political
participation—have risen sharply throughout this period. Every year over the last decade or
two, millions more have withdrawn from the a airs of their communities.
Not coincidentally, Americans have also disengaged psychologically from politics and
government over this era. The proportion of Americans who reply that they “trust the
government in Washington” only “some of the time” or “almost never” has risen steadily from
30 percent in 1966 to 75 percent in 1992.
These trends are well known, of course, and taken by themselves would seem amenable to
a strictly political explanation. Perhaps the long litany of political tragedies and scandals since
the 1960s (assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, Irangate, and so on) has triggered an
understandable disgust for politics and government among Americans, and that in turn has
motivated their withdrawal. I do not doubt that this common interpretation has some merit,
but its limitations become plain when we examine trends in civic engagement of a wider sort.
Our survey of organizational membership among Americans can usefully begin with a
glance at the aggregate results of the General Social Survey, a scientifically conducted,
national-sample survey that has been repeated 14 times over the last two decades. Churchrelated groups constitute the most common type of organization joined by Americans; they
are especially popular with women. Other types of organizations frequently joined by women
include school-service groups (mostly parent-teacher associations), sports groups,
professional societies, and literary societies. Among men, sports clubs, labor unions,
professional societies, fraternal groups, veterans’ groups, and service clubs are all relatively
Religious a iliation is by far the most common associational [End Page 68] membership
among Americans. Indeed, by many measures America continues to be (even more than in
Tocqueville’s time) an astonishingly “churched” society. For example, the United States has
more houses of worship per capita than any other nation on Earth. Yet religious sentiment in
America seems to be becoming somewhat less tied to institutions and more self-defined.
How have these complex crosscurrents played out over the last three or four decades in
terms of Americans’ engagement with organized religion? The general pattern is clear: The
1960s witnessed a significant drop in reported weekly churchgoing—from roughly 48 percent
in the late 1950s to roughly 41 percent in the early 1970s. Since then, it has stagnated or
(according to some surveys) declined still further. Meanwhile, data from the General Social
Survey show a modest decline in membership in all “church-related groups” over the last 20
years. It would seem, then, that net participation by Americans, both in religious services and
in church-related groups, has declined modestly (by perhaps a sixth) since the 1960s.
For many years, labor unions provided one of the most common organizational a iliations
among American workers. Yet union membership has been falling for nearly four decades,
with the steepest decline occurring between 1975 and 1985. Since the mid-1950s, when union
membership peaked, the unionized portion of the nonagricultural work force in America has
dropped by more than half, falling from 32.5 percent in 1953 to 15.8 percent in 1992. By now,
virtually all of the explosive growth in union membership that was associated with the New
Deal has been erased. The solidarity of union halls is now mostly a fading memory of aging
men. 5
The parent-teacher association (PTA) has been an especially important form of civic
engagement in twentieth-century America because parental involvement in the educational
process represents a particularly productive form of social capital. It is, therefore, dismaying to
discover that participation in parent-teacher organizations has dropped drastically over the
last generation, from more than 12 million in 1964 to barely 5 million in 1982 before recovering
to approximately 7 million now.
Next, we turn to evidence on membership in (and volunteering for) civic and fraternal
organizations. These data show some striking patterns. First, membership in traditional
women’s groups has declined more or less steadily since the mid-1960s. For example,
membership in the national Federation of Women’s Clubs is down by more than half (59
percent) since 1964, while membership in the League of Women Voters (LWV) is o 42 percent
since 1969. 6
Similar reductions are apparent in the numbers of volunteers for mainline civic
organizations, such as the Boy Scouts (o by 26 percent since 1970) and the Red Cross (o by
61 percent since 1970). But what about the possibility that volunteers have simply switched
their loyalties [End Page 69] to other organizations? Evidence on “regular” (as opposed to
occasional or “drop-by”) volunteering is available from the Labor Department’s Current
Population Surveys of 1974 and 1989. These estimates suggest that serious volunteering
declined by roughly one-sixth over these 15 years, from 24 percent of adults in 1974 to 20
percent in 1989. The multitudes of Red Cross aides and Boy Scout troop leaders now missing
in action have apparently not been o set by equal numbers of new recruits elsewhere.
Fraternal organizations have also witnessed a substantial drop in membership during the
1980s and 1990s. Membership is down significantly in such groups as the Lions (o 12 percent
since 1983), the Elks (o 18 percent since 1979), the Shriners (o 27 percent since 1979), the
Jaycees (o 44 percent since 1979), and the Masons (down 39 percent since 1959). In sum,
a er expanding steadily throughout most of this century, many major civic organizations have
experienced a sudden, substantial, and nearly simultaneous decline in membership over the
last decade or two.
The most whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in
contemporary America that I have discovered is this: more Americans are bowling today than
ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the last decade or so.
Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while
league bowling decreased by 40 percent. (Lest this be thought a wholly trivial example, I
should note that nearly 80 million Americans went bowling at least once during 1993, nearly a
third more than voted in the 1994 congressional elections and roughly the same number as
claim to attend church regularly. Even a er the 1980s’ plunge in league bowling, nearly 3
percent of American adults regularly bowl in leagues.) The rise of solo bowling threatens the
livelihood of bowling-lane proprietors because those who bowl as members of leagues
consume three times as much beer and pizza as solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in
the beer and pizza, not the balls and shoes. The broader social significance, however, lies in
the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo
bowlers forgo. Whether or not bowling beats balloting in the eyes of most Americans, bowling
teams illustrate yet another vanishing form of social capital.
At this point, however, we must confront a serious counterargument. Perhaps the traditional
forms of civic organization whose decay we have been tracing have been replaced by vibrant
new organizations. For example, national environmental organizations (like the Sierra Club)
and feminist groups (like the National Organization for Women) grew rapidly [End Page 70]
during the 1970s and 1980s and now count hundreds of thousands of dues-paying members.
An even more dramatic example is the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which
grew exponentially from 400,000 card-carrying members in 1960 to 33 million in 1993,
becoming (a er the Catholic Church) the largest private organization in the world. The
national administrators of these organizations are among the most feared lobbyists in
Washington, in large part because of their massive mailing lists of presumably loyal members.
These new mass-membership organizations are plainly of great political importance. From
the point of view of social connectedness, however, they are su iciently di erent from classic
“secondary associations” that we need to invent a new label—perhaps “tertiary associations.”
For the vast majority of their members, the only act of membership consists in writing a check
for dues or perhaps occasionally reading a newsletter. Few ever attend any meetings of such
organizations, and most are unlikely ever (knowingly) to encounter any other member. The
bond between any two members of the Sierra Club is less like the bond between any two
members of a gardening club and more like the bond between any two Red Sox fans (or
perhaps any two devoted Honda owners): they root for the same team and they share some of
the same interests, but they are unaware of each other’s existence. Their ties, in short, are to
common symbols, common leaders, and perhaps common ideals, but not to one another. The
theory of social capital argues that associational membership should, for example, increase
social trust, but this prediction is much less straightforward with regard to membership in
tertiary associations. From the point of view of social connectedness, the Environmental
Defense Fund and a bowling league are just not in the same category.
If the growth of tertiary organizations represents one potential (but probably not real)
counterexample to my thesis, a second countertrend is represented by the growing
prominence of nonprofit organizations, especially nonprofit service agencies. This so-called
third sector includes everything from Oxfam and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Ford
Foundation and the Mayo Clinic. In other words, although most secondary associations are
nonprofits, most nonprofit agencies are not secondary associations. To identify trends in the
size of the nonprofit sector with trends in social connectedness would be another
fundamental conceptual mistake. 7
A third potential countertrend is much more relevant to an assessment of social capital and
civic engagement. Some able researchers have argued that the last few decades have
witnessed a rapid expansion in “support groups” of various sorts. Robert Wuthnow reports
that fully 40 percent of all Americans claim to be “currently involved in [a] small group that
meets regularly and provides support or caring for those who participate in it.” 8 Many of these
groups are religiously a iliated, but [End Page 71] many others are not. For example, nearly 5
percent of Wuthnow’s national sample claim to participate regularly in a “self-help” group,
such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and nearly as many say they belong to book-discussion groups
and hobby clubs.
The groups described by Wuthnow’s respondents unquestionably represent an important
form of social capital, and they need to be accounted for in any serious reckoning of trends in
social connectedness. On the other hand, they do not typically play the same role as
traditional civic associations. As Wuthnow emphasizes,
Small groups may not be fostering community as e ectively as many of their
proponents would like. Some small groups merely provide occasions for individuals to
focus on themselves in the presence of others. The social contract binding members
together asserts o …
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