A critical evaluation of Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone: America’s declining Social Capital”

Essay, 2012

13 Pages, Grade: 1.0


In this paper I will critically evaluate Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone: America’s declining Social Capital”, published in 1995 in the Journal of Democracy, both empirically and theoretically. I will countercheck the empirical findings he draws on by taking matching indicators from the “World Values Survey” (WVS) into account. This additionally grants the opportunity to get an updated view on his empirical analysis and the claims associated with it, as the most recent figures brought up by Putnam date from 1993, whereas the newest WVS-figures on the United States were elicited in 2006. In 2000 Putnam published a book by a similar name, in which he goes more into detail. I will, however, focus my analysis on the paper at hand from 1995, which summarizes the basic claims and observations of the whole line of argumentation and provides the foundation for any further elucidations undertaken in the book. While Andersen, Curtis and Grabb (2006) have already opposed Putnam’s hypothesis for other western industrialized countries (namely Canada, U.K. and the Netherlands) I will focus my research and discussion on his initial reference point, the United States of America.

Putnam argues that the American civil society, once so rapturously extolled by Tocqueville in the 1830s, is and has been significantly declining since the 1960s and with it the associated social capital. He links that assertion to an alleged decrease in civic engagement and participation that would manifest (or is best observable) through a remarkable drop-off in secondary associations, such as religious affiliations, labour unions, civic and fraternal organization or sports clubs. Furthermore, would political participation (may it be the mere voting process or deeper organizational involvement) as well as other fields of civic engagement as for instance parental concernment about the educational processes be on the wane. Empirically these assertions mostly draw on the results provided by the General Social Survey, which is run by the NORC (National Opinion Research Center), one of the biggest US-American research organizations. Putnam discusses four possible explanations for this alteration (see Putnam, 1995, p. 6), namely: (1) the growing employment of women in the course of emancipation, which simply decreases the needed resources for civic engagement, namely time and vigor; (2) The increasing residential mobility of people that would deprive local community from stable foundations for civic engagement; (3) demographic shift that has reduced the prevalence of the middle-class nuclear family and (4) technological individualization of leisure. Explanation four seems to be of the most appeal to him, asserting that the other three lack - to some extent - logical of empirical significance and could just partially illuminate the ´riddle of the lost social capital´. As Kadushin (2004) noted Putnam has a clear collectivistic approach towards social capital. That means that he does not regard individual accessibility of social capital and/or the actions that revolve around that, but focuses on the macro-level, the community, and the several facets of social capital that those are associated with. According to his understanding, Putnam employs particular indicators for social capital, such as political, civic and religious engagement and interpersonal trust. In the following I will examine the corresponding items from the World Values Survey to see whether the claims he derives from empirically analyzing the aforementioned indicators are valid and still in keeping with the times. Subsequently I will critically evaluate some theoretical assumptions deployed by Putnam by referring to other currents of social capital research. It is clear that also for the assessment and classification of the empirical results theoretical remarks will be given and drawn upon.

Empirical evaluation

The research undertaken and the results obtained for this segment are displayed in the appendix and will be related to throughout this segment. For the indicator “political participation” I will look at both the general voter turnout (see figure 7) and the direct involvement in politics (here in form of membership of political party: figure 6), both addressed as paradigms for political participation by Putnam (1995, p.2). Looking at the bold-faced presidential election years it becomes apparent that while the federal voter turnout in fact decreased from 1960 to the 1990s as argued by Putnam, it recuperated from 1996 on and now resides above the number of 1972. While some would maybe try to explain the high turnout of 1992 and 2008 by referring to the rise of the two democratic “rays of hope” Clinton and Obama, it is clear that this falls short of being a sufficient explanation. Especially in regard of voter turnout there can be a lot of other factors that play into the development, such as the dichotomous political landscape in the US, potentially entailing political apathy, and the first-past-the-post electoral system which hampers participation in or contribution to the political process apart from the big two parties. While the voting process (despite the occasionally cumbersome registration procedure) is a rather hands down contribution - although crucial to democracy -, a more profound political participation beyond that can be associated with the membership of a political party.

Unfortunately the WVS did not feature data from before 1995, still we see that in fact there is a slight decline in active membership from 1995 to 2006, presumably in benefit of inactive belonging as the overall membership remains somewhat the same.

When evaluating civic engagement the comprehensiveness of this term should be reflected in the empirical application. According to Putnam, who presents a whole range of potential indicators (Putnam, 1995, p.3), I will focus on two particularly important ones: Sport groups (see figure 5) and labor unions (see figure 2). The affiliation with a sport club is paradigmatically displayed by Putnam’s choice of topic (“Bowling Alone”) and a fundamental instance of the cultivation of social contacts in a community; labor unions build the bridge between professional and private affiliation and qualify as a good indicator of actually mobilized social capital. As Kadushin (2004) stresses, there is a significant difference between network contacts as potentially accessible sources and indeed mobilized social capital. Labor unions draw on this latter type of social capital as they had arisen out of social contacts in order to collectively pursue a common goal, this means that the network resources had been accessed and the social capital had already been put into practice. Of course they also offer chances for meeting people and creating new or maintaining existent ties. Looking at these two forms of civic participation, it becomes apparent that both developments are somewhat similar over the last 20-30 years. From the remarkably low rate of sports group members in 1990 and the decline of unionized respondents from 1982 to 1990, we can conclude that the data Putnam examined indeed displayed a significant decline in these categories. Earlier data on both points of analysis would be helpful to eventually verify this assumption. In the early 90s both figures skyrocketed, subsequently again declined and in 2006 they are still notably higher than those from the respective starting points. The analysis of these two indicators for civic participation suggests that the trend, which was obviously validly observed by Putnam, has been invalidated and reversed in the 1990s and 2000s.

What does the WVS tell us about religious affiliation and its development over the last decades? According to Putnam it is “the most common associational membership among Americans” (Putnam, 1995, p. 3). For this indicator the WVS also merely offered two survey points in time: 1995 and 2006, which however, should be sufficient to illustrate the general trend. While inactive membership of a religious organization has more or less stayed the same, active religious affiliation has decreased by 16% for the benefit or no religious affiliation at all. This development, however, is rather the necessary result of an enlightened, allegedly secular society that has embraced the values of humanism and it can be seen throughout the industrialized world. That the church is and was a place for some members of the community where they could foster their network resources is not to be disputed. Yet, the implication that Putnam draws does not appear to be valid. The here suggested secularization of the US-American society does not equal or even has to be associated with a decline in social capital and civic engagement. Network resources can be as well fostered in secular groupings; civic engagement does not have to be religiously affiliated. As Putnam notes, the engagement in secular organizations (environmental, feminist etc.) is significantly increasing (1995, p.4). The decline in religious affiliation could be much better explained with the rising educational levels that Putnam ascertains (1995, p. 2), with increased enlightenment and augmented discontent about religious impudences (child abuse, homophobia, fundamentalism etc.).

Interpersonal or civic trust is closely related to social capital and regarded as one of the very prerequisites for it (see Coleman, 1988 and Putnam, 1995, p.5). Often it is examined as a paradigm in order to draw conclusions about social capital in a network (see Kumlin&Rothstein, 2005). Trust facilitates the emergence of social capital by creating an atmosphere of predictability, that is the increased certainty that a favor will be reciprocated and an outstanding obligation will be fulfilled. The WVS item “Most people can be trusted” that corresponds to the one used by Putnam shows that the initial development runs contrary to Putnam’s assertion, as the 1980s are associated with a significant increase in affirmative respondents. After a sizeable decrease in the 1990s the recent number of trusting respondents is on the same level as the starting point’s number of 1982 was. One should remark that this WVS item is not really a convincing one. The wording of the question is quite vague and the dichotomous response options correspond with that.


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A critical evaluation of Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone: America’s declining Social Capital”
Jacobs University Bremen gGmbH
Civic Networks & Social Capital
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ISBN (Book)
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Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam, Social Capital, Civic
Quote paper
Jan-David Franke (Author), 2012, A critical evaluation of Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone: America’s declining Social Capital”, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/210436


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