Monday, March 30, 2009

Bowling Alone by Putnam

This week’s reading was a book by Putnam, Bowling Alone. The title refers to Putnam’s main argument: that American’s are doing more, but are doing the “more” alone rather than in groups. This leads to a decline in social capital. A decline in social capital leads to a society that is not as strong as it could be. At least, that is the argument Putnam is making.

Putnam examines many influences that might be the cause of the decline in social capital. He states that, through statistical analysis, he has determined that the movements of women into the workplace, education and a market economy have little to do with the decline in social capital. Instead, the fact that technology has enabled our leisure time to be spent in individualized pursuits – like video games, is the biggest cause. Putnam believes, and supports his beliefs with evidence, that people are more engaged but are more engaged in solitary pursuits.

Putnam makes several interesting claims. The statistics for people being less involved in group activities seem to be supported by last week’s reading – at least in so far as the evidence relates to politics. Last week’s readings showed how people were moving away from the Republican Party, but not to another party. This means that people are moving out of organized political parties – which are an element of social capital – and into individualized notions of politics. This evidence seems to support Putnam’s claims that people are involved, but are involved alone.
Additionally, Putnam claims that for every 10 minutes of commute time, people are 10% less likely to become involved. I don’t believe that his statistics validate this claim. I didn’t see the correlation factors that linked commute time to involvement. Instead, I believe that people who spend time commuting simply don’t have that time available to do other things. If the time spent commuting is less, then the time available is open for other things. I don’t think there is such a strong correlation between the 10 minutes of commute time and 10% less likely to participate. I would even think, although I have not done research, that if you have children commute time matters less in terms of determining involvement. When you have children, you are involved in any number of things that your child is involved in. So the amount of time you spend building social capital is not necessarily under your control.

Putnam states, as one of his solutions, that churches must become more relevant and more tolerant. He doesn’t see a contradiction in this statement, but I do. I do not think churches have to become more tolerant. For many churches, to be more tolerant of alternative life-styles is an abandonment of their beliefs. People go to church because they believe as the church believes. Whether they choose to believe all the particular doctrines is up to them, but they do believe as the church believes. If churches were to begin abandoning their beliefs in favor of what some might call “more tolerant” beliefs, then their bastion of faithful will diminish. That means that churches who adapt their teaching to what is socially acceptable will be the ones to survive, and those churches won’t have any ability to lead their faithful, because the faithful will be leading them. This would make churches irrelevant except as a place of social gathering.

Putnam does make several good points. It is easier to solve problems when you are interconnected because you know the other people. When there is a face on the problem, it is easier to invest resources in.

However, connections don’t come without society being willing to allow them. With a technological society that allows work to contact you anywhere (through Blackberrys et al), you are never detached enough to make social connections. At some point, a community has to develop between people. This takes time and effort that people have to put into other things these days .

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