Bowling Alone is a rich, dense, thoughtful, and fascinating book. It will surely be much talked about, and it deserves to be. It is extremely readable—and not merely by the rather low standards of academic political science; and it is packed with provocative information about the social and political habits of twentieth-century Americans. The rise and fall of Boy Scout organizations, volunteer fire companies, PTAs, and just about every other social, political, and pressure group that has been founded, has flourished, and has declined or expired over the past hundred and twenty years are charted in great detail. Just about every explanation for their ups and downs that a rational person might imagine is canvassed, analyzed, and shown to be not quite adequate.
At the heart of Bowling Alone lies a simple story. Professor Putnam has been impressed—and depressed—by the decline of the volunteer spirit in the United States. Fewer and fewer of us belong to the local voluntary associations whose resources are the time and enthusiasm of their members; more and more of us subscribe to national organizations whose interest in us is largely as a source of funds with which to hire professional lobbyists. Bowling Alone describes the rise of many different social groups during the Forties and Fifties of the last century and their slow decline since then. What it does less convincingly is explain just what disasters will follow from that decline; and on the question of what can reverse the decline, it is not at all persuasive. Many readers will suspect that the answer, short of disinventing television or getting into a painless and nondestructive third world war, is “not very much.”
But Bowling Alone has a history or, to be more exact, it has two histories. One of them is Robert Putnam’s own intellectual history. Professor Putnam is a highly regarded political scientist who eight years ago published Making Democracy Work, an important book on democracy in Italy that contrasted the success of democratic politics in northern Italy with the failure of democracy in the Italian south. Putnam’s explanation for this contrast reached far back into Italian history. The south had always been the prey of exploiters of many different stripes, but northern cities had long been practicing self-government. They had been self-governing communes centuries ago, and however often they fell under the control of rich, vain, and ambitious ruling families, they had built up a thriving civil society.
By “civil society,” writers have meant something not very precise but intuitively plausible. Strong civil societies exist in those places where the citizenry trust each other; where they are inclined to keep their bargains; where they are not inclined to cheat strangers, or to give and take bribes; and where they encourage good citizenship in one another by unofficial means. The thought goes back at least as far as Adam Smith’s explanation of the rise of capitalism in Britain, and the expression “civil society” goes back at least as …