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Rokas Perskaudas

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

By: Rokas Perskaudas
College Now Course - BSS 1

When we think of the "modern American society" that exists today, we are quick to realize that it is widely different from the society that existed only half a century ago in America. Without even giving the subject too much thought or diving deeper into it, we can agree that the cozy little image of smiling. suburban folk on a picnic during a bright and sunny day is a rare occurrence in contemporary times. This phenomenon of radical change in society is the life work of many sociologists, as well as, the basis for Robert D. Putnam's Bowling Alone:The collapse and Revival of American Community. The book provides the data, angles, opinions, and possible solutions to the problem, but ultimately leaves the choices up to you.

Throughout Bowling Alone, there are a plethora of graphs and just raw numbers to back up the main idea; that people in America today are just not connecting as they used to. The graphs and the numbers very clearly point to the conclusion that "social capital" is on a decline and has been for a while, with no forecast of stopping on its own. Social capital is defined by "international intangible standards as the value that is created through the application of social networks during non-organizational time" or in other words, the value and/or the amount of community. Well at first it seems like the gravity of the situation is minimal at best but the outlook on how enormous the affect of social capital on us becomes more prominent after overwhelming evidence is provided in various sub-topics.

The evidence for the amount of influence that social capital weilds begins with political, civic, and religious participation but continues to engross various other subjects of interests such as volunteering, philanthropy, honesty and reciprocity, and the workplace. Ever since the late 1960's (early 1970's), political participation has been in the habit of setting new lows each year and it continues to do so, for example, voting turnouts are more than 25% less than they used to be and people today are 15% to 20% generally less interested in politics. Concerning civic participation the numbers decline at even faster rates than political participation; 58% of shrinkage in club meeting attendance (1975 - 1999) and between 1985 and 1994, active involvement in community organizations dropped 45 percent. The same trends are seen in workplace connections, religious participation, and in informal social connections, where the drop in league bowling is so extreme, that in 4 years it is predicted that it will cease to exist all together for both men and women.

Despite the alarming drops in the rates at which we are participating in the creation of social capital, there are some factors that go against the mainstream. Certain self-help and support groups have actual seen an increase in participation in recent years, while volunteering is reportedly increasing steadily, and religious denominations like the Evangelans are also experiancing increase in participation. Like all the subjects that deal with sociology, these have more than one side to them, for example, the fact that particpation in self-help groups and support groups has grown is not as good as it looks, because if taking into account our accelerating population growth, that means that more people are turning to drugs, alcohol, and overeating which may or may not have been caused by the state in which our society currently resides. Also, increased volunteering rates contrast the decrease in community work getting done, meaning more people are volunteering for jobs that are done with little or no communty cohesion, there in, not technically increasing our social capital much. The increase in Evangelan participation does little to counteract the general decline, since Evangelans are usually more involved internally instead of externally and it ultimately does not affect the status of our general social capital but is very beneficial to the people directly involved.

Based on the evidence, the trend should be more than obvious by now. Still, many questions linger as to why this atrophy is occuring now and consequently there are many answers of which there is a void of one decise cause and every cause can actually be a by product of the continuing decline in social capital. The causes that are probably most influential are mass media and generation to generation change.

Ever since the implmentation of the television into the living rooms of families all across the United States, the research leans toward it being a huge negative effect on social capital. The research expanded shows that each year the average amount of televison watched increases, while civic engagement decreases. Among College educated, working age adults; the ones who watch more than 3 hours a day are the ones that are 15% less likely to attend a public meeting as those who watch less than an hour.

It is heavily noted in Bowling Alone that the decrease in civic participation, political participation, etc... is less among older people, which brings us to the next seemingly large, but not ultimate cause of decline. Adults born between 1946 and 1968 (baby boomers) are the generation in which the decline begins, but decline accelerates in the generation born after 1968 (the generation X). There are so many factors that tie in with this gradual replacement of a "cohesive" generation with a less "cohesive" generation, creating a lower benchmark for the next generation which even goes lower in social capital; it seems like a destructive cycle. Growing up with televion is one factor that is proven to substantially lower engangement, as well as, lack of growing up with various forms of strife like war and social movements (civil rights movement), but the evidence for this is more circumstantial then not.

Like mentioned previously, many Americans just shrug the phenomen of accelerated, spiral decline of community off as a "Who cares". The fact is that social capital affects nearly every aspect of life: getting a job, economic prosperity, safety, crime, education, democracy and even your health and happiness, which I find most surprising. Studies done over the last twenty years show that ''people who are socially disconnected are between two and five times more likely to die from all causes, compared with matched individual who have close ties with family, friends, and community". Another point concludes that each successive generation is struck earlier and more often by depression; of Americans born before 1955 only a reported 1% were struck by major depression by age 75 compared to Americans born after 1955 of whom 6% were majorly depressed by the their prime year of 24. Also with each successive generation, the amount of suicides committed by younger people rises while the suicide rate of older people declines, proving the extent to which society has changed.

All the information is enough to depress an individual, but there is still something that Americans can do today to better the future. The way to change the decline of our social capital is by learning from history, more precisely, the Gilded/Progressive period. Society in the Gilded/Progressive age was probably even worst off socially than our current social state due to the excessive corruption, inequality, poverty, technological change, and immigration. What the reformers of the period did is what we have to learn to do, instead of trying to reverse back to "simpler" times, we have to look to the future and create the new means for which to, at least, get the decline of social capital to stop. These means, among others, include the altering of mass communication and media to supplement community cohesiveness and to "Let us discover new ways to use arts as a vehicle for convening diverse groups of fellow citizens". Robert D. Putnam calls on everybody in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community to lend a hand, because the only way to improve our social capital is by doing it together.