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BOWLING ALONE warns Americans that their stock of "social capital", the very fabric of their connections with each other, has been accelerating down. Putnam describes the resulting impoverishment of their lives and communities. Drawing on evidence that includes nearly half a million interviews conducted over a quarter of a century in America, Putnam shows how changes in work, family structure, age, suburban life, television, computers, women's roles and other factors are isolating Americans from each other in a trend whose reflection can clearly be seen in British society. We sign 30 percent fewer petitions than we did ten years ago. Membership in organisations- from the Boy Scouts to political parties and the Church is falling. Ties with friends and relatives are fraying: we're 35 percent less likely to visit our neighbours or have dinner with our families than we were thirty years ago. We watch sport alone instead of with our friends. A century ago, American citizens' means of connecting were at a low point after decades of urbanisation, industrialisation and immigration uprooted them from families and friends. That generation demonstrated a capacity for renewal by creating the organisations that pulled Americans together. Putnam shows how we can learn from them and reinvent common enterprises that will make us secure, productive, happy and hopeful.
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Few people outside certain scholarly circles had heard the name Robert D Putnam before 1995. But then this self-described "obscure academic" hit a nerve with a journal article called "Bowling Alone". Suddenly he found himself invited to Camp David, his picture was in People magazine, and his thesis at the centre of a raging debate. In a nutshell, he argued that civil society was breaking down as Americans became more disconnected from their families, neighbours, communities, and the republic itself. The organisations that gave life to democracy were fraying. Bowling became his driving metaphor. Years ago, he wrote, thousands of people belonged to bowling leagues. Today, however, they're more likely to bowl alone:
Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values--these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighbourhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness.The conclusions reached in Bowling Alone rest on a mountain of data gathered by Putnam and a team of researchers since his original essay appeared. Its breadth of information is astounding--yes, he really has statistics showing people are less likely to take Sunday picnics nowadays. Dozens of charts and graphs track everything from trends in PTA participation to the number of times Americans say they give "the finger" to other drivers each year. If nothing else, Bowling Alone is a fascinating collection of factoids. Yet it does seem to provide an explanation for why "we tell pollsters that we wish we lived in a more civil, more trustworthy, more collectively caring community". What's more, writes Putnam, "Americans are right that the bonds of our communities have withered, and we are right to fear that this transformation has very real costs". Putnam takes a stab at suggesting how things might change, but the book's real strength is in its diagnosis rather than its proposed solutions. Bowling Alone won't make Putnam any less controversial, but it may come to be known as a path-breaking work of scholarship, one whose influence has a long reach into the 21st century. --John J Miller Review:
Alan Ryan The New York Review of Books Rich, dense, thoughtful, fascinating...packed with provocative information about the social and political habits of twentieth-century Americans.
Richard Flacks Los Angeles Times Putnam styles himself as a kind of sociological detective....The reader experiences the suspense that can happen in both detective fiction and science.
Wendy Rahn The Washington Post This is a very important book; it's the de Tocqueville of our generation. And you don't often hear an academic like me say those sorts of things.
Alan Ehrenhalt The Wall Street Journal A powerful argument...presented in a lucid and readable way.
Julia Keller Chicago Tribune A learned and clearly focused snapshot of a crucial moment in American history.
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