Bowling Alone Response A big concern of the last 50 years has been that America is losing the elements of its society that contribute the most to the successful democracy that is in place. One of these elements is social capital: the networks of relationships and social trust within a society. According to Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” this is a result of the decrease in civic engagement and involvement in community associations in America in the last several decades. However, at one point in his essay Putnam brings up the question of whether the apparent drop of social capital in America is a deadweight loss or has just been redistributed into other forms.1 Then, in Putnam’s follow-up essay, “Still Bowling Alone? The Post-9/11 Split,” written in 2010, he discusses the recent boom in social networking and Internet use but questions whether it will ever “produce real and enduring civic effects.”2 Now, three years later, with the even further progress and expansion of social networking and Internet use, the answers to Putnam’s questions are clear. The redistribution of social capital is evident because the nationwide use of the Internet and social networking has replaced the involvement in associations, because these modern forms provide the same social benefits as the older forms of social capital, and because they have produced real civic and political effects.
First of all, the proof that social capital and social involvement have been redistributed and not lost is in the high numbers of Americans who are active on the Internet. The society of the 1950s that was filled with socializing and participating in bowling leagues, card games, dinner parties, library societies, women’s groups, and sports clubs has been replaced with a more modern way of life.3 The form of socializing and communicating through social networking “has made it simpler to interact with others without the limitations of geography and lack of time.”4 This accessibility and convenience that social networking provides allows those adults with busy work schedules and families to care for a chance to still maintain relationships with people in their community through social networking. As of May 2013, 72% of online adults in America use social networking sites. When the data is divided by gender, race, education level, annual household income, and urbanity, this percentage is relatively constant, ranging from 67 to 80%. The only large range is present when comparing age groups, where the 18-29 year range has 89% of Internet users using social networking, and the 65+ age group has 43%.5 However, this is very telling because even the generation that was alive during the 1950s, which was the time of the high involvement in community associations, has transitioned to the use of social networking. By the time today’s young adults grow older, social networking will be at high rates for all the age groups. This shows that involvement has, in fact, been redistributed to a more convenient and modern form that Americans as a whole take part in.
In addition to the numbers being redistributed from participation in organizations and associations to social networking, the benefits of social capital have also been transferred. Putnam states that social capital makes citizens happier and healthier6 and increases social trust and close relationships with others.7 The major concern that came along with the decline in participation was that these would be lost too, but this is not the case. First off, just like old forms of social capital, networks such as Facebook can also make people happier. One social researcher wrote, “Facebook usage was found to interact with measures of psychological well-being, suggesting that it might provide benefits for users experiencing low self-esteem and low life satisfaction.”8 In addition, it was found that Facebook users are more trusting than others9 and social networking as a whole enhances social trust,10 just like the organizations of the 1950’s were said to do. Finally, another great benefit of social networking is the ability to form or strengthen relationships. The average user of social networking has more close ties than non-users and are “half as likely to be socially isolated as the average American”11 The coordination and communication that Putnam says social capital should bring to a society12 is definitely present with social networking because it makes it much easier to preserve and develop personal relationships.13 The benefits that social networking provides to its users display its effectiveness as a form of social capital.
Social networking does not only benefit the social aspect of a society, but it plays a major role in citizens’ political involvement and has had enduring effects on civic and political life. In Putnam’s 2010 “Bowling Alone” follow-up essay, he discusses Obama’s 2008 Campaign and how it contributed to an upwelling of youth civic engagement.14 This is largely because of the large factor that the Internet and social media were in his campaign. According to Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post, Obama would not be president if it were not for the Internet. This is because Obama used the Internet to organize his supporters in a much easier and less expensive way than in the past. Social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube allowed him to assemble thousands of supporters.15 The role of social networking was even more prevalent in the 2012 election between Obama and Romney. On election day in 2012, surveys found that 22% of registered voters let others know how they voted on a social networking site such as Facebook or Twitter, 30% of registered voters were encouraged to vote for either candidate through posts on social media, and 20% of registered voters encouraged others to vote by posting on a site.16 Not only that, but a survey by Pew Research Center found that 66% of all social media users, or 39% of all American adults, have done at least one of the many civic or political activities through social media. Some of these activities include encouraging people to vote, posting personal thoughts on political and social issues, belonging to groups on social networking sites that are working to advance a cause, and pointing out local issues through blogs or other sites.17 The role that social media played in both of Obama’s campaigns and victories as well as the several ways for people to get politically involved through the Internet definitely display the real effects that these forms have had on political life.
The questions that Robert Putnam posed in both of his “Bowling Alone” essays about whether social capital was completely lost or just redistributed to a different form or whether the Internet and social networking would ever have real civic effects were definitely difficult to answer at the time they were written. However, now that the nationwide use of social networking for people of all races, education levels, ages, and incomes is evident, the redistribution is much more clear. Not only that, but the social benefits of social media, such as trust and strong relationships, displays its effectiveness as social capital. Finally, the major role that social networking played in the 2008 and 2012 elections, as well as the political activities that they make available year-round, show that it does have real civic effects in America. Now that Putnam’s questions can be answered, the new question is about how long it will be before changes in society call for another redistribution of social capital.
Works Cited Antoci, Angelo, Fabio Sabatini, and Mauro Sodini. “Bowling Alone but Tweeting Together.” Munich Personal RePEc Archive. Oct. 21 2011. Sept. 21, 2013. Brenner, Joanna. “Pew Internet: Social Networking.” Pew Internet & American Life Project. Aug. 5 2013. Sept. 21 2013. Putnam, Robert D. “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” Journal of Democracy 6. January 1995. 65-78.
Sander, Thomas H. and Robert D. Putnam. “Still Bowling Alone? The Post-9/11 Split.” Journal of Democracy 21 (January 2010). 9-16.
Tibbitt, John. “Social Media, Social Capital, and Learning Communities.” Pascal International Observatory. Dec. 7 2011. Sept. 21 2013. Rainie, Lee, Aaron Smith, Kay Lehman Schlozman, Henry Brady, and Sidney Verba. “Social Media and Political Engagement.” Pew Internet & American Life Project. Oct. 19 2012. Sept. 21, 2013. Rainie, Lee. “Social Media and Voting.” Pew Internet & American Life Project. Nov. 6 2012. Sept. 21 2013.
America’s New Social Capital In his essay, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam states that the, “vibrancy of American civil society has notably declined over the past several decades.”18 Though Americans may be joining less bowling leagues, this is an untrue statement. Thousands of people each week share community issues, organize local events, or become involved in volunteering through Facebook, Twitter or other social networking sites. There is no doubt that the trust level in government is lower than it was fifty years ago; but this is not due to a weakening social structure. While America has experienced a decline in the original forms of social capital, it is nevertheless home to widening networks of social connectedness today; consequently low political participation levels are not a result of decreasing social capital, but rather waning trust in government’s ability to solve our nation’s problems.
Firstly, America has experienced a decline in the original forms of social capital, because many older organizations do not suit society today. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam writes of how the Red Cross, League of Women Voters, and the Boy Scouts have sunk in membership.19 Yet, this is not due to lack of civic engagement; even in the financial recession of 2009, 40% of 30-44 year olds volunteered in the community each month.20 Rather, older associations fail to appeal to the current population. In 1955, the Federation of Women’s clubs boasted 830,000 members, yet today it is less than 270,000.21 An activity, such as making quilts, or hosting a local fair, does not always attract a wide variety of support. Founded in 1897, the Cabot Club in Middleborough MA closed in 2010.22 Michele J Mount, Spokesperson of the Federation in DC, cited the problem. “When people think of women’s clubs, they think of their grandmother’s women’s club.”23 For many, this organization is out of touch.
Boy Scouts is also an association suffering in a society of shifting cultural views. Only 27% of males between 18-24 have participated in the Scouts, contrasted with 45% of those 50 and older.24 This may be due to the controversy surrounding homosexuality. While homosexual scouts are allowed, gay leaders are barred from the group. Yet only 32% of Americans believe in this decision.25 Our culture is rapidly changing, and holding onto traditional customs may see the Scout’s demise. Consequently, while Putnam’s point that many organizations are losing members is correct, this is often because the associations that reached their peak between the fifties and the seventies do not appeal to younger generations.
Today, nevertheless, America is home to widening networks of social connectedness. While Robert Putnam argues that social capital is declining, it is the original forms that are weakening; people are still willingly participating in the community, but in new ways. There is no doubt that membership in bowling leagues has decreased, but technology has come to play a significant role in uniting and organizing people; “Adult Americans are engaging differently. Graduates reconnect with lost classmates on Facebook. Stay at home moms befriend each other through Meetup.”26 The impact of social networks is seen especially through Occupy Wall Street, a protest against financial inequality that began in 2011. According to assistant professor at UNC, Neal Caren, “Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have been central organizing locations for spreading information about Occupy Wall Street.”27 As of January 2012, 1,400 local and national Facebook groups existed with over 340,000 users.28 While, “the solidarity of union halls is now mostly a fading memory of aging men,” over one thousand people were able to crowd Zuccotti Park in a pursuit of common goals.29 In 2012, 47% of Facebook users said they had used the site to share community issues before.30 57% report feeling more connected because of social media.31 Putnam only considers the traditional kinds of social capital in his argument; in a country where technology is changing on a monthly basis, he needs to take into account new forms, such as social media.
Furthermore, low political participation levels are not a result of decreasing social capital, but rather waning trust in government’s ability to solve our nation’s problems. Putnam’s point that Americans have, “disengaged psychologically from politics and the government of this era” is true.32 A poll in 2011, found that 71% of Americans considered volunteer work to be more effective than entering politics.33 Yet this is not because the, “American social fabric is weakening,” but because government is failing the people.34 This Congress has passed the least amount of legislation in two hundred years. With politics becoming more and more polarized, 59% of Americans feel that nothing ever gets done in Congress.35 78% of Americans are, “unhappy with the country’s political system,” and it is not surprising.36 In February 2013, following the Newtown massacre, 90% of U.S. voters supported background checks for all gun buyers.37 Yet Congress rejected President Obama’s proposal, despite the country’s overwhelming desire for strengthened gun laws. It is not a decline in social capital that is the cause of lower levels of external efficacy, but an unresponsive government.
While America has experienced a decline in the original forms of social capital, it is nevertheless home to widening networks of social connectedness today; consequently low political participation levels are not a result of decreasing social capital, but rather waning trust in government’s ability to solve our nation’s problems. More Americans are bowling alone, but this does not explain lower voter turnout rates, or less trust in government. Robert Putnam’s argument that civic engagement “is the hallmark of a successful region,” may well be accurate.38 However, America is not suffering due to a weak social structure. Instead, our connections are active and growing, while the government
Abel, David. "Age, changing society imperil the mission of women’s clubs." The Boston Globe (Boston, MA), November 26, 2010. Accessed September 20, 2013. http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2010/11/26/age_changing_society_imperil_the_mission_of_womens_clubs/.
Cohen, Jon. "Poll: Majority of public has lost faith in government ability to fix economy." The Washington Post. Last modified August 10, 2011. Accessed September 21, 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/poll-public-loses-faith-in-government-ability-to-fix-economy/2011/08/10/gIQAJHTy6I_story.html.
Harris Interactive, Inc. "Thanks To Social Networks, Americans Feel More Connected to People." Harris Interactive. Last modified October 21, 2010. Accessed September 21, 2013. http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/mid/1508/articleId/590/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/Default.aspx.
Johnson, Byron, and Jon Clifton. "Younger Generations Less Likely to Join Boy Scouts." Gallup. Last modified December 13, 2010. Accessed September 21, 2013. http://www.gallup.com/poll/145187/younger-generations-less-likely-join-boy-scouts.aspx.
Lopez, Shane J. "Americans Keep Volunteering During Tough Economic Times." Gallup. Last modified November 24, 2009. Accessed September 20, 2013. http://www.gallup.com/poll/124469/americans-keep-volunteering-during-tough-economic-times.aspx.
Page, Susan. "Why 90 million Americans won't vote in November." USA Today. Last modified August 15, 2012. Accessed September 21, 2013. http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/politics/story/2012-08-15/non-voters-obama-romney/57055184/1.
Pew Research Center. "Social Networking Popular Across Globe." Pew Research. Last modified December 12, 2012. Accessed September 21, 2013. http://www.pewglobal.org/2012/12/12/social-networking-popular-across-globe/.
Putnam, Robert. "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital." In Project MUSE. Baltimore, MD: Project MUSE, n.d. Previously published in Journal of Democracy 6, no. 1 (January 1995): 65-78. Accessed September 20, 2013. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_democracy/summary/v006/6.1putnam.html.
Rasmussen Reports, LLC. "71% Say Volunteering Serves Community More Than Entering Politics." Rasmussen Reports. Last modified October 23, 2011. Accessed September 21, 2013. http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/lifestyle/general_lifestyle/october_2011/71_say_volunteering_serves_community_more_than_entering_politics.
Sander, Thomas H., and Robert Putnam. "Still Bowling Alone?: The Post-9/11 Split." In Project MUSE. Baltimore, MD: Project MUSE, n.d. Excerpt from Journal of Democracy 21, no. 1 (January 2010): 9-16. Accessed September 22, 2013. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/jod/summary/v021/21.1.sander.html.
Swanson, Emily. "Boy Scouts Should Lift Ban On Gay Members: Poll." The Huffington Post (New York, NY), February 4, 2013. Accessed September 21, 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/04/boy-scouts-gay-ban_n_2615375.html.
Thomson Reuters. "Over 90 percent of Americans support gun background checks: poll." Reuters. Last modified February 7, 2013. Accessed September 21, 2013. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/07/us-usa-guns-poll-idUSBRE9160LW20130207.
UNC. "Sociologist Tracks Social Media’s Role in Occupy Wall Street Movement." UNC College of Arts and Sciences. Accessed September 20, 2013. http://sociology.unc.edu/features/sociologist-tracks-social-media2019s-role-in-occupy-wall-street-movement.
Wilson, Linda D. "Women's Club Movement." In Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture. N.p.: Oklahoma Historical Society, n.d. Accessed September 21, 2013. http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/w/wo002.html.
1 Robert D. Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital,” Journal of Democracy 6 (January 1995), 65-78
2 Thomas H. Sander and Robert D. Putnam, “Still Bowling Alone? The Post-9/11 Split,” Journal of Democracy 21 (January 2010), 9-16
3 “Bowling Alone: Declining Social Capital”
4 John Tibbitt, “Social Media, Social Capital, and Learning Communities,” Pascal International Observatory, Dec. 7 2011, Sept. 21 2013,
5 Joanna Brenner, “Pew Internet: Social Networking,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, Aug. 5 2013, Sept. 21 2013,
6 “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”
10 Angelo Antoci, Fabio Sabatini, and Mauro Sodini, “Bowling Alone but Tweeting Together,” Munich Personal RePEc Archive, Oct. 21 2011, Sept. 21, 2013,
11 Joanna Brenner
12 “Bowling Alone: Declining Social Capital”
13 John Tibbitt
14 “Still Bowling Alone? The Post-9/11 Split”
15 Angelo Antoci, Fabio Sabatini, and Mauro Sodini
16 Lee Rainie, “Social Media and Voting,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, Nov. 6 2012, Sept. 21 2013,
17 Lee Rainie, Aaron Smith, Kay Lehman Schlozman, Henry Brady, and Sidney Verba, “Social Media and Political Engagement,” Pew Internet & American Life Project, Oct. 19 2012, Sept. 21, 2013,
18 Robert Putnam, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," in Project MUSE (Baltimore, MD: Project MUSE, n.d.), previously published in Journal of Democracy 6, no. 1 (January 1995): 65-78, accessed September 20, 2013, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_democracy/summary/v006/6.1putnam.html.
20 Shane J. Lopez, "Americans Keep Volunteering During Tough Economic Times," Gallup, last modified November 24, 2009, accessed September 20, 2013, http://www.gallup.com/poll/124469/americans-keep-volunteering-during-tough-economic-times.aspx.
21 Linda D. Wilson, "Women's Club Movement," in Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture (n.p.: Oklahoma Historical Society, n.d.), accessed September 21, 2013, http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/w/wo002.html.
22 David Abel, "Age, changing society imperil the mission of women’s clubs," The Boston Globe (Boston, MA), November 26, 2010, accessed September 20, 2013, http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2010/11/26/age_changing_society_imperil_the_mission_of_womens_clubs/.
24 Byron Johnson and Jon Clifton, "Younger Generations Less Likely to Join Boy Scouts," Gallup, last modified December 13, 2010, accessed September 21, 2013, http://www.gallup.com/poll/145187/younger-generations-less-likely-join-boy-scouts.aspx.
25 Emily Swanson, "Boy Scouts Should Lift Ban On Gay Members: Poll," The Huffington Post (New York, NY), February 4, 2013, accessed September 21, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/04/boy-scouts-gay-ban_n_2615375.html.
26 Thomas H. Sander and Robert Putnam, "Still Bowling Alone?: The Post-9/11 Split," in Project MUSE (Baltimore, MD: Project MUSE, n.d.), 14-15, excerpt from Journal of Democracy 21, no. 1 (January 2010): 9-16, accessed September 22, 2013, http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/jod/summary/v021/21.1.sander.html.
27 "Sociologist Tracks Social Media’s Role in Occupy Wall Street Movement," UNC College of Arts and Sciences, accessed September 20, 2013, http://sociology.unc.edu/features/sociologist-tracks-social-media2019s-role-in-occupy-wall-street-movement.
29Putnam, “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining,” in Project MUSE.
30 "Social Networking Popular Across Globe," Pew Research, last modified December 12, 2012, accessed September 21, 2013, http://www.pewglobal.org/2012/12/12/social-networking-popular-across-globe/.
31 "Thanks To Social Networks, Americans Feel More Connected to People," Harris Interactive, last modified October 21, 2010, accessed September 21, 2013,http://www.harrisinteractive.com/NewsRoom/HarrisPolls/tabid/447/mid/1508/articleId/590/ctl/ReadCustom%20Default/Default.aspx.
32 Putnam, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining," in Project MUSE.
33 "71% Say Volunteering Serves Community More Than Entering Politics," Rasmussen Reports, last modified October 23, 2011, accessed September 21, 2013, http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/lifestyle/general_lifestyle/october_2011/71_say_volunteering_serves_community_more_than_entering_politics.
34 Putnam, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining," in Project MUSE.
35 Susan Page, "Why 90 million Americans won't vote in November," USA Today, last modified August 15, 2012, accessed September 21, 2013, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/politics/story/2012-08-15/non-voters-obama-romney/57055184/1.
36 Jon Cohen, "Poll: Majority of public has lost faith in government ability to fix economy," The Washington Post, last modified August 10, 2011, accessed September 21, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/poll-public-loses-faith-in-government-ability-to-fix-economy/2011/08/10/gIQAJHTy6I_story.html.
37 "Over 90 percent of Americans support gun background checks: poll," Reuters, last modified February 7, 2013, accessed September 21, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/07/us-usa-guns-poll-idUSBRE9160LW20130207.
38 Putnam, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining," in Project MUSE.