Missing the Point

Missing the Point

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community
by Robert Putnam
Simon & Schuster, 2000, 544 pp.



Tucked away on a shelf in my parents’ home is a trophy honoring their achievements in the Knights of Pythias bowling league. My parents haven’t bowled in years, but after they got married in 1957, bowling was the ticket to membership in their adopted community, an unassuming suburb near Atlantic City. Now they live in Chappaqua, New York. The trophy stands forgotten in a corner of their big house, a furtive reminder of their modest beginnings. Long before they were neighbors of Hillary and Bill, it seems, my mom and dad bowled with Ralph and Alice Cramden.

Today, my parents lament the loss of community symbolized by that lonely trophy. Perched at the top of what might well be a mile-long driveway, they complain that the world is more isolated than it used to be. Losing sight of how they uprooted themselves, they forget that their escape from community was also an attempt to escape from class, or, to be more precise, from the lower to the upper class. Coming up that driveway, they thought less about saying good-bye to neighborhood than saying hello to status. And so their mourning, for all its poignancy, is saddled with evasive sentimentality.

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam, for a time one of our foremost political sociologists and philosopher-king of the Clinton White House, seeks to rescue anxiety about the loss of community from just this kind of sentimentality. Where communitarians have tended toward the woozy and the gooey—even Amitai Etzioni or Jean Bethke Elshtain would tire quickly of an afternoon spent hanging out at the local drugstore, sipping ice cream sodas, figuring out who exactly’s gonna be Bobby’s girl—Putnam strains for the hardheaded. The consequence of declining civitas, he says, is not the intangible loneliness of anomie. It’s inefficiency. Community is a form of “social capital.” Like physical capital in economic theory, social capital is an asset. Linking people in tight networks, it encourages trust and reciprocity, making “everyday business and social transactions… less costly.” Crime goes down, workplace morale goes up, Rolodexes get fat. Putnam’s tract is thus perfectly calibrated to the dot-corn moment, when every virtue—even the fuzziest—must justify itself in the language of economics.

But for all its shrewdness, Putnam’s stance is no less evasive than my parents’. Lurking beneath his social science are two questionable assumptions. First, although he distinguishes between “bonding” and “bridging” social capital, Putnam believes that different forms of community or “civic participation” are essentially the same. Whether people eat out or act up, shout at the ball game or...