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Political Science
POLS 2950
Simone Bohn

In his article "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," Robert Putnam defines his idea of social capital and outlines problems arising from a decline of civic society inAmerica. He describes social capital as the benefits that come from social organizations, such as networking, societal norms and a generalized trust, which lead to cooperation and progress. Putnam goes on to say that societies in which members are civically engaged have been far more successful in areas like education, unemployment, crime, drug abuse and healthcare. He explains that social networks play an important role in the performance of representative government. It is his belief that these social networks of civic engagement drastically affect things like voter turnout and newspaper readership, things that play an important role in the electoral process. Putnam makes a simple claim that "life is easier in a community blessed with a substantial stock of social capital" (3). He says that not only is life easier in these communities, but that these social networks are a prerequisite for socio-economic modernization. He continues by describing how this social capital has declined over the past few decades inAmerica. He relates that nearly 160 years ago, when Alexis de Tocqueville visitedAmerica, he was impressed by the widespread tendency forAmericans to form associations of all types. He begins to explain this problem of declining social capital by describing voting trends in America. In the 1960's voter turnout was extremely high, but by the 1990's turnout had decreased by close to twenty-five percent. Further, the attendance of public meetings declined by a third over a period of twenty years. Adecline in civic engagement has also been documented in turnouts at political rallies and speeches and even local committee meetings. It seems that as a result of this lack of participation, people have begun to distrust the government inAmerica. In 1966 thirty percent ofAmericans were distrustful. Less than thirty years later, the number of those who are distrustful of the government rose to seventy-five percent. The problem of declining social capital goes beyond political involvement or voter turnout. Putnam continues by listing countless organizations that have experienced a decline in membership over the past thirty to forty years including labor unions, religious associations and parent-teacher organizations. Civic and fraternal organizations have lost membership by an average of about fifty percent since the 1960's. It is at the end of his description of the decline of civic society in America that Putnam reveals the reason behind his title.Although moreAmericans are bowling now than ever before, membership in bowling leagues declined by more than forty percent over a ten year period. The problem with the decreased membership of regional and civic organizations is not simply that numbers are down. The problem is that because more people are "flying solo," they are less likely to confer with others in small groups. Americans have instead been joining mass-membership organizations like the AmericanAssociation of Retired Persons. These organizations, while enormous in number, are not a solution to the problem of declining social capital. When joining these groups,Americans bind themselves to an ideal or a symbol, rather than another human being. While previous civic engagement, namely through smaller or more localized organizations, advocated trust and networking, these larger groups do not create the same effect. In short, these large associations suffer from widespread groupthink. These associations have so many members that none connect and the members are unable to accomplish anything for the greater good. Putnam notes that membership to small support groups have increased in the past few decades, but this does not solve the problem of declining social capital because these types of groups are geared toward helping the individual instead of society in general. Putnam then goes on to list several possible reasons why the social capital of the United States is in decline. He suggests that possibly the entry of women into the work force has played a role in this issue. This has not only increased the average number of hours in the work week but also decreased the amount of time and energy available to put toward civic engagements. Putnam also cites the ease of mobility in today's society as a possible reason. Because it is easier for people to move and move more often, it is less convenient or even practical for them to join local organizations.Another possibility that Putnam considers is the increased number of divorces, the decreased number of marriages and fewer children. The transformation of theAmerican family over the past few decades has done a lot to decline social capital in the United States, in Putnam's opinion. His final suggestion is that our technologically advanced culture has led to an "individualization" ofAmerican citizens. People spend more time alone, watching television and searching the internet, instead of with their neighbors and friends like people have done in the past. Simply stated, asAmericans becom
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