Sunday, May 31, 2015

Is Bowling Alone still a relevant book?

Trying out something a bit new this summer - a book club conversation. Every week, myself and a friend - Lauren - will discuss our progress through political scientist Robert Putnam's defining bestseller Bowling Alone, about the collapse of social capital and community in America. Come back throughout the summer for new entries!

Will: Lauren, I wanted to kick off this summer book club with a few thoughts about what I'd like to be mindful of as we make our way through this book.

Considering that this was released in 2000, a key question for me is how Putnam's argument and data have held up over the last 15 years. Have information-age technologies like social media and smartphones outweighed any reduction in traditional community involvement? Obviously the success of these technologies has put wind in Putnam's sail to the extent that social capital as a concept is validated. But aside from the smartphone/Facebook stuff, where will we see this book generate insight in today's world? Where will it be most challenged?

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In the introduction describing the golden age of social capital and 'joinerism' in the US, he briefly mentions that the scope of this development was highly bounded by the gender and racial context of the day - namely that only white men were participants. Does he brush too quickly past this point? I suspect it's a deeper flaw in his theory, and I'm excited to read his conclusions and analysis with a critical eye once he starts dishing out the data.

Another thing that struck me is how relevant the concepts of social capital and community are to modern-day questions about urban vs. rural poverty. Although Putnam focuses on American well-being in this book, as I read I'd like to apply his insights to the developing world as much as possible. I've long considered urban forms of poverty to be preferable to the rural variety, in part because of the agglomeration effects and social capital accumulation enabled by density and proximity. As a side-note, I appreciated his shout-out to the risk of urban NIMBYism, and the idea that social capital is great for insiders, but can sometimes be antisocial in a broader way. Lauren, you have a different set of priors. Could you see this book changing your mind on the urban vs. rural question?

I'll finish this initial entry by disclosing five personal facts about the concept of social capital:
  1. I was in a fraternity in college.
  2. I was obsessed with the card game Bridge in high school and helped start a club.
  3. I believe developing new romantic relationships is easier than developing platonic friendships due to the advent of online dating.
  4. My work travel benefits have drastically reduced the necessity and incentive to develop deep social networks in my city of residence - I've been able to maintain lots of relationships with far-flung friends through visits once or twice a year.
  5. I have a strong appreciation for the value of online-only communities. I have several close friends who I consider to have been 'saved' from depression and professional malaise by their online community links.

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