Thursday, June 4, 2015

Book Club week two

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!

Lauren: Will, I'm honored to have been asked to guest post on your esteemed blog. Pretty awesome idea on your part. Also, having a more public forum for sharing my thoughts on this book has made me read it with a more critical eye for sure. Here are my first impressions (about 120 pages in):

1) You're right, in general the book does seem a bit dated. I wonder if anyone has taken his theories and attempted to apply them in some more recent contexts? Definitely worth looking up when I've got the time. I think we should revisit this question of relevance a little further in and see what we think.

2) One of his arguments that I have found particularly compelling so far is his theory that Americans are changing from a culture of "doers" to"spectators." Putnam points out that while activities like card playing and organized sports have declined, more passive activities such as going to concerts and watching TV have been on the rise. This dichotomy is also evident in social media: many people passively browse facebook posts and twitter feeds without actually using it to meaningfully connect with others. However, as he points out, these types of passive interaction are certainly better than nothing when it comes to social capital but he doesn't really present evidence for how much better. I'll be interested to see if he makes any attempts to qualify or otherwise untangle the benefits of passive activities in the rest of the book.

3) Oh the perpetual rural vs urban debate. I too am interested to see how it plays out in this book. My general argument on the subject is that cities often are places where social capital breaks down. Especially in developing countries when people move from rural areas to cities, the close-knit feel of the rural community doesn't follow them. So far, I've only seen this one reference: "Size of community makes a difference: formal volunteering, working on community projects, informal helping behavior (like coming to the need of a stranger, charitable giving and perhaps blood donation are all more common in small towns than in big cities." Lauren 1, Will 0.

And to close, going along with Will's example, here are a few of my own personal biases I bring to the analysis of social capital:

1. I was also in a fraternity in college (shocker, right? it was co-ed!)
2. I am also an avid card player (including bridge) but have never been a member of a club--why haven't we started a bridge club yet?
3. I am spending the summer working in an urban slum in Nicaragua which is really shaping my own opinions on social capital--will certainly be the topic of future posts.
4) I am a former Peace Corps volunteer and I lived for two years in a tiny rural community in Paraguay.
5) I hate to sound old fashioned, but I am extremely skeptical of online communities filling the same roles as real ones.

Twitter @laurenreef

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