Book Review: Bowling Alone

By Craig Wright | 17 Jan 2022 | Economics

In his seminal work, Bowling Alone, Robert Putman has managed to capture many of the difficulties facing society as we change and embrace technology [1]. The author initially released his work as a paper, receiving extensive criticism, but went on to extend it into a well-researched book. The work extends the notion of social capital, a concept formerly utilised by writers including Karl Marx and, in its current form, Lydia Hanifan [2]. Others, including Austrian economists such as von Böhm-Bawerk and Fisher, also worked upon the concept of social cohesion and capital binding society [3]. Yet, it was Putman who brought this obscure academic term into the mainstream. ‘Citizenship is not a spectator sport’, but equally, it does not require exclusively permanent face-to-face interaction; technology has provided alternatives [4].

Smith and Ricardo defined capital as the stock of physical assets [5]. Capital may be extended into intellectual property and cover other intangibles, but had excluded social values. Karl Marx contended that capital was primarily a ‘social relation’, mirroring a concept that Veblen later used and the distinction between finance and capital goods, and noted that capital was based on the ‘accumulated, habitual knowledge developed through social groups’ [6]. The concept of social relations covering exchanges between entities of a non-pecuniary nature was frequently used within the German historical school. Werner Sombart defined capital as ‘the sum of exchange value which serves as the working bases of a capitalist enterprise’ [7]. So, whereas Putnam’s work is topical today, it is certainly not the beginning of such a controversial topic.

Putnam’s book investigates the concept of social capital from an American perspective. Unfortunately, the US-centered approach makes such work far less valuable when investigating other nations. Additionally, it becomes vital to weigh the alternatives against the costs. In part, Putnam argues that working women have moved into the paid workforce, and because of it, involvement in social activities is diminishing [8]. The author notes that there may be differences between self-selection towards full-time roles and full-time homemakers, but fails to note the role of women in paid employment and how that is itself a reason to be sanguine [9]. Putnam has overlooked the combination of increased income, better education, and the ability to provide additional services to families and the enhanced capital that accumulates for family groups.

Criticism

Ben Fine argues that the theory presented by Putnam is ‘fundamentally flawed’ [10]. The criticism notes that social capital theory is not social, not ‘capital’, and not a hypothesis that can be scientifically tested. Notably, the results are impossible to measure and form a circular argument and tautology. Some aspects of the work are subjective [11]. Putnam argues that the reduction in face-to-face interaction leads to a decrease in political society [12]. The author takes it as far as to argue that ‘one cannot jumpstart Republican citizen without direct face-to-face participation’ [13]. Other researchers have noted that such an argument is rather one-sided and, in particular, that the ‘decline in participation and face-to-face interaction does not necessarily have negative effects for social or political stability and democracy overall’ [14].

Although the work by Putnam is psychologically attractive, it fails to deliver a rigorous analysis of the changes that are occurring within society [15]. Crucially, the decline of political participation is measured against older forms of engagement, that would have been considered new had such work been conducted earlier. Here, we see a nostalgic look at a form of 1950s American culture that would have little in common with American culture from earlier periods such as the 1900s. And whereas it may be pleasant to live in unity (Psalm 133:1), Aquinas reminds us that ‘happiness is secured through virtue; it is a good attained by man’s own will’ [16]. Although the nostalgic past embraced by Putnam is attractive to some, it comes at a cost, one that for many may be too high.

The claims made by Putnam concerning the deterioration of political contribution and the attendant instability of Republican democracy within the United States of America may be mistaken and overstated, but that does not mean that the unease is of no consequence. Putnam has touched upon a concern that many Americans feel. The popularity of his work demonstrates a deep-felt longing for social connections that once were. The question is not whether democracy is collapsing, but rather: how can we form the best society we can live in?

Footnotes

1. Putnam, Robert D. Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster, 2000.

2. Hanifan, Lyda J. “The rural school community center.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 67, no. 1 (1916): 130-138.; Marx, Karl. “Capital: A critique of political economy. Vol. II.” (1945).

3. Fisher, Irving. “What is capital?.” The Economic Journal 6, no. 24 (1896): 509-534.; von Böhm-Bawerk, Eugen. Karl Marx and the Close of his System. Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1949.

4. Putnam, Bowling  Alone, 2000. p. 341.

5. Ricardo, David. Letters of David Ricardo to John Ramsay McCulloch, 1816-1823. Vol. 10, no. 5-6. American economic association, 1895.

6. Marx, Karl. Das Kapital: kritik der politischen ökonomie. Vol. 1. O. Meissner, 1890.; Veblen, Thorstein B. The Place of Science in Modern Civilization and Other Essays, New York: Huebsch, 1919.

7. Sombart, Werner. Das europäische Wirtschaftsleben im Zeitalter des Frühkapitalismus vornehmlich im 16., 17. und 18. Jahrhundert (2v.). Vol. 2. Duncker & Humblot, 1919. p. 129. “Die Summe des Tauschwertes, die als Arbeitsgrundlage eines kapitalistischen Unternehmens dient.”

8. Putnam, Bowling  Alone, 2000. p. 195- 201.

9. Ibid. p. 198.

10. Fine, Ben. “They f** k you up those social capitalists.” Antipode 34, no. 4 (2002): 796-799.

11. Bourdieu, Pierre, and John G. Richardson. “Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education.” The forms of capital 241 (1986): 258.

12. Putnam, Bowling  Alone, 2000. P175-179.

13. Ibid. p 341.

14. Stolle, Dietlind, and Marc Hooghe. “Inaccurate, exceptional, one-sided or irrelevant? The debate about the alleged decline of social capital and civic engagement in Western societies.” British journal of political science 35, no. 1 (2005) p. 163.

15. Nisbet, Robert. The quest for community. Open Road Media, 2014.

16. Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Contra Gentiles: Book 3: Providence Part I. University of Notre Dame Pess, 1975.

References

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Contra Gentiles: Book 3: Providence Part I. University of Notre Dame Press, 1975.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and John G. Richardson. “Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education.” The forms of capital 241 (1986): 258.

Fine, Ben. “They f** k you up those social capitalists.” Antipode 34, no. 4 (2002): 796-799.

Fisher, Irving. “What is capital?.” The Economic Journal 6, no. 24 (1896): 509-534.

Hanifan, Lyda J. “The Rural School Community Centre.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 67, no. 1 (1916): 130-138.

Marx, Karl. “Capital: A critique of political economy. Vol. II.” (1945).

Nisbet, Robert. The quest for community. Open Road Media, 2014.

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Ricardo, David. Letters of David Ricardo to John Ramsay McCulloch, 1816-1823. Vol. 10, no. 5-6. American economic association, 1895.

Stolle, Dietlind, and Marc Hooghe. “Inaccurate, exceptional, one-sided or irrelevant? The debate about the alleged decline of social capital and civic engagement in Western societies.” British journal of political science 35, no. 1 (2005): 149-167.

Veblen, Thorstein B. The Place of Science in Modern Civilization and Other Essays, New York: Huebsch, 1919.

von Böhm-Bawerk, Eugen. Karl Marx and the Close of his System. Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1949.



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