Book Review: Bowling Alone


20 years late to the party is better than never….

It’s the habit of most of my readers and friends online to discuss the whys and wherefores of community involvement, religious involvement, and “how did we get into the mess we’re in”.   This book looks at the correlative and causative factors in the demise of community involvement (from politics to religion to the Lion’s club) and gives some theories about what we might do about it, now that we’re here.

A short quote to sum things up:

“To predict whether I am likely to give time, money, blood, or even a minor favor, you need to know, above all, how active I am in community life and how strong my ties to family, friends, and neighbors are.”  (p. 120-121)

In other words, being a member of the Bumble Bee Association makes you more likely to vote or pick up trash – even those things have nothing to do with the Bumble Bee Association – at least, it does if you have to go meet with the other association members, not just cut a check and put it in the mail.    It’s extremely good for your children – and the other children in the neighborhood:

“Statistically, the correlation between high social capital and positive child development is as close to perfect as social scientists ever find in data analyses of this sort”.  (p. 296-97).   Correlation is not causation – but if you have that strong a correlation, it’s certainly worth sitting with!

Having social capital is a strong predictor of your income, your happiness, and your health.   Yes, joining a club is good for your health!  VERY good for your health.  Disturbingly so.

“Statistically speaking, the evidence for the health consequences of social connectedness is as strong today as was the evidence for the health consequences of smoking at the time of the first surgeon-general’s report on smoking”  (p. 327)

It’s not surprising that social capital benefits society.    It did surprise me how far the tendrils creep.  It surprises me further that this isn’t being trumpeted – perhaps that’s because the three things that seem to have the strongest correlation with a reduction in social capital were:  1) Watching TV as your major source of entertainment* 2) Increased commute times (even by as much as 10 minutes) and 3) Living in major urban areas (at least outside of close-knit neighborhoods, which have – to be fair – largely disappeared anyway).  Women working outside the home was somewhat correlative, but not causative – PT working moms were the most involved, more so than fully SAHM or WOHM, both of whom saw equal rates of decline in social connectedness.

That might be cause for some behavior change – if we took the information seriously.   You can’t do this alone – you can’t make social capital by yourself.  But you can take advantage of what appears, and you can encourage others to do so. .. Can you not?

The book itself was 400+ pages of social research with charts and discussion.  As a sociology nerd, I enjoyed it but it was …. long.   I recommend it to those prepared to do the work.   Or even those prepared to scan and snag ideas.   To those looking for a fun read?  Nah.

Data is always good.   Has anyone else read this?  I know I’m really late to the party.   What did you get out of it?



*This would, I should think 20 years later, include watching Youtube videos online or gaming as your major source of entertainment…. but I don’t have data.  In June, an update with a chapter about the internet will be available.


4 thoughts on “Book Review: Bowling Alone

  1. Elspeth

    Reblogged this on Reading in Between the Life… and commented:
    This is Hearthie’s review of the book Bowling Alone.

    I haven’t read this book, but I am planning to read it very soon. The loss of community bonds and social capital is a topic that interests me greatly.

    When I read this book later in the spring, I’ll add my thoughts.

  2. nellperkins

    One thing I find endlessly amazing and frustrating about the — let’s call them in general the more conservative people I’ve been hanging out with online — is how many of them think that our social alienation began with feminism, even going back to women’s suffrage. So many truly ARE misogynists because they insist that everything that’s gone wrong with us is all women’s fault. Don’t get me wrong. The post modern feminist claim that women never do anything wrong is bunk, but this stuff — go back to the enclosure acts in the UK, to the beginnings of industrialization, to the various removals of all kinds of other people — Africans and Native Americans — all of this destroys community and that starts making other kinds of virtue disappear. None of it happens in a vacuum. And most, not all, most of it started with very powerful rich men operating in either a stratified class society or in crony capitalism. Very few women were involved at first. Now, of course, being a high powered lady lawyer type is the ideal, and such “ladies” are supposed to be above all error and sin, and it’s dangerous BS, but women, especially working women, did not start this. The original working women were simply the wives and daughters of the working class. We’ve always had J.O.B.’s but once upon a time we had enough good sense to know it was a terrible burden on us.

    OK, off my soapbox! That’s part of why I’m just tickled, delighted that you’re reading more serious books and really thinking. I’m happy and excited for you. I’m rooting for you and praying for you.

    1. hearthie Post author

      I’m having good fun stretching my brain muscles. 🙂 It feels lovely. Thank you for the support and prayers – and kick in the behind. All are much appreciated.

      I don’t actually think most of this started with crony capitalism. I have, for a very long time, been impatient with the attitudes of the folks driving the progressive era. Say, from the time in college when I wrote a paper on Lucretia Mott. (A woman who would have considered Martha Stewart something of a slacker).

      Much as I am fond of the art and fashion of La Belle Epoque, the ideology of the time is problematic – and continues to BE problematic. (The specifics have changed but the driving force behind has not – nor has the attitude). Yes, Putnam notes that many citizen groups that continue to work now grew up at that time. But. There was a worm in the apple…

      And BUT – if I develop that thought properly, with its argument, it will take more than a day. If you want to know what the muddy mess looks like, look up “white man’s burden” and compare it with modern leftists and how they treat those around them….

  3. nellperkins

    I’m too well aware of how leftists treat those around them — rotten is the first word that comes to mind. The second is gaslighting, a habit that now makes me so glad I was able to divorce my first husband, a man who just so happened to be radical left as he could be. One thing that interests me about my current job as support staff to the Left with a capital L is how much gaslighting I see among them. They even gaslight the public! It’s amazing. (In the past month or so, I’ve realized that this is part of my years long depression and seeming inability to find a way out — so many of Ex’s worst sins are actually endemic on the left. I’m actually starting to ponder if some sort of demonic possession is at work.

    I’m not sure what the problem was with Lucretia Mott, but I too have issues with the first progressives. They truly haven’t changed that much over the years in that they make all kinds of noises about ordinary workers, farmers, small business while actively concentrating power elsewhere. Trouble is — the Gilded Age really did suck for workers. The railroads really were huge monopolies that did a number on small farmers. And so forth. I don’t see much to chose between them, but I have the advantage of historical hindsight.

    So anyway, yes, I’ve well figured out how sheerly awful the left is but I haven’t stopped wanting justice for everyone. I put it this way: I’m so much in favor of property rights that I even want property rights for the poor!


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