Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone

Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone

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Robert Putnam's basic thesis is that there is a decline in civic engagement in urban cities. He goes on to explore different probable factors that are causing the decline in civic engagement. First off, he dichotomizes civic engagement into two categories: machers and schmoozers. Machers and schmoozers are people who engage in formal kinds of civic engagement (following politics) and informal kinds of civic engagement (hanging out with friends) respectively.
Civic engagement, overall, is on the decline according to Putnam (informal activities in particular, however, are ones that Americans, on average engage in more often). This decline applies to cities because of certain urban characteristics. The city, because of our division of labour, increases our tendency to drop out of community affairs because of busyness. Also, the city's neighbourhoods do not promote togetherness or a distinct "we" feeling because of a city's sheer population to the point that we actually come to view it as a city of strangers (too many to bother making friends with), unlike in the country where your next neighbour will likely be someone you will feel closer to because of time spent together and having no alternative option to socialize with many other people. Also, electronic entertainment (especially TV watching) gives us less incentive to socialize with our neighbours. In sum, these are just some ways his arguments apply to a city.
What this all boils down to is a decline in social capital. Social capital is the investment put into having a social bond with other people (formally or informally), much like money.

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A decline in social capital means a lack of civic engagement (and even increases the crime rate). Theoretically, we would end up "Bowling Alone" in our urban cities.
Putnam claims that formal civic participation can deceivably be on the rise by the number of sheer organizations, but this does not take into account the number of actual active members. As for informal connections, he gives this vivid illustration, "Thus, the practice of entertaining friends has not simply moved outside the home, but seems to be vanishing entirely," (Putnam, pg. 100). Certain course materials illustrate how these arguments apply to the city.
Too low or too high a density for a city were shown to lower the functioning level of city people in terms of civic engagement. Finding a balance was key to keeping an optimal amount of civic engagement in the city, as illustrated by "Cities and Social Pathology" by AR Gillis. Therefore, civic engagement should consider the absolute density of a city before jumping to conclusions on the sociological causes of social capital decline. Also, too low or too high a density for a city already implies social disorganization. Too low and your neighbours are spread too far apart, too much and it gives one an impersonal feelings toward their fellow neighbour because of strangers. Putnam does deal with the theory of social disorganization, but only in very superficial terms, therefore, more thought should be put as to how a city is structured, and not only to anything befitting a definition of a city (in terms of population) to blame for a decline in social capital.
"Immigration and the City" by Eric Fong was a personal choice for me, being an immigrant myself. With that said, his point about residential segregation is that immigrants are liable to feel residential segregation and feel they belong to a place even if they have the means to move otherwise. I can personally relate to this because I know how it feels to be amongst your brethren even if moving means you could be better off financially or what have you. This relates to Putnam because he theorizes that mobility and sprawl of people can contribute to social capital's decline. However, people that are a minority (not stereotypically middle-class and white) may choose to stay within where they feel they belong. In fact, civic disengagement is liable to happen not only by moving too much, but by its exact opposite, by staying at a place way too long. It seems that any extreme of mobility or remaining can have both detrimental effects to social capital. Also, there was mention of two people of two different races, where a white person donated a kidney to a black person in Putnam's book. Residential segregation could conceivably have not made such an intimate connection between two races possible and so Putnam may need to consider the various reasons people stay with their own kind aside from a patriotic feeling so that he can come up with solutions to our waning civic engagement.
Evidence Assessment
Is there social capital present from an urban life? In some instances, it is present and absent in others, so what is the so-called "big picture" regarding whether or not it is present or absent overall? For evidence of the increasing presence of social capital, I will use as evidence my own personal experiences and observations. From my experience, city life can only alienate you if you let it. Putnam may be quick to blame electronic media for giving us excuses to decline social capital, or he may use our pervasive "busyness culture", or the constant mobility and sprawl that makes us lose incentive to keep up associational organizations. I will attempt to refute these arguments through my own personal experiences and observations.
First off would be the electronic media. The things like the TV and the Internet may conceivably hold us down because of time occupied on it alone. However, I know many people, myself included, who use the media to increase our social capital. The TV lets us know about current events and to take social action, such as labour unions. It also tells us things that are going on currently in popular culture, which then galvanizes a person to call his or her friends to "hook up" for an event to increase our social capital. The Internet has boomed such concoctions such as online dating and online gaming. I know a person who happens to be provincial champion in many first-person shooter games and meets plenty of people, so it is not so much electronic media, but how we interact with it that matters.
Secondly, I have personally experienced the pervasive (if not annoying) tendency of people to use busyness as their number one scapegoat for not doing anything. However, I have met people who budget their time quite well. People must acknowledge that the only time is now, and cities will probably be the way of the future. In saying that my point could be more vividly illustrated by an experiment in psychology: crippled children are not unhappy once the shock of their injury dissipates and they truly accept that they have to focus on what they can do, instead of what they cannot. Analogously speaking, if one knows how to budget their time in city life (knowing that city life is something that they now have to accept) between their obligations and their wants, they do not have to use the "busyness" culture for an excuse that often. Again, it depends on the individual's interaction with their situation.
Thirdly, our mobility and sprawl need not be an excuse for declining social capital. I know personally of people who actually like being mobile so that they meet new people. This is not to deny that constant mobility can cause people to not develop closer friendships, but if used well, it can start networks where a person otherwise would not be exposed. Also, plenty of people like to be alone more so than carpooling or using public transportation. However, since I have carpooled plenty of times myself (to save gas to get to school), I think it is a matter of educating people on carpooling and mass transit benefits instead of intrinsic use of the car to partially blame for declining social capital.
Public Policy Proposals
Since it is not any one of Putnam's proposed factors that comprise a decline in social capital but in how those factors are interacted with by autonomous human beings, public policy should be focused on educating people on time management, use of electronic media and the value of carpooling/using public transit. The denser areas that are more prone to a decline of social capital are where these public policies should be more heavily implemented. With an awareness of an objective assessment of scheduling, we can increase civic engagement in denser cities where most people would likely cite the "busyness" excuse.
The electronic media should be a primary focus in funding as a good portion of people still claim to be "computer illiterate". This new technology can serve to bring people restricted by geographic distance to reach one another, and thereby increase social capital. It is in the way TVs, radios and computers are used that is important, not the intrinsic use of these items.
Lastly, the importance of public transit and carpooling should be stressed, and the government should implement programs promoting their use. This may even lead to greater civic engagement as you're more likely to talk when being in a car together (from personal experience). Also, since public transit brings numbers of people together without them talking, implementing programs encouraging small talk in public transportation should be funded so that people are more trustworthy of one another.
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