Written Reviews

Social Capital versus Roots: A Review of Bowling Alone

George M. Alliger

In 2000, Robert Putnam published his Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster). Generally well-received, it became one of those books that had an outsized impact. Many who did not read it nonetheless heard, “understood,” and agreed with its thesis. That thesis is, in short, that in the U.S., “social capital” decreased starting sometime in the sixties. By social capital Putnam signified the complete interweaving of our social commitments and entertainments and the value of voluntary community associations, celebrations, duties, and rituals that provide a sense of interconnectedness. 

Thus understood, Putnam provides evidence of a decline in social capital that seemed to be everywhere. Members of the public were now participating less in religious groups and civic organizations, voters and volunteers were fewer, and unions were losing members. And of course people were now bowling alone rather than in leagues. 

Robert D. Putnam

Furthermore, society was re-stratifying, attaining levels of separation not seen since before WWII. In the 1950s and 1960s doctors’ and lawyers’ kids might have played with others whose parents were factory or service workers. Now they simply don’t meet at all; they attend different schools, and other types of association (churches, scouts) are atrophying. The costs of this loss of social capital are presumably immense and explains at least in part specific symptoms such as the natural and synthetic opioid crisis, as well as the more general psychological malaise and confusion so often noted today. 

Nominees for important causes of this isolating dynamic include, according to Putnam, TV watching (in 2000 the Internet was still relatively young), the reduction of free time due to double-career families, the atomization attendant upon suburbanization, and (most important) the passing of a very civic-minded generation.

Bowling Alone Revisited

In 2020, Putnam released an updated version of Bowling Alone; specifically, it has a new preface and afterword. The preface reviews the extent to which the original findings of the 2000 edition still hold (they do, largely). The afterword (written with Jonah C. Hahn) investigates the effects of the Internet on social capital. A few words regarding that afterword are in order.

The new afterword to Bowling Alone is entitled “Has the Internet Reversed the Decline of Social Capital?” His answer to this question is yes, no, and maybe. To the extent that the Internet might benefit social capital, this is true not only because the Internet greatly increased the possibilities for real- or near real-time communications, of a certain type. But in addition, Putnam feels, these capabilities merge with actual direct human face-to-face encounters in what he calls an “alloy” between virtual and real. Consider a neighborhood book club. Members of the club meet in person, but communicate online regarding scheduling; a member not able to be present may attend virtually. Face-to-face discussion is thus mixed with online capabilities to form an alloyed social capital.

This seems positive. Yet Putnam details much research with negative news. For example, the wealthy are more likely use the Internet to try to influence public affairs, the less educated and poorer tend to use it for entertainment. Moreover (as I think we all intuit), “Social media seem to foster political disagreement, amplify polarizing content, and suppress constructive discourse.”(429)

An example of the differential societal effects of the Internet may be found in relative class experiences during the pandemic. White collar jobs seemed mostly amenable to working from home, using technologies like Zoom. Most physically demanding jobs, on the other hand, required these workers to be on-site or traveling, at exactly that period when those activities felt the most perilous. 

Together with the exceedingly well-documented findings of the original book, the preface and afterword comprise compelling reading for our current time. That reading is not always easy – Putnam is a careful scholar and carefully examines all sides of an argument. The reader will come across many tables and graphs. Putnam’s ability to carefully avoid premature conclusions regarding causality is particularly noteworthy in our times, I think. 

Though not easy, this book is both rewarding and depressing. Rewarding because it always feels like progress to have a malady described and diagnosed. Depressing because in coming to grips with the malady, one is aware that its main psychological component is a sense of real human loss.

A deteriorating community 

While I increasingly feel that loss myself, I saw it clearly in another group about six years ago. At that time I was part of a team studying underground mine safety. As it turned out, I became acquainted with coal miners in the initial phases of the collapse of that industry. The price of coal and the amount produced was in decline, mines were closing and people losing jobs. In many cases those same jobs had been held by grandfathers and fathers of those now being laid off or in risk of being so. These miners had a story: mining was in their family’s, their community’s blood. That story was gradually, painfully, being unwritten by forces they could not understand.


Coal miners’ town (Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation – Virginia.gov)

It was more than touching to meet these people whose livelihood and community was in visible deterioration.  This loss, of course, comes against the backdrop of a life that was already most difficult and subject to exploitation.  And then there is the specter of a gloomy future given the decline in demands for coal. Still, the members of the miners’ families and their neighbors were, simply put, being uprooted before their own eyes. 

It is a curious fact that historically economists have held that the government can easily accommodate drastic economic and moral shocks such as are happening in coal country. Economists said, “They can simply be retrained! Other industries will need workers; they can learn to code! They can always work at call centers!” But Putnam points out that it is mistaken to assume that “repotting” (translocation and/or new career) is easily accomplished. In fact, economists maintaining “they can just be retrained!” seems perilously close to “Let them eat cake!” 

Certainly for these workers the life within the mine and the mining community represented what Putnam calls social capital, but I think it was more than that. It meant roots even with all of hardships that came with them.

Among metaphors describing humans, that of possessing “roots” seems among the easiest and truest. Like plants, without conscious effort or planning we extend tendrils, runners, shoots and roots out into the family, community, nation and into the world in which we find ourselves. From these we derive life-giving sustenance and support – we feed on that. So compelling is this metaphor that it is difficult to imagine the targeted phenomenon without invoking it. 

We can indeed say that we are innately gregarious and socially needy creatures, or that we require community in order to thrive, or that we need social capital. But these descriptions feel clinical when compared to the image of organic extremities that we have generated and stretched out precisely for the purpose of drawing in vivifying juices from our family, friends, community, heritage, and culture. 

Of course one person who thought deeply about rootedness is Simone Weil. Her The Need for Roots is justly famous. In one obvious way Roots couldn’t be more different than Bowling Alone. Weil is spiritual and philosophical, Putnam is data-driven; Weil has no charts or correlations, Putnam has many. Weil’s writing is direct and emphatic, Putnam’s measured and full of caveats. But perhaps as importantly as these, social capital as a concept, while similar to that of roots, does not fully encompass what Weil signified by the word.

Hearing the dead

Let us turn to how Weil uses the term “collectivity,” albeit a term about which she has mixed feelings. After all, the individual, not the collective, is “the supreme value” (O&L, 18), and collectives can hurt or help individuals. Still, “collectivity” as Weil sometimes uses it is a social milieu similar to that Putnam talks about, but extended profoundly into the past and future. A passage from Part I of Roots makes the point well:

“[B]ecause of its continuity, a collectivity is already moving forward into the future. It contains food, not only for the souls of the living, but also for the souls of beings yet unborn which are to come into the world during the immediately succeeding centuries. [D]ue to this same continuity, a collectivity has its roots in the past. It constitutes the sole agency for preserving the spiritual treasures accumulated by the dead, the sole transmitting agency by means of which the dead can speak to the living.”

NFR, 8

So where Putnam would look to national parades and other celebrations such as Memorial Day as a form of social capital, for him the main value seems to be the association and cooperation of people that occurs around such an event. For Weil, the collectivity, properly understood, should be honored to the extent that it safely maintains and transmits actual cultural lessons learned in its past. Those “spiritual treasures accumulated by the dead” are, after all, vital to Weil’s view of rootedness.   

The importance of the dead is captured in a poetic way by the uncle in Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. This character, who liked to practice lying in a coffin, says “The world was made for the dead. Think of all the dead there are. . . . There’s a million times more dead than living and the dead are dead a million times longer than the living are alive…” (VB, 16) Our very surprise at such an attitude points out how blithely we skate upon the surface of the present, ignoring those people of the past, who like us loved and struggled, learned and wrote. We need, as Weil consistently argued, to pay attention – to those currently living, certainly, but also to those dead whose voices we can hear if we try.

The uprooted uprooting others 

Both Putnam and Weil sense that community is fragile. Putnam in fact documents its apparent decline. Weil points out that “the degree of respect owing to human collectivities is a high one… each is unique, and if destroyed, cannot be replaced” (NFR, 8).  And, if they are destroyed, then people are rootless, uprooted. Further, when that happens, the action of uprooting others becomes more and more common. “Whoever is uprooted himself,” says Weil, “uproots others” (NFR, 48). 

I wonder whether we are seeing this now: the uprooted uprooting others. At a minimum it seems that we are at present two cultures, each with its own separate social capital, its own set of “roots.” Rather than a single rooted culture we are breaking into tribes. David Brooks thinks this may be the case; he writes that “[p]olitics has begun to feel like an arena where many people can process and regulate their emotional turmoil. . . . Tribalism becomes a mechanism with which people can shore themselves up.” But this kind of being shored up is as against others. So we have large, siloed echo chambers. Moreover, members of each are trying to invalidate, to uproot, members of the other. This cannot be good. (Aside: in a larger sense has this not long been the malady of the United States from its colonial beginnings?)

One perhaps underemphasized aspect of this is: the members of each tribe is, in a sense, not only on a mission to uproot those of the other, but are also cutting off whatever shared roots exist. That is, it is the case that each group is excising certain of their own connections into a common culture and past. Reagan joked about the “L-word,” yet he could look back on a time when Liberals and Conservatives were not so far apart, when the tension between them was (at least to some extent) respected and perhaps usefully energizing. Or consider the condescension and even hate which imbues the use of the phrase “red-neck.” Yet what a multitude of farm boys answered the country’s calls to war in the 20th century! 

When a country is riven in this regard, what is the appropriate attitude to take? Is there any other attitude realistically possible than that of one side of a strong political/social polarity? Putnam laudably wants to mitigate and even reverse the decline in social capital that he so carefully documents. Perhaps, he feels, we can recreate some of the energy that occurred in the Progressive era, and that resulted in the building of deep social capital. Maybe the internet can help. 

On country and compassion 

Simone Weil faced this question; it is hard to imagine a more divided country than France under the Vichy regime. She felt for the whole country, not just parts of it. This is in part because by temperament, Weil did not favor political parties. Her early involvement in the Syndicalists is evidence of this, this movement holding as it did that political identification tended to create vertical alliances with the elite rather than the horizontal ties across the working class. And her 1943 essay “On the Abolition of All Political Parties” bears striking evidence of the evils she thought associated with political parties. 

Weil certainly desired to deepen France’s social capital – consider her idea for committed, non-military volunteers on the front lines who could match the enthusiasm and dedication shown by the enemy. But, even more profoundly in my opinion, she felt that one needed compassion for the country:

Compassion for our country is the only sentiment which doesn’t strike a false note at the present time, suits the situation in which the souls and bodies of Frenchmen actually find themselves, and possesses at once the humility and dignity appropriate to misfortune, and also that simplicity which misfortune requires above everything else.

NFR, 171

This amazing sentence seems most fitting for our own time. Rather than squaring off one tribe against the other, seeking to uproot others and in consequence uprooting ourselves as well, what about compassion for the country . . . or even humanity as a whole? Compassion unifies; one mourns for the whole, seeks to nourish the whole. No sins are forgotten. But neither are they, when all is said and done, the main thing. The focus is on the entire country, all people, all accomplishments and failures, everything that is right and everything that is bad. Our roots are in all of these.

Sources

  • Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away A Novel, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2007)
  • Simone Weil, Oppression and Liberty, New York, Routledge (2001), Arthur Wills and John Petrie, trans. 
  • Simone Weil, The Need for Roots, New York: Routledge (2002), Arthur Wills trans.
  • Simone Weil, On the Abolition of Political PartiesSimon Leys, trans, & intro. New York: NYRB (2014). 

George Alliger

George M. Alliger is work psychologist based in Houston and a fellow of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. He received his doctorate from the University of Akron and has extensive experience conducting performance and training projects within a wide variety of public and private organizations. Co-author of Knowledge Management: Clarifying the Key Issues (2000) and an co-editor of The Handbook of Work Analysis: Methods, Systems, Applications and Science of Work Measurement in Organizations (2012). He is also author or co-author of over 60 articles in peer-reviewed journals. His forthcoming book is titled Anti-Work: Psychological Investigations into Its Truths, Problems, and Solutions.

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