Robert Putnam’s central thesis in Bowling Alone is that there has been a decline in civic engagement and social capital over the past few decades. The idea of “bowling alone” stems from the fact that bowling in leagues from 1980 through 1993 decreased by 40 percent, while individual bowlers increased by 10 percent (Putnam 112). Putnam uses this metaphor for all forms of civic disengagement, meaning that people virtually do as little as possible collectively and would rather focus purely on the individual, rather than the group.
Putnam’s book addresses several topics of civic disengagement, including a decline in civic participation and social isolation. Putnam focuses on the increasing amount of television viewership and is wary to comment on technological increases, like the Internet, for this decline. However, Putnam tends to focus on what is occurring, using various sorts of data, and overlooks the true meaning of why it is occurring or the positive effects from an average American’s viewpoint.
The increase in television viewership and use of the Internet does mark a change in social habits, but it does not warrant Putnam’s view that it causes social isolation or disengagement.
People in the forties and fifties did not have the same ability as society has today to watch television or use the Internet to get information. It is true that 50 years ago, citizens that wanted to be informed on current issues needed to attend meetings or engage in verbal conversation with other people to gather that information. Today, citizens spend an average of four hours a day watching television and countless hours at a computer, but they are getting more detailed information than the people fifty years ago did.
The increase in television has allowed for all people to be better informed. Television enables people to get a broader view of current events, including immediate reports from around the globe and every angle of a situation because of the increase in television technology. This helps America’s fast-paced society. In addition, there are more opportunities to discuss current concerns, like health, education, and even entertainment. The ability to watch television around the clock means that someone working a night shift can still get the latest new cooking and health techniques, or that a child who is home for the summer can still engage in educational, but entertaining programming. It may be argued that this isn’t an effective use of time, but it is convenient and that is important to the American public.
Another aspect of increased television viewership is the ability to watch sitcoms and sporting events. A person can also watch political debates and political analysis programs on television. Some people may watch this genre of television alone, but typically people enjoy watching them in a group. An example of this is the crowd of people at local bars on Monday nights watching football or the parties that people throw for a season premiere or an awards ceremony, or spending a family dinner enjoying the debates on television. The fact that the number of restaurants has nearly doubled in the past 30 years shows that there is a need to house more people for these kind of social interactions (Lemann 6) and they might be too lazy to cook the meal and invite people over, but they still want to engage. This contradicts the idea that “more television watching means less of virtually every form of civic participation and social involvement” (Putnam 228).
Putnam believes that it is “too early to assess the long-run social effects of the Internet” (Putnam 171), but the positive impact on society must be expressed. However, seeing that Putnam has a website (www.bowlingalone.com), one must assume that he thinks it is a good form of social participation and civic engagement.
The best way to express how the Internet functions are through the words of Internet theorist Michael Strangelove: “The Internet is mass participation in fully bi-directional, uncensored mass communication.” The Internet is so full of possibilities and it has truly helped the American people to better communicate with the world.
The Internet has impacted the lives of everyone that has access to it. People utilize the Internet for every form of social participation and civic engagement possible. From news-groups to chat-rooms, from websites to online posting boards, any information that one would want to access is available. This has greatly helped the American population that always seems like it is in too much of a hurry. The information on the web is now available all the time from any location. Putnam may argue that the Internet takes away from the direct interaction, but truly there is no difference between sitting at a meeting for an hour or listening to it at your own convenience on the Internet.
Putnam’s Book, Bowling Alone, is an amazing account of society today. Putnam has wonderfully valid points on civic disengagement and social participation. However, he doesn’t seem to realize that the country is like this for a reason. American people are always in a hurry now a days and however unfortunate that may be, that is the way it is.
Americans are fortunate enough to have television and the Internet so that they can be a part of society and engage in the community. People want to communicate and what makes that possible is the television and the Internet. American’s also feel this greater amount of pressure to do more or know more; examples of this can be found in the extra long working hours and the amount of time they spend on the phone or watching television. It is obvious that Putnam doesn’t agree with the excess of these activities, but although it may sound naïve, people are better off, both economically and socially because of the television and the Internet. Considering that America seems to be driven, then contrary to Putnam’s beliefs, maybe the television and the Internet are steps in the direction of leading American’s to their goals. If that is the case, then “bowling alone” may not be such an evil concept for the American people.
Lemann, Nicholas. “Kicking in Groups.” The Atlantic Monthly. April, 1996.
Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone. New York, NY. 2000.
Skocpol, Theda. “Unraveling from Above.” The American Prospect. March-April, 1996.
Valelly, Richard M. “Couch-Potato Democracy.” The American Prospect. March-April, 1996.
www.bowlingalone.com (visited 9/30/00).
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