Bowling as a metaphor for American society

BOWLING ALONE By Robert Putnam Simon & Schuster 541 pp., $26

Making a connection between bowling and the nation's social fabric might seem like a stretch, but to author Robert Putnam it's a perfect metaphor.

Dr. Putnam, a political scientist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., has a lot to say about the state of American community life. In "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community" he reaches for the perfect recreational icon.

"More Americans bowl than vote," he explains during an interview.

"The title comes from the fact that we are bowling more than ever before, but bowling in leagues has declined. I'm concerned about people dropping out of public life and not voting and so on, but I wanted to make the point up front that this isn't just about people failing to eat their civic spinach. There really is a basic change in the way we connect with other people, even informally and in a leisure way."

The book, while scholarly and loaded with charts and footnotes, delivers a message that people will recognize from their daily rounds. They sense what Putnam's research confirms: that people aren't connected the way they once were to neighborhoods, churches, and clubs.

Putnam declines to call this a national crisis, for this sort of thing fluctuates, yet he does see signs that "social capital" - the connections among individuals - has crumbled since the golden postwar years and particularly during the past 25 years.

For proof he cites everything from a drop in Parent Teacher Association participation to a fall-off in church and club attendance to indications that families dine together less often.

One of the steepest drop-offs has occurred in bowling leagues, which enjoyed a heady spike in membership in the early 1960s.

There are a number of contributing factors to the loss of social capital. Two of the biggest - television and urban sprawl - are hard to reverse, Putnam says.

"I imagine that television is the single greatest challenge, and we're obviously not going to abolish television," he notes.

"I hate to sound like a cultural grouch," Putnam says, "but we're watching more TV, watching it more habitually, and we're sort of faintly addicted to it. Arranging to have friends over is a lot more complicated."

Urban sprawl doesn't help when it comes to encouraging social interaction. Putnam says his research shows that every additional 10 minutes of commuting time means 10 percent less of every other form of social connection, be it churchgoing, dinner parties, club memberships, or attendance at public meetings.

While putting a lid on sprawl is difficult, Putnam expresses optimism that the issue is starting to show up on people's agendas. Concerns about pollution and general livability are pushing it there.

He anticipates the greatest near-term strides will occur in the workplace.

In recent decades, many women have entered the workforce out of necessity and/or choice, creating a void on the home front. The social phenomenon of two-income couples has robbed neighborhoods of their traditional glue: housewives.

"We're not going back to that pattern; it's just not going to happen," Putnam says. What he envisions, however, is a stronger, more vigorous push for greater workplace freedom, which will blur the ironclad divisions that exist between work and home. This will allow for greater flexibility and freedom to build connections beyond just the work environment.

"I'm pretty confident that over the next five, 10, 15 years there will be a major restructuring of the way work fits into our lives. It's already a kitchen-table issue, and everyday pressures on people are going to continue to drive it onto the public agenda."

By this Putnam means that employers won't be able to ignore the reality of modern life: Namely, that the majority of parents (not just employed mothers of young children) require more-flexible work schedules to improve their quality of life. It won't be just forward-thinking employers who offer work flexibility, but all employers, since flexibility will become a common expectation in the work world.

Although incremental strides have already occurred, Putnam thinks society is warming up for a sea change. History, he says, shows that "little cultural clicks" - collective revelations - paved the way to other labor reforms, such as child-labor laws and the eight-hour work week. "Before the click, it seemed fine to have kids working," he observes. "Afterward it was, 'How did we ever think that was all right?'

"With regards to the current transition, we're still 'pre-click.' We still think that the problem of getting our community and family obligations together with work obligations is the problem of the worker rather than a problem for all of us to address. I think we'll have this series of little clicks now that will cause us to look back and ask, 'How did we ever think that the only civic duty we could get time off for was jury duty?' "

As flextime and telecommuting arrangements become common, people will have more-complicated schedules, but ones that help them rediscover their neighborhoods. And at work, civic-mindedness could get a boost if employers allow work space and time to be used for various civic meetings.

The Internet, some believe, may emerge as a major player in the reknitting process.

Putnam, however, recommends caution in making forecasts. "As Yogi Berra said, It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future," he says.

"I'm optimistic that we could use the Internet to increase our connections," he says, "but there's also a risk that it could become isolating, just another glowing screen that we spend time watching."

The question, he says, is whether the Internet will become a really nifty telephone that facilitates person-to-person connections or a really nifty TV that centers on passive entertainment.

"For the most part we are investing in ways that would make the Internet a nifty TV," he says.

When in comes to role models, Putnam is convinced that people who lived through World War II - what news anchor and author Tom Brokaw calls members of "The Greatest Generation" - have a lot to teach society.

"All their lives," Putnam says, "those folks voted more, trusted more, joined more, have given more, and taken part in groups more. They're really a civic generation. They have a sense of community 'bondingness' that we ought to transfer to the youngest generation."

Getting a homogeneous group of people to connect is important, but an even greater need in America's multicultural society is for "bridging," which binds diverse people, as in political parties or a national association like the AARP.

Fostering this dynamic, he contends, is the lubricant required in the 21st century.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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