Monday, February 28, 2011

Books Yay!: Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam

This book was all over the pop-culture-o-sphere when it came out, and I never got around to reading it until it was assigned for my American Politics seminar.  I'm glad that the professor assigned it, because it adds statistical weight to something I've felt but been able to really qualify other than "dude that totally happens."

The idea in Bowling Alone is that a serious degradation of our social structure is taking place as we drift away from the community we once knew, which put people in continual, direct contact with one another.  It's really support for Tocqueville's praise for American civic engagement, complete with charts and graphs.  As a big fan of Tocqueville's, I was reading this all "YEAH!  Everyone needs to sign up for a bowling league!  Go Girl Scouts!" This is a smart, well argued analysis of the effects of civic engagement - and its decay - on society.  It made me want to go out and join as many civic organizations as I could.

I think that this book highlights our unwillingness to put up with even a low level of inconvenience in our social lives, as well as the costs and benefits of putting up with it.  Anyone who has ever joined a social group understands the irritation that can come along with it.  Every group in the history of the planet has had its blowhard, its foot-dragger, its socially-impaired, and every other kind of exasperating person or quality that is drawn to social interaction like a moth to a fire at a candle store.  It can be draining, but the payoff is worth it.  Unfortunately, people seem less and less willing to put up with even the most minimal social discomfort, and this reduces the opportunities we have to build local and extended social community. 

I would be interested in seeing what Putnam has to say about Facebook and other social media sites.  I don't think they are an automatic social boon, but they do represent a new avenue for social connection.   That said, we all know how much can be lost when conversations happen over the internet, and that phenomenon carries into all aspects of communication that take place online.  The internet also allows us to take our social circles worldwide, which can be at the expense of local contacts.  I'm not sure where to place these modes of communication, and I'd really love to see Putnam's graph-fu laid down on them.

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