Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam Offers Term Paper

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Indeed, Putnam's analysis of this particular issue seems more dedicated to a view of time than shared experience, meaning that people then shared the experience at the same time, while today they might share the same experience but do so at different times. They might still see the same television show, for instance, but have some seeing it as broadcast, some later through a DVR or other recording means, some even later in re-run and on a different station in syndication, and today some using hand-held devices, computers, and even telephones to see the same program. These people are still sharing the basic experience of the cultural artifact, the television show, though they are doing so on their own schedule and using different media for the experience. Is Putnam concerned about the lack of a shared experience of the cultural artifact itself or of the television set as a technology? Clearly, he is concerned about the lack of a shared experience and not a shared technology, but the way he analyzes that part of the issue fails to recognize the realities of how people interact with culture itself and the fact that they share much of the same culture and cultural attitudes even if they do so on a different timetable.

Another view of the power of social capital is offered by Coleman (1987). The desire to understand political and social development has given way to different theories about such processes. Coleman considers the issue in terms of social norms and finds that norms are important in human behavior and that they are backed up by sanctions. He indicates the distinction between rational choice theory and functionalist theory, the latter supported by Talcott Parsons and others. Functionalist theory takes the normative structure as a starting point and then assumes that there will be conformity to the norms. Since conformity is not universal, though, Parsons had to develop a concept of deviance to account for the lack of complete conformity. Rational choice theory holds that norms constitute constraints within which choices are made. Coleman points out that social behavior is also a matter of exchange, and many social interactions can be conceptualized as an exchange between the parties to an interaction, with the interaction continuing if the exchange is profitable for both. Social norms can thus represent social capital:

Their presence results in higher levels of satisfaction -- though perhaps at the cost of reducing the satisfaction of some members whose actions are most constrained by the norms (Coleman, 1987, p. 153).

Coleman suggests a shift from primordial social organization toward purposively constructed organization. Most control is derived from social norms. Primordial social control depended on social capital that has been eroded with the change, eroded by the closure of social networks and by technological changes that have expanded social circles. In some areas, the old social organization is no longer valid and a new one has not yet developed to take its place.

Putnam's concern about the possible decay of social capital is understandable but does not appear to be as stark as the picture he paints. If anything, social capital today has bifurcated in political terms, leading to the political gridlock many see in the American system based on an electorate more divided than in the past. In a way, this new separation between right and left suggests that people still tend to join a community of shared interests and are affected by many of the same forces as in the past but that three is a growing divide on major issues. Such a divide cannot be explained in the way Putnam does, for his fragmented social order would lead to far more divisions than we see today. The decay in social capital he foresees would lead to a much more fragmented social and political order than simply the two major divisions we see now. There was a time in the 1980s when the possibility of a third political party was very real, but this seems much less possible today, suggesting that however much the two sides may lack social cohesion on certain issues, they are still dedicated to the value of the political system as it has developed and to keeping the number of divisions to a minimum. That is not a fragmented social order but a divided one, which is somewhat different.

Television still fosters certain basic values and ideas that help bind the country together, as do the Internet, films, the news media, and other shared experiences. Those who see the Internet as too fragmented to include a clear societal value system fail to see that the Internet is as fragmented as it is in service of personal choice and freedom of expression, just as the growth in television networks, cable outlets, DVDs, and other tools of choice foster the same values, values that are clearly of great importance to all Americans and that bind them together even as they choose to do their own thing rather than join their neighbors to do something else. Any analysis has to recognize that different social groupings change over time through the forces of increased density, newly created and shared values. One cannot measure social capital as a set and unchanging entity, and while the audience may be more fragmented than in the past, the essential values of a democracy remain the primary subject both direct and implied in the various media reaching the different audience groups.

The Internet itself constitutes a new medium which is itself a shared experience. That is, while different groups or individuals may be visiting different sites, the technology itself constitutes a share experience as people use the Internet to e-mail their friends, to shop, to look for and at videos, to find and read news stories, and so on. People look for what they want using Google, a search engine so popular that "to google" has become a verb accepted by Webster's Dictionary. Such understanding of the same sorts of sites itself becomes a new form of community and a communal experience, creating some element of social capital as people look for information, visit library sites, shop at, and so on. It is true that this is a different sort of social interaction than were the Shriners I the past, but that does not mean this social interaction is invalid. The new landscape of television still has a number of shared experiences, and even people who have not seen American Idol or the Sopranos have heard of them and know the basics of what these shows represent. Even in 1975, people may have watched the same shows, but they did so with different levels of understanding and attention so that the way Putnam merely notes popularity as a guide does not say enough about what these experiences really meant. The society is fragmented to a degree on one level, but the society remains unified around certain core concepts that are simply so ingrained that they appear again and again in all media to this day.


Coleman, J.S. (1987). Norms as Social Capital. In Economic Imperialism, G. Radnitzky, P. Bernholz (eds.). New York: Paragon House.

Oakerson, R.J. (1988). Reciprocity: A Bottom-Up View of Political Development. In Rethinking Institutional Analysis and Development, V. Ostrom, D. Feeny, and H. Picht (eds.). San Francisco: IES Press.

Putnam, R.D. (1993). "The Prosperous Community:…

Sources Used in Document:


Coleman, J.S. (1987). Norms as Social Capital. In Economic Imperialism, G. Radnitzky, P. Bernholz (eds.). New York: Paragon House.

Oakerson, R.J. (1988). Reciprocity: A Bottom-Up View of Political Development. In Rethinking Institutional Analysis and Development, V. Ostrom, D. Feeny, and H. Picht (eds.). San Francisco: IES Press.

Putnam, R.D. (1993). "The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life." The American Prospect No. 13, 35-42.

Putnam, R.D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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