Book And Video Reviews

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

Robert D. Putnam
Important Book for Nonprofit and Charity Professionals

Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone is a well-planned and exhaustively researched examination of America's civic and social participation. Few bestselling books have 60 pages of endnotes, over 100 charts and tables, and an index spanning 45 pages. If for no other reason, nonprofit sector professionals should buy this book for its statistical and reference data alone. However, this book is far more than a reference volume; it uses data to tell a compelling story about America's civic and social involvement in the 20th century.

The data reported in the book confirm all kinds of influences that have been discussed by public policy experts, social researchers, and watercooler gossips for years -- declining civic club memberships; fewer people willing to take leadership positions in PTA, Boy Scouts, school boards, city councils, and countless other “community-building” pursuits. Mr. Putnam addresses changing lifestyles, from two-paycheck and single-parent families to the increasing time consumed by home-workplace commuting, television, and other "cocooning" activities that reduce time and energy for “other-directed” activity.

The book's subtitle, “The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” is an apt description of the book that has been misunderstood by many of its critics. Although Professor Putnam (Public Policy professor at Harvard) spends much of the book demonstrating the decline of civic & social involvement and community in America during the last third of our century, he also discusses possible causal factors and even offers suggestions for renewal.

The book's final chapter compares America's late 19th century with the late 20th century. He identifies numerous similarities that, he believes, point the way to addressing the current crisis as he sees it. The chapter includes italicized goals for improvement in civic and social involvement.

The topic and thesis of the book, originally raised in a 1995 magazine article, will be with us for several more years. The Ford Foundation and a group of community foundations have given Mr. Putnam $1 million to conduct additional research on how communities are addressing community-building issues and how effective those initiatives are.

The exhaustive research, enduring interest in the topic, and guaranteed future events related to this book and author are three of many reasons why this book should be on all reference bookshelves. More importantly, Mr. Putnam challenges our assumptions and offers an important lens though which to view the social and civic habits of our co-workers, volunteers, friends, family, and, ultimately, ourselves.