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The Decline in Humanist Groups Explained: Book Review


By David Warden



In this month's edition of Humanistically Speaking, we address some of our concerns about the apparent long-term decline of participation in humanist groups. Robert D. Putnam's book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) seems particularly relevant to our theme. It explored the decline of social capital and community engagement in the United States over the 20th century. The central thesis of the book was that there has been a significant decrease in social connectedness, community involvement, and civic participation in American society. In 2023, after the rise of social media, podcasts and YouTube, the impact of Covid on our willingness to leave home, and the continuing rise of mass immigration which may also impact on social cohesion, the trends which Putnam identified seem to be intensifying. Should humanists be worried about this, or should we just accept that the future will be less social and more individual, or that our social lives are more networked and less local? Should humanists make an effort to support their local humanist groups or just bowl alone or in virtual space?


Key points of the book


Decline in Social Capital: Putnam argues that there has been a decline in "social capital," which he defines as the connections and bonds that hold individuals and communities together. This decline is evident in reduced participation in community organisations, social clubs, and civic groups.


Rise of Individualism: The book suggests that there has been a shift toward individualism, with people becoming more focused on their personal lives and less engaged in collective activities. This shift is seen as contributing to the erosion of social capital.


Bowling Alone Metaphor: The title of the book comes from the example of bowling leagues. Putnam notes that while the number of people who bowl has remained relatively constant, the number of people participating in bowling leagues has significantly declined. This illustrates the trend of people engaging in activities alone rather than as part of a social group.


Causes of Decline: Putnam explores various factors contributing to the decline in social capital, including increased mobility (people moving more frequently), television and technology (reducing face-to-face interactions), and changing work patterns (less time for community involvement).


Consequences: The book discusses the negative consequences of declining social capital, such as reduced trust in institutions, diminished social cohesion, and challenges to effective governance. It argues that social connectedness is essential for a healthy and functioning society.


Possible Solutions: Putnam concludes the book by discussing potential ways to revive and rebuild social capital and community engagement. These include encouraging civic participation, strengthening social networks, and fostering a sense of shared identity and purpose.


Bowling Alone is a seminal work that has sparked discussions about the state of civic life in the United States and the importance of social capital in building strong communities. It highlights the need for individuals and society as a whole to address the challenges of social disconnection and find ways to rebuild and strengthen community bonds.

The author of the book

Robert D. Putnam is a prominent American political scientist and author. He was born in 1941, in Rochester, New York, USA. Putnam is best known for his extensive research in the fields of political science and sociology, particularly in the areas of social capital, community engagement, and civic participation.


In addition to Bowling Alone, he has written several other influential books and research papers on topics related to social and political behaviour. Putnam's work often explores the dynamics of social networks, trust, and the role of civil society in democratic governance. His research has had a significant impact on our understanding of how individuals and communities interact and engage in civic life.


Putnam has held academic positions at various universities, including Harvard University, where he has been a professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. His contributions to the study of social capital and community involvement have earned him numerous awards and accolades in the field of political science.


Acknowledgment: ChatGPT was used as an assistant in preparing this article. ChatGPT is a language model developed by OpenAI. It is designed to generate human-like text and engage in natural language conversations with users. GPT stands for "Generative Pre-trained Transformer" which is a type of artificial intelligence language model. The "generative" part refers to its ability to generate text, "pre-trained" indicates that it has been trained on a large corpus of text data before fine-tuning for specific tasks, and "transformer" is the neural network architecture that underlies its operation.

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dowdle.vm
24 nov 2023

The bowling metaphor is quite an intriguing one. Do individuals actually bowl alone?

It may be that individuals bowl alone in order to improve and enhance their individual skill in bowling or – more probably – as part of a contribution towards a team effort?


The publication timing of the book (2000) is also intriguing, following on after the events of the school shooting in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on 20 April 1999.

The events of the school shooting were immortalised by Michael Moore in his film Bowling for Columbine, which takes its title from the fact that only hours before they massacred 13, schoolboy killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had gone ten pin bowling. One minute…


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