Everyone Asking Why Everyone Bowls Alone, Research Time, 04/05/2015

I like sociology. I’m not a sociologist, but I have some good friends among the sociologist community. I’ve been to a few conferences, read articles and books, even presented at a couple of conferences and gotten some sociology-researched work published in an interdisciplinary journal.

Yet there was one moment reading Charles Kadushin that reminded me of one aspect of sociology that will probably always annoy me. In his chapter on the concept of social capital, Kadushin discusses Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. Frankly, if you’re writing a book that introduces fundamental concepts of modern sociological network theory, you have to discuss Bowling Alone for at least a little bit. 

The book set a lot of the fundamental frameworks through which sociologists still understand, discuss, and research social capital and the networked connections that constitute it. An enormous amount of research on social networks, civil society and volunteering organizations, and work developing the social network mapping software you need to make sense of it all was done in Putnam's wake to answer the questions that held on at the end of his book, or to critique and disprove his answers.

But you see, man, we're never really alone, because
we have still kept our friends. Mark an 8, Dude.
Whether you followed Putnam or you wanted to prove him wrong, after Bowling Alone, Putnam was a figure in your sociological universe. A main reason why was simply that Bowling Alone was popular. 

Its concern was mapping the decline of American civil society organizations, and interpreting this trend as contributing to a decline in democratic participation and political engagement. Americans since 1950 had become more socially isolated from each other, and their social networks became smaller simply because they weren’t interacting with other people.*

* I have a completely anecdotal, non-scientific, and entirely personal perspective on why people have, on the aggregate, lost social connections since 1950. Suburbanization and the model of the sprawling city made commutes of an hour or two each way ordinary, ubiquitous, and socially acceptable. Having spent the last two years with one or both members of my partnership commuting Hamilton-Toronto, Hamilton-Oakville, or Toronto-Oakville, I experienced how tired and generally shagged out we were at the end of a workday. We couldn’t bring ourselves to so anything else.

That concern, and the credibility of concern that Putnam’s institutional pedigree and empirical research gave him, spoke to perennial anxieties in the culture of the United States, especially in the post-suburban era. It’s especially critical of our technology isolating us socially, as entertainment designed for individual consumption dominated our lives. 

Fear of new technologies is likewise a perennial American anxiety. As one of the critiques of Putnam's work said, there were concerns in the 1920s that individual-focussed technologies like radio were similarly eroding social capital. Kadushin himself isn't interested in the particular case, at least not in the book I read, but only how Putnam's studies used existing social network theory and contributed to its development.

Nonetheless, Understanding Social Networks does have some criticisms of Putnam’s work, which in turn open my opportunity to criticize some aspects of sociology that annoy me a little. Kadushin is mainly concerned that Putnam’s writing style, so suited as it was for popular consumption, was obscure and vague. The precise meanings of his concepts were difficult to define. He praises many of the sociologists who followed Putnam for giving more clarity to his fundamental ideas, yet he also laments that these improved studies didn’t catch popular consciousness as Bowling Alone did.

Kadushin praises the styles of extremely technical writers for their precision, since they brought the ideas of Bowling Alone to a level of detail that Putnam's own book didn't reach. This secondary literature that surrounds Bowling Alone refines and completes its conceptual machinery so future sociologists can build properly from Putnam's work and ideas. 

But as far as goes the popular reception of sociology, the public image of its ideas and research methods, Putnam is still the face of the idea of social capital despite its technical limitations. And it was precisely his prose, which Kadushin criticizes as more popular than precise, by changing how the public, who sociology ostensibly serves, understands social science itself.