Political scientist Robert Putnam is best known of his "Bowling Alone" argument. In a widely publicized article in the Journal of Democracy in 1995, Putnam argued that networks of social engagement were in sharp decline in the United States. While Americans continue to bowl for amusement, membership in bowling leagues declined by as much as 40 percent from 1980 to 1993. This was, for Putnam, symptomatic of a larger withdrawal from the public sphere, since he maintained that town meeting attendance, membership in civic and fraternal organizations, voter turnout, and membership in PTAs also went down. In the 2000 book Bowling Alone, Putnam developed and defended this thesis in greater detail.
Putnam used the term “social capital” to describe levels of social engagement. His social capital argument was in the tradition of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, which maintained that widespread membership in churches, clubs, and other forms of voluntary associations provided an essential basis to American democracy. However, Putnam and many of those who have used his argument have missed another part of Tocqueville's generally favorable view of American democracy. While Tocqueville saw voluntary associations and cooperative participation as critical to the civic order of the new nation, he also saw these as pressures for conformity.
In my own work on Vietnamese American students, I used a version of the social capital perspective to account for why many of these students did so well in our schools. Drawing on interviews, surveys, and fieldwork, I found that the academic performance of students could be attributed to tight networks of interpersonal relations among children, parents, and neighbors within Vietnamese communities. These networks provided control and direction. They also, however, limited independence and personal freedom. Everything comes at a cost, and the benefit was probably worth the cost in the lives of these young people, but I would be willing to state as a general truth the equation high social capital equals high social control.
Social control by communities is not necessarily a bad thing. More social control within families and neighborhoods is exactly what our crime-ridden inner cities need. But it does have its disadvantages. I was thinking about these as I read the article "Are there Hidden Virtues to Bowling Alone?" in the online magazine The American. Peter A. Coclanis suggests in this article that the decline in bowling leagues was linked to surging bowling scores. Freedom from community enabled Americans to focus on improving their games, rather than on maintaining and deepening relationships with fellow bowlers.
Surrounded as I am by unabashed communitarians, I read this article with interest. I agree that we need communities, as long as these are voluntarily formed (as in Tocqueville's book) and not imposed by social architects. But we should remember that communitarianism and individual excellence don't fit well together.