The 'bowling alone' phenomenon is bunk

WASHINGTON - Political scientist Robert Putnam of Harvard has had a good run. Once an obscure academic, he wrote a 1995 article that made him a minor celebrity. President Clinton borrowed his ideas for speeches. Putnam argues that civic life is collapsing - that Americans aren't joining, as they once did, the groups and clubs that promote trust and cooperation. This undermines democracy, he says. We are "bowling alone"; since 1980, league bowling has dropped 40 percent.

Guess what. It's mostly bunk. Although Americans may be sour, the reason is not that civic life is vanishing.

Solitude in sports? No way. Between 1972 and 1990, the number of Americans playing softball (yes, a team sport) rose from 27 million to 40 million, reports the Amateur Softball Association. Since 1967, the number of teams registered in leagues jumped from 19,000 to 261,000.

The whole theory is dubious. It aims to explain a "loss of community": a growing feeling of social splintering. Whether this is real is unclear. Since World War II, just when has America been one big happy family? Not in the 1960s, when the country was torn by Vietnam, civil rights and campus protest. Or in the 1970s, when Vietnam (continuing), Watergate and double-digit inflation spawned strife. Perhaps, briefly, in the mid-1950s between McCarthyism and, later, Sputnik and school desegregation crises.

Our present conflicts are genuine. Their central cause, though, isn't a loss of civic life. The "community" of the past was a more compartmentalized and less compassionate society than today's. Blacks were segregated in schools and jobs. Most married women stayed at home. There was little federal "safety net" for the old and poor. The assault on former discriminations and the pursuit of more social justice - all that improved life, while also creating new conflicts and problems.

Groups often reflect society's divisions. Moreover, Putnam wildly exaggerates any decline in group participation. He says that membership in groups like the Red Cross and labor unions has "slumped 25 to 50 percent in the last two to three decades." OK. Unions declined because the economic and legal climate turned hostile, but other groups expanded.

To refute this, Putnam says annual surveys by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago confirm a 25 percent drop of all group membership since 1974. Not really. Putnam's sharp drop occurs only after he makes a statistical adjustment for rising educational levels. In the past, better-educated people have belonged to more groups. Because group joining hasn't risen with rising schooling, Putnam finds a startling "decline."

But excluding this adjustment, there aren't many major changes. The NORC asked respondents whether they belong to 16 types of groups. Here are some raw participation rates for 1974 and 1994:

Political clubs: 1974, 4.5 percent; 1994, 4.7 percent.

Sports clubs: 1974, 17.9 percent; 1994, 21.8 percent.

Hobby clubs: 1974, 9.8 percent; 1994, 9.2 percent.

Fraternities: 1974, 4.7 percent; 1994, 5.7 percent.

Professional groups: 1974, 13.2 percent; 1994, 18.7 percent.

Church-related groups: 1974, 42.1 percent; 1994, 33.4 percent.

Only the drop in church-related groups lends weight to Putnam's thesis. But the idea that there's been a massive retreat from civic life is far-fetched, as the Rev. Andrew Greeley of the NORC argues. He cites other surveys showing that volunteering actually rose a quarter since the early 1980s. The increase occurred among "Baby Boomers ... and Generation X" who are stigmatized as being "selfish and uncommitted," he writes.

Americans haven't become recluses. In earlier eras, many social clubs "were a diversion after a horrible workday" in factories, novelist William Kennedy - a chronicler of working class life - told Peter Hong of the Los Angeles Times. And many old social groups, Kennedy noted, reflected prejudice.

Hong visited bowling alleys in California and found them thriving. True, leagues had declined, because some teams had been organized around plants that had closed. But "almost nobody bowls alone ... the centers are filled with office parties, rollicking retirees and bowling birthday parties." Hong found no "dearth of community" but rather "more relaxed, less traditional patterns of social connection shaped by the new ways Americans live and work." That's America. "Bowling Alone," by contrast, is mostly about intellectual and journalistic superficiality.

Robert Samuelson writes for Newsweek magazine.