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Bowling Alone


Robert D. Putnam’s book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, published in 2000, chronicles the rise of civic participation during the fifties and sixties, followed by what he describes as a decline in social capital over the next three decades.

Social capital refers to connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them.

Social capital is simultaneously a “private good” and a public good”. As Claude S. Fischer puts it: “Social networks are important in all our lives, often for finding jobs, more often for finding a helping hand, companionship, or a shoulder to cry on.” Some small groups and clubs exist primarily for the private enjoyment of its members, although they may also serve public ends.

“When economic and political dealings are embedded in dense networks of social interaction, incentives for opportunism and malfeasance are reduced.” As L. J. Hanifan puts it: “Social networks and norms of reciprocity can facilitate cooperation for mutual benefit.” Civic engagement and social capital entail mutual obligation and responsibility for action. Frequent interaction among a diverse set of people tends to produce a norm of generalized reciprocity.

Probably the most important dimensions when discussing social capital is the distinction between bonding (or exclusive) and bridging (or inclusive)

Quoting Putnam, “Some forms of social capital are, by choice or necessity, inward looking and tend to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups. Examples of bonding social capital include ethnic fraternal organizations, church-based women’s reading groups, and fashionable country clubs. As noted by Xavier de Souza Briggs. “while networks and the associated norms of reciprocity are generally good for those inside the network, the external effects of social capital are by no means always positive for those outside.”

Other networks are outward looking and encompass people across diverse social cleavages. Examples of bridging social capital include the civil rights movements, many youth service groups and ecumenical religious organization.”

Churches have a tendency to emphasize bonding needs of its members and miss the the missional calling for bridging. Some emphasize pietistic, individualistic experience and personal salvation and underplay or entirely miss the church’s social responsibilities, except perhaps to their own. Some are rigidly exclusive, particularly on doctrinal matters, as if to protect their purity from the taint of the world. Other churches are overtly inclusive, welcoming all.

Where is the balance in our community? How can we be both bonding and bridging?

Is it possible to create bonding around the idea of bridging? I think so.