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February 23, 2007

Bowling Online

I really never expected an episode of The Show with Ze Frank would transition into a long exegesis of Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, but there it is. Oh, and fun Bowling Alone fact: The article that led to the book was published in the The American Prospect way back when and commissioned by my comrade in health wonkery, Jon Cohn, when he and Putnam got to chatting on a plane.

February 23, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Well, Ze did go to Brown, after all. That's how we roll---funny and wonkish.

Seriously, I had the same reaction when I saw that yesterday---did Ze Frank really just invoke the notion of social capital on The Show?

Posted by: Jack Roy | Feb 23, 2007 11:56:53 AM

You do know that among social scientists Bowling Alone is not well-regarded, right? Sure, everybody assigns it to their graduate students, but there are major problems with the concept of social capital. This review essay sums up the problems nicely: http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/econ/archive/wp2029.pdf

Posted by: Drew | Feb 23, 2007 12:13:05 PM

I haven't read Bowling Alone and don't know much about it, so I won't try to defend it. But the critique at Drew's link is poor. For example, the first specific point, on the vagueness of the definition of "social capital," misreads the definition, which is clearly about more than one thing, thus the crucial "and." It doesn't seem to improve after that, but I only read a couple more pages before giving up. There must be a better critique available.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 23, 2007 1:50:14 PM

Sanpete,

I'm not sure it even matters, because after re-reading Ezra's post I see he's not defending Bowling Alone, but simply pointing to a video link (that I can't watch) that may or may not defend Bowling Alone. I was certainly too hasty in commenting and would be interested in Ezra's take on social capital, bowling alone, etc.

But, let me try to explain why the 'and' is a problem. There is nothing inherently wrong with social capital being more than one thing (e.g., trust and reciprocity). Its just not very rigorous analytically, and social scientists like their rigor.

There is a fairly active research agenda on social capital and Putnam has gotten a huge amount of recognition from it. The problem is that if you want to find out social capital's causes and consequences (which would be helpful to creating policies that either encourage it or hinder it), you should define precisely what 'it' is.

Fine, you say, it means both trust and reciprocity. Then social capital is redundant, because social scientists have been defining what they mean by these things for a long time before Putnam came along and lumped them together as 'social capital'. Durlauf's point is your point, the 'and' thing. He isn't misreading the definition, he's pointing out that such an amorphous concept is not very useful. If you read the rest of the article you'll see that because we don't really know what social capital is, we're not even sure if its a cause or a consequence of the things Putnam claims it explains about American society (or the differences between northern and southern Italy, as Putnam argues in another boook).

A professor I once knew said, "Fewer people are joining bowling leagues ... This is a problem?"

cheers,

Posted by: Drew | Feb 23, 2007 4:15:19 PM

Drew, Durlauf actually says right off the bat that the various characterizations of social capital in the book are inconsistent. They aren't, or at least the ones he cites aren't.

Then he complains that the definition may not correspond to a "natural kind" but, assuming a translation of that that doesn't commit us to some peculiar metaphysical view, whether these constitute a natural kind is dependent on the model in which they play a role. He doesn't even try to show they don't fit together properly in terms of Putnam's theory.

He follows this by supposedly showing a deficiency of Putnam's distinction between bridging and bonding types of social capital, but his explanation is too muddled to even follow. He seems to think that if the two categories can overlap, there must be a problem. Then he asks whether national identity increases or decreases a country's stock of social capital and, without even considering various possible ways of dealing with the question in terms of Putnam's framework, just claims it's ill defined, as though that means the definition must be faulty. Not all questions can be settled directly by definition.

Then he's off on a gallop through a bit of game theory which he claims shows that the concept of social capital (despite its not really being any particular concept according to him) can be formalized, but what he cites shows no such thing. And so on. More trouble than it's worth.

The fact that the definition lumps together more than one thing isn't a substantive problem. It doesn't show the concept isn't useful. Linking different things in analysis is as useful as distinguishing them. There must be something more to the objection if it's to have any weight.

That we don't know what social capital is might be a problem, depending on what kind of information is lacking. But I'm not going to trust Durlauf on that point.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 23, 2007 6:33:07 PM

Durlauf is an economist and it shows. I haven't read Bowling Alone and if it claims to be a work of economics then it should expect the kicking that Durlauf gives it.

If instead it aspires to be a useful piece of social analysis (and arguably, social science, although that's a term the economists are trying to appropriate) then Durlauf just shows why reductionist oriented economists should not be listened to when it comes to analysing human society. In other parts of social science (some even connected with economics) the notion of "bundles" that have properties beyond their constituent components is well established. It's rather bizarre to see someone like Durlauf attempt to argue against this.

But then, that's pretty much the state of economics study in the US. Acontextual.

Posted by: Meh | Feb 24, 2007 4:22:29 AM

Here is a short description of Robert Putnams
thesis:

http://www.extension.iastate.edu/communities/news/ComCon56.html

And here is an interview he did with Booknotes:

http://www.booknotes.org/Transcript/?ProgramID=1593

Americans are more socially isolated today than we were barely two decades ago:

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1207822,00.html

Posted by: Terry | Feb 24, 2007 1:16:57 PM

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Posted by: judy | Sep 26, 2007 11:46:41 AM

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