Bowling Alone and Unintended Consequences:

The inspiration for Robert Putnam's famous book Bowling Alone was the observation that although Americans bowl at more or less the same rate as always, they increasingly are "bowling alone" rather than as part of organized leagues. Putnam sees this decline in participation in bowling leagues as suggestive of a general American social decline in the desire of individuals to join social groups, etc. "Bowling alone" is a case study of the phenomenon.

My cousin owns a bowling pro shop in upstate New York. Last year a law was enacted that prohibited smoking in bowling alleys, in all parts (including the lounge). In response, half of the bowling leagues at that alley folded (nearly taking his pro shop business with it, incidentally). Putnam is talking about the decline in community over a long period predating last year; nonetheless, I thought this story was an interesting example of the surprising and unintended social effects that can arise from a seeming unrelated regulation. More people are "bowling alone" in upstate New York this year than last, but it has little to do with Putnam's explanation.

Similarly, I recall that when I lived in Mississippi, one of my colleagues observed that he thought that one reason why "social capital" levels tended to be lower in Mississippi than elsewhere was the historic prohibition on the sale of liquor by the drink in bars and restaurants (lifted relatively recently). He hypothesized that this one law gave rise to a custom of entertaining in ones' homes, rather than in public houses like bars and restaurants. This, he believed, led to a general atrophying of the public sphere not only in terms of parks, but also in terms of lower levels of public trust and civic-mindedness. I don't know if it is true, but if so, it is another interesting example of the phenomenon. For what it is worth, when we lived in Mississippi we always went to friend's homes for dinner, which we do much more rarely in Northern Virginia. Such social cultures, of course, are highly network goods, and thus become highly path-dependent and difficult to later change.

DavidBernstein (mail):
According to an article by Susan Rose-Ackerman, Putnam's data in any event collapses if you include religious groups, which he does not.
9.26.2005 3:01pm
Matt G (mail) (www):
Another issue with Bowling Alone is that it looks at the decline of social interaction from the 1950s to the present day. But Putnam never puts any of his data into historical context. Sure, one explanation for his obvsered data is a decline in social interaction, but another is that the world war 2 generation was particular interactive, and all we are observing is the return to pre-war levels of interaction.
9.26.2005 3:26pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
I haven't read the book, having read several on the same theme.
However, one critic said Putnam used the decline in PTA memebership as a datum without referring to the increase in the PTO, which is apparently making strides due to less hierarchical and rigid structure.
The social connections, small groups, Bible studies, self-help groups, ministry groups, and recovery groups in the evangelical churches is astonishing. Mainline Protestants have their analog, but it's a shadow of the evangelicals' efforts.
As fewer and fewer WASP/RC Americans are going to the Ukrainian Hall or Sons of Italy, it appears the churches are filling the new role.
9.26.2005 3:32pm
=0= (mail):
After the smoking in bars ban started in NYC, bars took a definite hit. It doesn't sound as big as the one suffered by your brother, but it is real - some friends of mine who own a bar/restaurant in Brooklyn claim revenue has fallen off about 15%, and caused them to shift to emphasize the restaurant quite a bit more.

I imagine this altered the social dynamics quite a bit, too.
9.26.2005 3:37pm
Larry Faria (mail):
Smoking bans causing bowling leagues to fold? Liquor by-the-drink bans hurting bar/hotel/restaurant business? This sounds like a book waiting to be written: "How Government Regulation Shapes Society."
Go for it Todd!
9.26.2005 3:39pm
Shelby (mail):
Richard Aubrey:

I suppose PTA means parent-teacher association. What is PTO? On this blog I'd assume it's Patent and Trademark Office...
9.26.2005 3:40pm
We should legalize marijuana then too -- imagine the new social networks that would be created!
9.26.2005 3:52pm
These regulations may have a short term negative impact, but you shouldn't forget the potential long-term positive impact. It takes a little longer for those who have been driven away by the smoking to trickle back in than for the large numer of smokers to initially leave en masse.
9.26.2005 4:10pm
mawado (mail):
Out of curiosity.
How closely does Mr. Putnam's data on secular, social interactions correlate with: the movement from cities to the suburbs and the 'stiffening' of drunk driving laws.
I wonder as social interactions became more automobile orieented, and 'custimarily social' amounts of alchol became criminalized did we see the drop off in social interactions?
Customarily social is probably not the right phrase here, but I can't think of a better one. The phrase I'm searching for would indicate the amount of alchol that would allow one to safely return to home given a city infrastructure of a) proximity (walk), b) bus/train/subway service, or c) cab.
This is in no way a sarcastic question but one of curiosity.
9.26.2005 4:15pm
jallgor (mail):
What's the bar in Brooklyn? As a non-smoker Brooklynite who enjoys the new smoke-free bars, I now feel compelled to go to your friend's place and attempt to drink my way through his 15% revenue shortfall
9.26.2005 4:28pm
Interesting. I've heard similar arguments in college (Zywicki's alma mater) when the administration was looking to crack down on the fraternities' parties with more aggressive regulations (limits on the number of parties, registration procedures, increased presence of campus security, closing time, limits on the number of kegs allowed, etc). Some questioned whether restrictive alcohol policies would lead to more drinking in the dormitories, and whether one situation was safer than the other.
9.26.2005 4:44pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
The breakdown of society can be linked to restrictions on drinking and smoking? I like that. It's worth a book, if not a constitutional amendment.
9.26.2005 5:05pm
LiquidLatex (mail):
This is a meta-issue geopolitical problem all over the globe.

Honestly if the decline of smoking and drinking makes a society weaker through social links, then bring it on. Literally the only positives to smoking is the breathing technique you use to breathe in the smoke is the same used in breathing methods to relax you, doing something with your hands/fingers to placate the mind, and the social aspect. The breathing thing can be done without a cigarette, the hands/fingers thing can be done with other activities, and the social aspect can be replaced with other social activities.
9.26.2005 5:19pm

Honestly if the decline of smoking and drinking makes a society weaker through social links, then bring it on.

I can't quickly find any, but online communities are also blamed for similar reduction in real-life social interaction. Personally, I'll take a little second-hand smoke to connect with my fellow man in a more civil way than is possible in the consistently polarized and vitriolic communities I see online.
9.26.2005 5:49pm
Some of these comments are unfair to Putnam's book. He states quite explicitly that the rise of evangelical religious organizations is a notable countertrend to the overall trends he examines. He also does give some pre-World War II data (in the nature of things, it is sort of skimpy), and acknowledges the importance of WWII and that we may simply be seeing a return to the civic participation levels that prevailed earlier in the century.

He doesn't discuss smoking bans, or the nanny state generally, though I am not convinced that this is a good explanation for declining civic participation. (I'm not even convinced that we have a nanny state: although you can't smoke like you used to, you are a lot freer to read porn or have gay sex than you used to be. Whether these activities foster the creation of social capital, I don't know.)
9.26.2005 6:13pm
Andy Freeman (mail):
I'd be much more impressed by the "they'll make more money" crowd if said crowd put its money at risk. If they're right about the popularity of their brand of hair-shirt, they make serious money and put the evil stupids out of biz. Win-win, yet for some reason they lack the courage of their convictions.
9.26.2005 6:35pm
Wince and Nod (mail) (www):

I visit here, Dean's World, his wife's site and E Pluribus Unum. The arguments I see in these places are about as vitrolic as the political arguments I occasionally enjoy in person. Which is to say they are usually reasonably polite but sometimes rather, err, not. The Smallest Minority is good for reasonable Second Amendment discussion. Ann Althouse is good. I also go to some places which have no vitriol because they are thumpingly one-sided.

There is less vitrol here.

9.26.2005 6:50pm
markm (mail):
Shelby: PTA = Parent Teacher Association. PTO = Parent Teacher Organization. The decline in PTA has nothing to do with a general decline in social groups, but much to do with the organization itself. It's a national organization, run from the top, and parents often find it doesn't want their opinions, just their labor and their donations. PTO's organization is much more bottom-up, and much more responsive to parents.
9.26.2005 7:00pm