Alone, Suburban, & Sorted: Part 1, "That they bowled together made all the difference."

In this series we are going to be dipping into some sociological research asking how trends in America, from the 1950s to the present day, are affecting both the church and the larger American society. For my non-North American readers I think you'll still find interest in the conversation. At points where trends converge you'll find parallels in your own country. Where trends diverge you'll be able to speak of civic practices in your country that have either been lost in America or never acquired in the first place. That is, we can learn from you. Also, in many of these posts we'll be comparing the European pedestrian lifestyle with the American automotive lifestyle. We'll also be speaking about English pubs, French coffeehouses, and German beer gardens.

This series is going to follow the analyses and arguments presented in three books. These books are:

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart

The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community

Each book examines trends in American life and comes up with a major diagnosis about what is happening in American culture. Specifically, Americans today are:


Taking my cue from the book Hot, Flat and Crowded, this series is thus entitled Alone, Suburban & Sorted.

(One quick note. The descriptions "alone" and "sorted" are pretty accurate. I've struggled with the third term and have settled on "suburban." But that term is not quite as accurate as the other two. Obviously, we aren't all living in suburbs. However, the rise of the automotive suburb post-WW2 helps peg a trend concerning the loss of "third places" in America. More about "third places" as the series continues.)

In this post we are going to begin our reflections by focusing on alone, digging into Robert Putnam's much discussed book Bowling Alone.

Bowling Alone was published in 2000. Thus, it is badly in need of some updating. For example, although Putnam makes a nod late in the book about the advent of Internet "chat rooms," he failed to guess at the explosion of social computing and networking, all the blogs, Facebooking, and Twittering. It still is to be determined if online social networking creates a form of community and to what degree these online communities and connections mitigate the great losses of face-to-face interactions Americans have experienced over the last fifty years. On a different but related note, we have yet to determine if Barack Obama is truly a transitional figure. Putnam tracks growing civic and political disengagement in America, particularly among young people. However, the youth voter turnout during the 2008 election might have signaled a change in this long decent toward disenchantment and disengagement. Or it might not. Time will tell.

But with these disclaimers in mind, Putnam's book remains a powerful document in detailing the decline of social life in America. In the 1960s civic and community engagement was at an all time high in America. The future of participatory democracy and local activism (through churches or civic organizations) seemed bright. But then the bottom fell out. And over the last few decades civic cohesion, specifically at the local and neighborhood level, gradually disintegrated. We went from knowing and regularly interacting with our neighbors to virtual anonymity. We now live among strangers.

The title of Bowling Alone comes from analyses in Chapter 6 where Putnam analyzes changes in informal social connections among Americans. For example, the number of bowlers in American has increased by 10% from 1980 to 1993. But this rise is largely due to general population increases. There are more of us and many of us like to bowl.

However, during this same period league bowling in America has declined by more that 40%. This trend is just one of many documented in Bowling Alone showing how Americans have been retreating from locations and activities involving social mixing. Places where people from all over town mix and interact, practicing the civic virtues of welcome, inclusion, conversation, listening, debate, and accommodation. With fewer bowling leagues, and places like them, Americans have fewer locations and opportunities to practice these skills.

The trend that most caught my attention in Bowling Alone was the decline in card playing in America. Through the 40s, 50s and 60s card playing in America (getting together with friends for games of Bridge or Spades) was rapidly increasing. By the 70s 40% of Americans played cards at least once a month. But since the 80s, card playing has been rapidly declining.

(Incidentally, this is one of Putnam's analyses that I'd like to see revisited. With the advent of the World Poker Tour on ESPN poker is all the rage now. So I wonder if card playing is going back up. My take is that it has, but only among a select demographic: Men. Plus, many of the young guns on the WPT gain much of their experience playing online poker. Regardless, I'd like to see a fresh analysis of all this.)

The decline in card playing struck me as my parents tell stories of the hours and hours they played cards with friends when they were college students and as a young married couple. Movies were rare treat and people ate at home a lot. Thus, a great source of entertainment was having people over to play cards. When I was young I glimpsed this dying world. The card game that dominated by family was Nerts. Nerts, if you don't know, is the greatest group card game ever invented. It is a competitive solitaire-style game on amphetamines. Particularly if you play doubles. Then the action gets violent. As a child I witnessed epic Nerts battles. But these scenes have practically vanished from American homes.

But it's not really about card games. It's about welcoming people into your home. The cards were just an excuse and something to do while you talked. But this trend is also going down. In the 1970s Americans entertained people in their homes 14-15 times a year, a little over once a month. In the late 1990s that number had dropped to eight times a year, a decline of 45% in less than two decades.

One might ask, "So what?" Have these trends really had an affect on the quality and richness of our lives? Who cares if bowling leagues are declining? To frame his response, Putnam ends Chapter 1 of Bowling Along with this story:

Before October 29, 1997, John Lambert and Andy Boschma knew each other only through their local bowling league at the Ypsi-Arbor Lanes in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Lambert, a sixty-four-year-old retired employee of the University of Michigan hospital, had been on a kidney transplant waiting list for three years when Boschma, a thirty-three-year-old accountant, learned casually of Lambert's need and unexpectedly approached him to offer to donate one of his own kidneys.

"Andy saw something in me that other's didn't," said Lambert. "When we were in the hospital Andy said to me, 'John, I really like you and have a lot of respect for you. I wouldn't hesitate to do this all over again.' I got choked up." Boschma returned the feeling: "I obviously feel a kinship [with Lambert]. I cared about him before, but now I'm really rooting for him." This moving story speaks for itself, but the photograph that accompanied this report in the Ann Arbor News reveals that in addition to their differences in profession and generation, Boschma is white and Lambert is African American. That they bowled together made all the difference.

Next Post: Hollowed Out

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9 thoughts on “Alone, Suburban, & Sorted: Part 1, "That they bowled together made all the difference."

  1. Richard,

    Decades back when I was in grad school at Ann Arbor, my wife taught fifth grade in Ypsilanti. We both bowled at those same Ypsi-Arbor Lanes (though the regulars referred to it as a bowling alley). The leagues were so many that it sometimes took a week or so to schedule independent bowling.
    Today, it is not so much that individual choice contributes to social and communal fragmentation as the multiplicity of choices we face in both public and private.

    My wife and I live in suburbia by choice--in order to be close to family and to be supportive of our grandchildren. My neighbor to the north is from New York and it Jewish, to the south is Lebanese and Muslim. Across the street is a lesbian and practicing Episcopalian. Others nearby are Methodist, Baptist, and agnostic. None of us bowls, but we have a loose community of proximity of sorts and look out for one another as we are able. Our more elderly Jewish, and younger Muslim, and agnostic neighbors were the first to greet us and to offer help when we moved into our new home five years ago.

    Some of this involves risk taking and assuming that the Stranger is not the Enemy but the Other. External factors may contribute to social isolation but I think internal ones are predominant. And those involve fear, inertia, and lack of imagination. We get what we give. No hospitality and openness given, none gotten. And sometimes the nothing is nihilistically violent.


    George C.

  2. Traditional American values of the 50's were underwritten by small communities, indeed. Small businesses were the local market, etc. as you pointed out. But, as America grew, so did business. Small businesses were taken over by bigger and bigger businesses which birthed corporations. Employees ceased being a part of a team and became a number. And in troubled economic times these businesses merged, laid off workers, and some even, closed.

    Small communities then became smaller due to youngsters growing up and moving away to larger cities where the bigger businesses were.

    But, the econonmic side to social change only led to further stresses on family ties, which not only limited time with family, but also neighbors. This is unfortunately modern society.

    On the other hand, smaller communities were tight knit "clans" that were suspicious of "outsiders". "Culture" defined the in and out groups. And these cultural standards were the cultural values of including those that differed in cultural norms.

    This happened as divorce became more and more prevalent in the 60's. Single parents, and children of divorce suffered the stigma of "the different", just as now the gay does.

    Social stigma is about cultural norms, which maintain values that define a society.

    Personally, my husband and I moved to a smaller community from the D.C. area over 14 years ago, thinking that there would be a welcome mat outside the county's boundary lines..(egocentrism?). We attempted to become involved in the school the kids were attending, as we always had. And my husband offered his professional services at the local hospital. These were only two illustrations of our attempt to reach out, but both of these and other attempts were met with less than expected results of "welcome".

    So,although small towns may need someone's input, one must earn the respect as the newcomer to have a "voice". The newcomer is an outsider, or a intruder into the "group", or clannish mentality.

    I have rationalized this as a normal result of coming into a community that is ingrown, through personal friendships that have grown over a lifetime. With as little time as most of us have, it is a hard won attempt even to keep up with one's own family and close friends, much less reach those beyond those borders...

    Perhaps, all of the attempts and rejections have led to my becoming reticent or "shy" about trying to reach beyond my comfort zone anymore. But, I recognize that the social change we have experienced is a loss for all of us. And I think it is a shame that we have not more time than we do to socialize, and be involved in community as a whole.

  3. But, I Must add, one thing I miss profoundly of the D.C. area is the exposure, and the tolerance of difference, the cultural advantages of exposure and opportunity. The area itself is an educational experience.

    Traditional cultures do not teach, as they are not about leading people to "see for themselves", but shunning those who don't see it "my way". I had many humorous experiences early on in my interaction with my in-laws, who are from the Netherlands. Such a culture is close enough to be similar, but different enough for there to be an "offense" of protocol of "tradition". Of course, I am also speaking of my in-laws generation. Now, with the internet, I think things are not as "traditonally inclined".

  4. Great topic. I am doing my DMin project this summer on reciprocal hospitality. I want to ask what it would look like for a church to not only welcome, but be welcomed by the stranger. We tend to focus on how we can receive, but what about being received? This requires an exchange of power. I've been trying to focus it a bit or find an angle. Yesterday, after reading your post, I researched "third place" and "social capital." I think there are some possibilities here. Social capital as reciprocal hospitality. You know, I do need a reader from another department [said with eyebrows raising up and down}.

  5. Heh, Nerts. At my grandmother's house it went by a different, and I think much better name: "pounce". In fact, she has a trophy that says something like "Pounce Champion". (Her husband had a matching trophy that said "Sore Loser".)

    We'll have to have you over to play sometime. =)

  6. I've been wanting to read Bowling Alone for some time now and I'm happy that you are discussing its points on your blog.

    I grew up in a small Midwestern city and experienced community through friends at school. My Mom would have friends over occasionally but I never really experienced the type of in home community that you write about. College offered community after I sought it out in a fraternity. After college, I moved to Boston and felt very lonely until I found a church to call home. The church then became my community, and was even the place I met my wife.

    I think my experience is common among my generation (I'm 25 at the moment). I think many people are like me in that they didn't have that kind of community growing up, and as we graduate from college we don't really know what to do to find people to befriend. Many end up at bars every weekend, or develop relationships with co-workers, but I think many are turning to churches to find community as well.

    Understanding the Church as a community is an important point that has deteriorated in the last several decades. With growing societal recognition of American loneliness I think the Church is an excellent position to show Christ's love through its community. The Church can offer community unlike any other social institution because it not only offers human relationships but a relationship with the triune God through Jesus Christ.

    I hope that my generation will work hard to restore Biblical community wherever we find ourselves as laymen and full-time church staff.

    Dan Walsh

    P.S. I'm sure you've heard of it, but in case you haven't there is an interesting book published by InterVarsity Press entitled The Suburban Christian that you might want to check out.

  7. Oh, boy, qb can't wait for the next installment of this one. qb got to share a [beverage] with Coop the other day. Coop had alerted me to his resemblance to Ted Kennedy to make it easier to recognize him upon entering the [establishment]; despite the resemblance, this Goldwater Republican actually had a great time getting acquainted.

    Alas, it's going to be harder now to demonize the Coopster.

    In any event, Michael Frost spends a great deal of time in _Exiles_ speaking of "third places" and their value in building and expanding Christian community; unfortunately, in the midst of an otherwise wonderful book, he then takes an extended, elitist potshot at cheap, mass-produced beer, the most ubiquitous, populist social lubricant there is.

    Look, qb is sold on locally produced craft beer, too, but at least qb doesn't make it a doctrinal issue of fellowship and discipleship the way Frost does.

    Happy St. Patty's Day,


  8. George,
    What a fun connection with the bowling lanes. I think the story of your suburban neighborhood is important to remember. I don't want "suburb" to be pejorative, just a trend that has implications when looked at from a "big picture" perspective. I think suburban neighborhoods can be very open and inclusive. My brother's little cul de sac in my hometown comes to mind.

    I think you make some important cautions. One of my concerns in doing this series was a fear that I was being overly nostalgic about 1950s small town, rural America. For better or worse the world has changed and there is no going back. Plus, those times and small towns had some serious dark sides. I just want to talk about the changes that have quickly overtaken us, to take stock and find a humane way forward.

    Yes, Luke 10: "eat what is set before you." Learn to receive the hospitality of your neighbor.

    Who is on your committee?

    I'd love to get together and play Nerts. Trouble is, Jana, not having grown up in my family, doesn't like the chaotic and competitive pace of the game. Perhaps we can get a few couples together, enough people to create some teams with some opting out if they just want to watch.

    Thanks for the book recommendation.

    I agree that the church is poised to make a real difference. That is why I wanted to do this series. But I think too many churches are failing in that they are too closed or clique-based. I want to think about what a true community-forming church needs to look like.

    I'm totally with you on standing against beer snobbery. I detest it as well.

  9. I am 45 years old and have been married for 25 years. My wife and I were both raised in Alaska in evangelical churches.

    Growing up I remember the Sunday night after-church get-togethers happening on a fairly regular basis: say, at least once a month.

    After we got married, the evangelical church my wife and I belonged to carried on this kind of gathering on regularly, but more on a bi-monthly basis. It was sometime in the late 1980s that these gatherings just ... stopped.

    There is good in this, but mostly I lament what is lost in it.

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