Political scientist Robert Putnam made news a few years ago with Bowling Alone, where Putnam claimed that American community has been in decline. Putnam’s book draws its title from the following passage:
Whether or not bowling beats balloting in the eyes of most Americans, bowling teams illustrate yet another vanishing form of social capital… league bowling, by requiring regular participation with a diverse set of acquaintances, represented a form of sustained social capital that is not matched by the occasional pickup game.
Tim Hallett, a colleague of mine, his dissertation advisor Gary Alan Fine and graduate student Mike Sauder decided to see if people really bowled alone. They recently published a summary of their findings in the magazine Society. Fine, Hallett and Sauder write: “As occasional bowlers – although not in leagues – we asked a simple question: Do Americans really bowl alone, and what, if anything, does it mean?”
To answer that question, they went bowling and observed over 800 bowlers at six Chicago area bowling alleys. What did they find? Less than 1% of the people seen bowling actually bowled alone. In interviews, only 13% said they had bowled alone during the past year. What about those loners? Were the solo bowlers introverted and anti-social? To the contrary, 12 out of 22 interviewees who admitted to bowling alone did so to practice so they could do well in bowling leagues. In other words, bowling alone correlates with being in a bowling league.
To be fair, Putnam himself admitted bowling might be social. But he seems to have underestimated the social side of modern bowling. A lot of bowling alleys throw parties and turn their lanes into disco style social clubs. It is also common for all kinds of clubs and groups to socialize at bowling alleys. So maybe bowling leagues are on the decline, but Americans don’t bowl alone.