Bowling abroad

The breakdown in American civic culture and community has been well documented. The definitive treatise on this, of course, is Robert Putnam’s 2000 book Bowling Alone, which painted a picture of an increasingly atomized America, in which we belong to fewer organizations, know our neighbors less well, and even get together with friends and family less often.

What happened to all that “social capital,” the umbrella term Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, uses to capture all the communal activities so much in decline? In the current Washington Monthly, John Gravois suggests it hasn’t disappeared, but rather, like manufacturing jobs and call centers, we’ve offshored it. Gravois outlines a surge in membership in the Rotary International, Toastmasters, and Boy Scouts in such far-flung locales as Abu Dhabi, Taiwan, India, Uganda, Egypt, and Bahrain.

Gravois offers no simple explanation for the phenomenon. The rapid urbanization taking place in these countries is offered as one possibility:

Like Russian immigrants newly arrived in Brooklyn from the shtetl, or Okies plopped down in San Francisco after the Dust Bowl, youth with narrow social networks are streaming into cities from the countryside in vast waves in nations like India. “It’s the proverbial yokel going to town,” said Anirudh Krishna, a professor at Duke University’s School of Public Policy who studies social capital in India. “His sleeves are too short, he knows his table manners are atrocious, his breath smells like garlic.” For educated newcomers with professional aspirations, groups like the Toastmasters or the Lions or Rotary might stand to offer “a school in which villagers can learn to conduct themselves with dignity in a city setting,” Krishna said.

One interesting observation Gravois makes is that these groups have been allowed to flourish under authoritarian regimes that would not tolerate more explicitly political groups. The groups’ focus on charity work and other non-threatening, apolitical activities is no doubt the explanation for this, he says. But “when democracies do in fact emerge” in these places, he writes, “it’s not outlandish to think that groups like Rotary and the Toastmasters may offer them strength going forward.”

                                                                                                                                                                         –MICHAEL JONAS 


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