Do Immigrants Bowl Together?

By Otis L. Graham Jr. on May 25, 2012

What is wrong with our country's formerly world-leading political and economic systems? Who can we consult to get some wisdom on this? Not withstanding 50 years in the academy, I have not yet given up hope that professors, once in a while, can help to shed light on our thorniest social dilemmas. Our most visible problems seem now to be both economic and political, but I confess that when this historian sought enlightenment on today's America, I assumed that few historians would have even started to untangle contemporary dilemmas. So I occasionally found myself leaving my own department, walking past the offices of the political scientists and economists whom the media seem to call on for opinion, and turning into the place where the sociologists hang out. What is the most recent Big Idea among your heavy hitters, I might ask? In the l990s, they had an answer: Read the work of Robert Putnam, a sociologist at Harvard. In 2001, he put a catchy title on a bold, impressive, and best-selling book he worked on after publishing an exploratory article in 1995. The book is whimsically entitled Bowling Alone.

What was going wrong in America? Our society, according to Putnam, was enduring a decades-long decline of the nation's stock of what he called "social capital", by which he meant the country's vital storehouse of the many forms of social connectedness that had given us world leadership.

The weakening of the bonds of social capital had unaccountably commenced in the 1950s. Drawing on a huge database of social statistics, Putnam demonstrated that a range of American civic organizations began a long trend of declining membership in the l950s and l960s — Boy Scouts, Elks, PTA, Masons and other civic groups, along with a general decline in volunteerism. Voter participation also steadily declined, standing at 62 percent in the presidential election of 1960, but by 1996 shrinking to 48.9 percent. Outside of politics, from the 1970s to the 1990s the number of Americans who attended at least one community or school meeting shrank by 40 percent.

Putnam's dramatic, fact-filled picture of the historic decline of community bonds and group engagement in modern America is complex, so he gave us a catchy handle on it. To capture the process in a memorable triviality, Putnam pointed out that the number of Americans engaged in bowling was huge, making it the nation's most popular competitive sport for amateurs across the last half of the 20th Century. The total number of bowlers (91 million Americans bowled at some point in 1990s) increased 10 percent through the 1980s and 1990s, but the structure of participation changed sharply. League bowling decreased by over 40 percent, and is, he thinks, headed toward extinction. Bowlers began to bowl in ever-smaller groups, part of the larger trend away from frequent voluntary engagement with our neighbors. Putnam used bowling habits to give a face to the larger erosion of civic activism and engagement that he and others — including President Bill Clinton, who invited him to Camp David for a talk — thought did not bode well for the functioning of American democracy.

What does this all have to do with immigration? Putnam gave much attention to the search for the causes of the contemporary societal loss of cohesion and common bonds, and offered a list of likely contributing forces — increasing numbers of women entering the work force, meaning less time for community engagements; urban sprawl requiring longer commuting times; and television's theft of time formerly devoted to neighborhood activities, events, and institutions.

Putnam agreed with his critics as well as his allies that his theories about causation needed further work. At Harvard (and any other first-rate research university), if an early publication suggests you are writing a good book on what looks like a big national (and global) problem, you gather colleagues around you and apply to foundations for money to start a new research institution. Putnam and his allies raised funds and founded the Saguaro Seminar, located in the Kennedy School. The seminar commissioned much research and held many meetings, by his account helping to make Bowling Alone the impressive book it was. But the seminar met and the book was constructed at Harvard, which gave Putnam many advantages, but also an immigration problem.

For he was not just an erudite student of American society in and after the 1950s, when the current social capital crisis began. He was also deeply interested in the decades from the 1880s to World War I, when a progressive reform movement devoted much innovative energy to remedies to the social crises of their day. He devoted an entire chapter (23) to its "lessons", based on reading works of history requiring 87 notes to identify. From this research he learned that Progressive Era Americans were disturbed and mobilized by the social costs of rapid industrialization, unprecedented urban expansion, robber baron excesses, and corruption in politics. And by waves of the "New Immigration", whose scale he seemed to grasp — "In the 30 years between 1870 and 1900 nearly 12 million persons immigrated to the United States, more than had come to our shores in the previous two and a half centuries" (p. 371) — but whose social impact he was reluctant to seriously explore. In a brief discussion he quotes historian Steven Diner, observing that the incoming millions of "Catholics and Jews from the unfamiliar countries of Southern and Eastern Europe" ignited "a national debate about 'Americanization'" — in other words, there is contemporary evidence that immigrants were thought to be part of the problem. Progressives responded in several ways, possibly offering lessons. Some formed the Settlement House movement to promote assimilation through language and civics classes. Others — among them the president of MIT and Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.) — had a different remedy. They organized the Immigration Restriction League in Boston in 1894 and lobbied the government to restrict the overall number of immigrants and adopt a new selection process favoring immigrants from northern Europe.

Here arises Putnam's immigration problem. Research reveals that an earlier social capital crisis had as one cause a wave of what we might call third-world immigration to the United States, and as one remedy immigration reduction and civic education. Today's social capital crisis comes at a time when the Immigration Act of 1965 launched a new era of mass immigration to the United States from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. But the problems posed by this large and touchy social issue must have been worse than awkward for Putnam and his seminarians. For Harvard had profoundly changed since the Immigration Restriction League was formed not too many blocks away. A new era of mass immigration from non-European nations runs parallel to and may complicate the crisis of American social capital, if there is such a thing. But at Harvard and all other universities they do not do research or engage in foundation-funded discussions that might be taken as "blaming the immigrant".

So the research archive of causes of, and remedies for, the depletion of social capital may be assumed to have a taboo drawer labeled "immigration", not to be opened. We don't, and probably won't, know if the immigrants from Korea, Honduras, the Sudan, Libya, Yemen, or Berzerkistan who now come to America at what may someday be conceded as a time of social capital depletion bowled alone once they got here or bowled in groups. Or whether and how it matters.