Bowling Alone and Sheltering in Place

A few days ago, I went for a run through my neighborhood, and I saw another runner. In general, local runners fall into two categories for me—friend or potential friend—since I already know most of the runners in our small town, and, if I don’t, I would like to know them. But instead of greeting this runner as usual, we both immediately crossed to opposite sides of the road. And, just in case, I held my breath.

These are strange days. The runner I passed would likely be the only person outside of my home whom I would see that day, and we regarded one another not as friends, but as potential vectors of disease. Interactions like these are profoundly destabilizing and lonely, and surely there will be long-term social ramifications of regarding one another with so much unease. But this is the moment we are in, and staying physically apart is the best way to care for one another.

Shelter in Place

At the moment, most of us are home. For some, this means occupying the same physical space as family members or roommates for more extended periods of time than usual, with the added complication of trying to get our work done in a situation not conducive to working well. For others, this means being wholly isolated from family, friends, and colleagues, and seeking human contact through technologies, like text messages and Zoom.

For all of us, there has been a decisive and fairly abrupt shift in how we typically conduct ourselves socially, since we were removed from institutions, public spaces, and group activities seemingly overnight. This shift provides an occasion to either practice constructive interactions while under the same roof, or to reconsider how we generally interact with one another outside of our homes. Maybe now is a good time to do some vision-casting for how we would like to pursue friendships or to invest in our communities in the future.

Bowling Alone

In 2000, political scientist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.(1). It is a book about the erosion of American social capital—a phenomenon he described in terms of our society becoming less wedded to the civic institutions that had previously animated much of American culture. For example, there were declining memberships in organizations such as the Knights of Columbus, labor unions, Boy Scouts, and Elk Clubs, and fewer people were voting. And, as the title of the book suggests, there were fewer bowling clubs. People were bowling more, yet bowling alone. Putnam proposed that this shift would have significant political ramifications. There would be less shared identity and reciprocity, fewer opportunities for collective reflection on cultural values, and fewer occasions to see and respond to one another’s needs.

At the time the book was published, many of these observations rang true for readers—that we were becoming increasingly less communal and more individual in our daily lives, spending more time watching television or surfing the internet, and we were less likely to affiliate with charitable organizations. Even now, many of these things seem true to me. I will confess I do not know what an Elk Club is. It sounds like something I would not want to encounter alone on a trail run—a herd of roaming Elk Clubs. But others criticized Putnam’s project for not-insignificant reasons. For example, some argued that not all civic institutions are worth preserving because membership might be exclusionary or create momentum around problematic ideas. Others pointed out that collective engagements had simply taken on different forms.

Regardless of whether Putnam’s thesis is true or complete, he started an important conversation about the forms and functions of civic life—a conversation that continues today, 20 years later. And questions such as these seem especially ripe for our current moment—when we are isolated, scrambling to connect, and wondering how to be present for one another:

  • How do we typically interact with one another?
  • Do we know our neighbors?
  • Are we all alone here?
  • Are we connected in ways that helpfully sustain democratic activity?
  • Do we see and respond to one another’s needs?

Community and COVID-19

I have been thinking a lot about Putnam’s book recently because of the closing, or significant restructuring, of our participation in institutions—schools, sports, and public life. Because we are physically separated, we are all (figuratively) bowling alone. These changes may only be temporary, but I think it is telling how many people have expressed a deep sense of personal loss—rather than just a sense of inconvenience—over being removed from one another. If nothing else, these responses to quarantine communicate that our in-person communities are still vibrant and meaningful places of engagement for us. And they should be. We should be invested in our communities so we can know how best to care for one another.

At the same time, it has also been encouraging to hear how many friends have expressed that they have been re-examining a loss of connection they failed to notice while being so busy, pre-quarantine. Many are being more intentional and creative about sustaining communities from afar—such as by greeting running buddies via FaceTime before starting runs, holding synchronous courses online, organizing virtual races, or planning Zoom happy hours with friends from the past. I am personally doing a combination of all of these things, plus examining whether I am actually present with the person physically located in my house—my husband. I am trying not to allow my work (and COVID-19 googling) expand so it fills all of my waking hours.

Final Thoughts

For all of us, there has been a fairly abrupt shift in how we typically conduct ourselves socially, and this is uncomfortable, to say the least. But this shift provides an occasion to either practice constructive interactions while under the same roof, or to reconsider how we generally interact with one another. This can involve developing gratitude for normal training groups and for the people we interact with on a regular basis in the world, or encourage us to find new ways to invest in groups we never realized were so important to us prior to sheltering in place. Maybe we can come out the other side of this pandemic with deeper ties to our local running communities. And who knows? We might even check out our local Elk Clubs once all of this is over.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What have you learned through sheltering in place about either the people with whom you’re sharing your home space or about the people you’re not seeing in person right now?
  • Is your current experience shaping how you will approach relationships going forward?
  • Are there any elements of your previous interactions that you’ve learned you actually prefer to live without?


Robert D. Putnam. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).

Sabrina Little

is a trail runner and ultrarunner for HOKA and Nathan Sports, and a Philosophy PhD student at Baylor University. She is trying to figure out whether it is more unreasonable to pursue mountain running in Waco, Texas (elevation 470 feet) or philosophy in the year 2018. Learn more about Sabrina on her website.

There are 8 comments

  1. Colin Chapell

    I’ve not thought about “Bowling Alone” in the midst of this, but it really does start some interesting questions. I know that working as an academic tends to invade my home life in normal times…and this has only upped that tendency. You’re right that it is a really hard thing to be present with the folks we’re present with.

    I do wonder as well how Putnam’s book will be read/taught after this period is done. Will it still have the resonance that it did in the early 00s, or will people think (even more) that he missed the informal communities that had been there all along? Maybe fodder for future syllabi…

    1. Sabrina

      Thanks for your comment, Colin. I also wonder how we will regard the book after this. It seems like it is time for a revised attempt at Putnam’s project.

  2. John Vanderpot

    Dear Sabrina: will you be available to run for political office this fall?

    I’m probably not alone in wondering if maybe the time has come for more thinking, articulate people to play a more public role?

    (For perhaps the past decade I’ve been coming at Putnam’s Bowling by way of Twenge’s GenMe and iGen [we teach at the same school] and the push-back from students has been that online communities are communities…at this point, admittedly, it’s hard to argue, but surely I’m not alone now in remembering how much “fun” it was to huddle under a tent in the middle of the night and drink warm soda and sip cold soup, am I? Ah, the good old days!)

  3. Clayton

    I reread Bowling Alone earlier this month. (The “revised and updated” 20th anniversary edition comes out later this year.) This crisis seems to confirm Putnam’s premise if not his predictions. The book also helped me notice how people are recreating community in innovative ways. Next on my pandemic reading list are The Great Good Place, Palaces for the People, The Vanishing Neighbor, and Canoeing the Mountains. Thanks for your insightful article. I always look forward to your contributions.

  4. Elle

    Realize this is an older article – apologies, just finally got a chance to catch up,
    While the very real emotional & mental affect of the “shelter in place” is indisputable, I think the most dangerous pattern we might be observing is people viewing others as a threat – people are told to keep safe distance from other humans, for fear of catching the virus (this person whom I don’t even know can be the cause of something potentially very dangerous), of course one starts to – consciously or not – view other human as a threat, and that is a really sad outcome.
    While the importance of social distancing is indisputable, erosion of trust & inability to connect with other humans is something would be a really tragic “side effect”. I run in the morning, and typically there are many others out, and most greet each other in some way. During the first week of “shelter in place” runners would still greet each other. Second week – maybe less, and now people do not look @ each other even. I can see how you felt it was necessary to cross the street, but why not at least wave or smile at the other runner? I consciously try to & most people respond, likely we all are feeling a bit lonely. My point is basically, for sure, practice social distancing, but is there really a need to go to such extremes as hold one’s breath? Waving or even just smiling at another runner is the easiest way to feel like part of the community without putting anybody’s health at risk. Whenever I do it, people always smile or wave back, and while not ideal for community building, it still allows one to feel like others are not a potential threat to our wellbeing, they are part of the community too, and are likely just as lonely & welcome a friendly greeting in which ever form it’s available right now.

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