Bowling together in Lagos

Although civic associations have declined in the United States, they’re growing in the developing world and in not-so-democratic countries.

As Robert D. Putnam famously chronicled a decade ago in his book Bowling Alone, Americans in the latter third of the twentieth century precipitously abandoned the clubs and associations that once defined us. Many of the trends Putnam outlined have continued. Over the last ten years alone, American membership in the Lions has fallen by about 20 percent, in Rotary by about 8 percent, and the Kiwanis by about 22 percent. Since the mid-twentieth century, everything from card games to church attendance, from Sunday picnics to membership in unions has plummeted. Screen time has crowded out much else. Today, we might follow scores of people on Twitter, join a dozen Facebook groups, and sign up for a few mailing lists, but it’s considerably more rare for us to actually show up for anything.

When I wrote to Putnam, he said he knew nothing about the overseas expansion of the groups he’d written about in Bowling Alone (though he said he was very interested to hear of it). Just about all of the academics I contacted said much the same thing, expressing mild wonderment when I told them about the growth rates that groups like Rotary are posting in the developing world. Theda Skocpol pointed out that it’s hardly novel for American associations to spread vigorously abroad. (The temperance movement apparently had serious legs.) But this more recent phenomenon—of American civic groups’ expansion overseas during a period of contraction at home—seems to have largely escaped scholarly notice.

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