Source: OpenClipart-Vectors


The decline is not just in fraternal organizations, but basically almost all civic organizations. The best introduction to this line of research is Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”. Here’s the Wiki, a link to an ungated version of the original article in the Journal of Democracy (1995), and, just a heads up, he turned this into a full length book (2000).

Putnam points out that as he was writing bowling was more popular than ever, but participation in bowling leagues had dropped precipitously in the previous decades. This is true for almost all corners of American life: Americans spend less time together in organized or informal (face-to-face) groups than ever before. Putnam, in fact, discusses fraternal groups specifically, as one of a number of classes of group which face declining membership (church groups, PTAs, sports groups, professional societies, book clubs, labor unions, fraternal groups, veterans’ groups, and service club), just before his bowling example.

Fraternal organizations have also witnessed a substantial drop in membership during the 1980s and 1990s. Membership is down significantly in such groups as the Lions (off 12 percent since 1983), the Elks (off 18 percent since 1979), the Shriners (off 27 percent since 1979), the Jaycees (off 44 percent since 1979), and the Masons (down 39 percent since 1959). In sum, after expanding steadily throughout most of this century, many major civic organizations have experienced a sudden, substantial, and nearly simultaneous decline in membership over the last decade or two.

The most whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in contemporary America that I have discovered is this: more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the last decade or so. Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent. (Lest this be thought a wholly trivial example, I should note that nearly 80 million Americans went bowling at least once during 1993, nearly a third more than voted in the 1994 congressional elections and roughly the same number as claim to attend church regularly. Even after the 1980s’ plunge in league bowling, nearly 3 percent of American adults regularly bowl in leagues.) The rise of solo bowling threatens the livelihood of bowling-lane proprietors because those who bowl as members of leagues consume three times as much beer and pizza as solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in the beer and pizza, not the balls and shoes. The broader social significance, however, lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo. Whether or not bowling beats balloting in the eyes of most Americans, bowling teams illustrate yet another vanishing form of social capital.

Putnam mentions voting because he’s a political scientist whose previous most famous work was all about how “social capital” (sort of “who you know”) was essential for the successful parts of Italian democracy. If it’s declining in America, what does that mean for our democracy?

He suggests two explanations for the overall decline:

Demographic transformations. A range of additional changes have transformed the American family since the 1960s–fewer marriages, more divorces, fewer children, lower real wages, and so on. Each of these changes might account for some of the slackening of civic engagement, since married, middle-class parents are generally more socially involved than other people. Moreover, the changes in scale that have swept over the American economy in these years–illustrated by the replacement of the corner grocery by the supermarket and now perhaps of the supermarket by electronic shopping at home, or the replacement of community-based enterprises by outposts of distant multinational firms–may perhaps have undermined the material and even physical basis for civic engagement.

The technological transformation of leisure. There is reason to believe that deep-seated technological trends are radically “privatizing” or “individualizing” our use of leisure time and thus disrupting many opportunities for social-capital formation. The most obvious and probably the most powerful instrument of this revolution is television. Time-budget studies in the 1960s showed that the growth in time spent watching television dwarfed all other changes in the way Americans passed their days and nights. Television has made our communities (or, rather, what we experience as our communities) wider and shallower. In the language of economics, electronic technology enables individual tastes to be satisfied more fully, but at the cost of the positive social externalities associated with more primitive forms of entertainment. The same logic applies to the replacement of vaudeville by the movies and now of movies by the VCR. The new “virtual reality” helmets that we will soon don to be entertained in total isolation are merely the latest extension of this trend. Is technology thus driving a wedge between our individual interests and our collective interests? It is a question that seems worth exploring more systematically.

He also considers and mostly rejects two other hypotheses as temporally wrong for the overall decline (though the first he says is certainly a cause of a large part of the decline in women’s civic participation):

The movement of women into the labor force. Over these same two or three decades, many millions of American women have moved out of the home into paid employment. This is the primary, though not the sole, reason why the weekly working hours of the average American have increased significantly during these years. It seems highly plausible that this social revolution should have reduced the time and energy available for building social capital. For certain organizations, such as the PTA, the League of Women Voters, the Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the Red Cross, this is almost certainly an important part of the story. The sharpest decline in women’s civic participation seems to have come in the 1970s; membership in such “women’s” organizations as these has been virtually halved since the late 1960s. By contrast, most of the decline in participation in men’s organizations occurred about ten years later; the total decline to date has been approximately 25 percent for the typical organization. On the other hand, the survey data imply that the aggregate declines for men are virtually as great as those for women. It is logically possible, of course, that the male declines might represent the knock-on effect of women’s liberation, as dishwashing crowded out the lodge, but time-budget studies suggest that most husbands of working wives have assumed only a minor part of the housework. In short, something besides the women’s revolution seems to lie behind the erosion of social capital.

Mobility: The “re-potting” hypothesis. Numerous studies of organizational involvement have shown that residential stability and such related phenomena as homeownership are clearly associated with greater civic engagement. Mobility, like frequent re-potting of plants, tends to disrupt root systems, and it takes time for an uprooted individual to put down new roots. It seems plausible that the automobile, suburbanization, and the movement to the Sun Belt have reduced the social rootedness of the average American, but one fundamental difficulty with this hypothesis is apparent: the best evidence shows that residential stability and homeownership in America have risen modestly since 1965, and are surely higher now than during the 1950s, when civic engagement and social connectedness by our measures was definitely higher.

I personally think he too easily dismisses the latter two hypotheses, but it’s clear there is not just one clear answer for one fraternal society declined. The whole article is short, it won’t take you long to read. It’s been a while since I looked at the book version and I can’t remember what it adds other than more examples. He’s not the only one who’s written about the decline in group membership and is certainly not the last word on this well-researched subject area (some argue that participation in groups is not so much declining as shifting, for instance), but he’s certainly the place where everyone starts talking about it.




In my college, fraternities were not that popular, and while a lot of it had to do with the degradation of the value of fraternities, a lot of that was also due to the cost of participation. Joining and being a part of a frat meant ponying up several hundred dollars a semester, or even a thousand or two. It was seen as increasingly pointless. There were many other clubs that offered just as much social interaction as fraternities and were much cheaper or free (the catch is that once you graduated, you were basically done with them – unlike a fraternity, which emphasizes strong alumni connections).

For many other clubs, and most after-school activities in high school, it was a similar problem. While the school met their minimum obligation of providing students transportation to and from school, they never tried to exceed that standard. Unless you were wealthy enough to not need a school bus to get to and from school, this basically meant no after-school activities for you, because you had no way to get home after. And even if you could, you often had to pay for things (uniforms and equipment for sports, supplies for arts, etc.) So this discouraged pretty much all but the wealthy students from really participating in anything outside of lunch-time clubs (student organizations that met in a classroom once a week during lunch, but basically never outside of that).

Another aspect, I’ve noticed, also has to do with race. I’m a first-generation American, and my parents came from an academic environment with little to no student organizations, not like in America. They didn’t really have a context for the sheer influence and ‘power’ of student organizations, so they never really encouraged me to seek one out. I didn’t realize that I should’ve until I was nearly done with college, myself. I know that while my college was diverse, the frats were well on the white side unless they were ones specifically targeted towards/working for minority groups.

Obviously, anecdata =/= data, but to someone who is more familiar with the hard data than myself: is there any indication that student organization participation may play a part in civic participation by adults in general, outside of school?




What do you think?

1 comment

  1. Chad BoltzPro 31 March, 2020 at 13:56 Reply

    Healthcare. It was part of membership in fraternal organizations. Sharing medical costs across a demographically similar group was a very efficient and low cost way to get at least the basic medical care. Then FDR introduced wage freezes and companies began offering health care as a benefit. The NEED for fraternal organizations lessened over time until now when they are essentially irrelevant.

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