Updating Data Trends

I’ve long assigned Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone, re-issued this month with a 20-year anniversary edition.  The book is a tour de force about changes in American civic life, but it is also rich with varied and vast empirical evidence.  In assigning the book, I ask students (in Gov 2050: Public Opinion and Voting Behavior) to look for the underlying data in many of the figures and tables and to try to update the trends to the present day.  The exercise is both a way to see if Putnam’s thesis holds since the book’s publication in 2000, but it is also an opportunity to learn about the challenges and opportunities of data collection.

This past semester, we updated (to varying degrees of success) about 40 graphs in the book, including Figure 72, which measures the attitudes of incoming college first-years.  The original graph is below.


The replication and updated trends are fascinating.  The data were readily available at the links noted in the updated graph below, and they represent millions and millions of survey responses from over 50 years.  When Putnam wrote the book, the trends in community involvement and political awareness (the percentage saying these goals were essential or very important) had been dropping throughout the 1990s, while the expressed importance of being well off financially (very well off, in fact) were at all-time highs.

Since 1998, attitudes about financial success have increased even more (to over 80 percent of respondents expressing its importance), but political awareness and involvement have rebounded a bit, to nearly 30-year highs.  Still, those attitudes trail considerably support for high incomes.  You can be the judge of these trends.  There is a lot to consider in all of this.


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