10 Oct 2006

Questioning Diversity

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Harvard Professor Robert Putnam started his march to fame, when he published his highly provocative journal article Bowling Alone in 1995, discussing the breakdown of community in America.

That article was expanded, and appeared five years later as a best-selling and widely-discussed book, which made Putnam into the best known and most influential contemporary political scientist.

Putnam’s more recent research has led him to form highly pessimistic conclusions about social “diversity.”

The Financial Times reports:

A bleak picture of the corrosive effects of ethnic diversity has been revealed in research by Harvard University’s Robert Putnam…

His research shows that the more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust anyone — from their next-door neighbour to the mayor.

This is a contentious finding in the current climate of concern about the benefits of immigration. Professor Putnam told the Financial Times he had delayed publishing his research until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity, saying it “would have been irresponsible to publish without that”.

The core message of the research was that, “in the presence of diversity, we hunker down”, he said. “We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.”

Prof Putnam found trust was lowest in Los Angeles, “the most diverse human habitation in human history”, but his findings also held for rural South Dakota, where “diversity means inviting Swedes to a Norwegians’ picnic”.

When the data were adjusted for class, income and other factors, they showed that the more people of different races lived in the same community, the greater the loss of trust. “They don’t trust the local mayor, they don’t trust the local paper, they don’t trust other people and they don’t trust institutions,” said Prof Putnam. “The only thing there’s more of is protest marches and TV watching.”

Another FT article more thoroughly explains Putnam’s theories:

Putnam makes an important distinction between two different types of social capital: Bridging, in which an individual from one religious, ethnic, or class group, does something for someone in another group for an expected return, and bonding, when people who are “like us” — white Irish Catholic police officers, say, or black Alabama Baptist labourers — act in the expectation of a return.

The second kind, says Putnam, can “lead to Bosnia or Beirut” at most, and ever-wider social distance in wealthier societies.

It makes for close and warm relations among the “in” group but can freeze out or even make enemies of those considered “out”.

His diversity research reveals not just that bonding capital is strong and bridging capital weak in ethnically diverse communities, but also that both are weak in such societies: distrust permeates all relationships and people try to “minimise the hits on them from the society around them” by withdrawing into private space, often in front of a television.

Putnam will be studying similar trends in Europe soon, directing a research program on “social change” at Manchester University.

Hat tip to Memeorandum.

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