My agent Kerry Nugent Wells kindly alerted me to an article in the Boston Globe, covering the recent work of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. Putnam is justifiably famous for his great book Bowling Alone, which explored how social activity and civic-mindedness in all forms have dwindled away in the U.S. over the past half-century. He's a very careful researcher, and presented masses of data showing how U.S. society has begin strongly "atomized" in recent decades (which, by the way, has nothing whatsoever to do with my use of the word "atom" in The Social Atom).
The thesis of a new study just published by Putnam (in the journal Scandinavian Political Studies, as you'd of course expect!) is that ethnic diversity -- having lots of people from different races and cultures in the same community -- isn't the unfailingly positive social situation that many people take it to be. It brings a lot of problems too, especially a generalized decay of social cohesion and trust. Here's the abstract, which summarizes his findings pretty clearly:
Ethnic diversity is increasing in most advanced countries, driven mostly by sharp increases in immigration. In the long run immigration and diversity are likely to have important cultural, economic, fiscal, and developmental benefits. In the short run, however, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one's own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer. In the long run, however, successful immigrant societies have overcome such fragmentation by creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities. Illustrations of becoming comfortable with diversity are drawn from the US military, religious institutions, and earlier waves of American immigration.
Apparently - at least the article in The Globe takes this angle -- this study represents something of an "inconvenient truth" for many liberals committed to greater diversity. I'm not sure if that's true or not, but conservative commentators will almost certainly make a big deal of it. I'm reading the paper now (it's available here); let me just kind of write down some notes.
He first points to lots of studies, mostly in economics, showing that in the long run, ethnic diversity is a good thing; it leads to lots of creative energy born out of the mingling and combination of cultural habits. This doesn't seem to be contentious. What is less clear, and more contentious, is what happens in the short run, and specifically, what does diversity do for "social capital" -- the spontaneous sociability of people, which is a great resource for cooperative action?
As Putnam points out, there are two BIG IDEAS in social science on this point, and they conflict. The "contact hypothesis" holds that if you put different people in contact, they'll start to learn to get along and be less prejudiced toward one another. In contrast, the "conflict hypothesis" holds that in-group versus out-group prejudices are just too deeply ingrained, and contact just leads to more conflict. Is there more evidence for either of these? Apparently so:
For progressives, the contact theory is alluring, but I think it is fair to say that most (though not all) empirical studies have tended instead to support the so-called ‘conflict theory’, which suggests that, for various reasons – but above all, contention over limited resources – diversity fosters out-group distrust and in-group solidarity. On this theory, the more we are brought into physical proximity with people of another race or ethnic background, the more we stick to ‘our own’ and the less we trust the ‘other’...
Putnam's own study weighs in on these two opposing ideas, but comes out with a paradoxical conclusion -- that neither of them is quite right. Using a huge database of fairly recent survey data, he looked at the levels of trust between people in more or less ethnically diverse communities. (I'd insert some of his figures here, if I knew how to cut and paste into Blogger from a pdf file, but I don't.) First, he found not surprisingly that the level of trust between people of different races decreased with increasing diversity. This supports to conflict theory:
The more ethnically diverse the people we live around, the less we trust them. This pattern may be distressing normatively, but it seems to be consistent with conflict theory.
Other data came from surveys asking people whether they trusted the people in their own neighbourhood, who, because of the norm of racial segregation, would tend to be of the same race. This data showed the same trend -- less trust with more diversity. Putnam then also looked at trust between people of the same race, and again finds the same trend -- less trust with more diversity. In conclusion, the data...
suggests that neither conflict theory nor contact theory corresponds to social reality in contemporary America. Diversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation.
Putnam goes on in the paper to adduce lots of other evidence supporting this basic conclusion, such as systematically lower confidence in political leaders, news media, government and so on. He also tries to control for every other conceivable variable that might lie behind the trend, such as correlations between diversity and community wealth, etc. The finding still stands. One final quote to bring home the message:
...inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbours, regardless of the colour of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.
This is a fascinating finding, and I'm not yet sure what to make of it. I'm also running behind on several other pressing matters, so I'm going to have to stop here for today.
It's important to point out that Putnam's data shows this antagonism between diversity and social cohesion in the short term, and doesn't imply that its locked in and unchangeable. Indeed, while there's lots of good evidence that while we're biologically hard-wired to divide people into groups, and to use those groups in our decision-making, the lines along which we divide them are not fixed.
But the biggest puzzle for me in this finding is why even people of the same group come to trust each other less in ethnically diverse communities. That's interesting, and puzzling, and Putnam doesn't seem to know the answer.