IT HAS BECOME increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.Read the whole thing.
But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam -- famous for "Bowling Alone," his 2000 book on declining civic engagement -- has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings....
The study comes at a time when the future of the American melting pot is the focus of intense political debate, from immigration to race-based admissions to schools, and it poses challenges to advocates on all sides of the issues. The study is already being cited by some conservatives as proof of the harm large-scale immigration causes to the nation's social fabric. But with demographic trends already pushing the nation inexorably toward greater diversity, the real question may yet lie ahead: how to handle the unsettling social changes that Putnam's research predicts....
The study is part of a fascinating new portrait of diversity emerging from recent scholarship. Diversity, it shows, makes us uncomfortable -- but discomfort, it turns out, isn't always a bad thing. Unease with differences helps explain why teams of engineers from different cultures may be ideally suited to solve a vexing problem. Culture clashes can produce a dynamic give-and-take, generating a solution that may have eluded a group of people with more similar backgrounds and approaches. At the same time, though, Putnam's work adds to a growing body of research indicating that more diverse populations seem to extend themselves less on behalf of collective needs and goals.
This story is interesting in that Putnam's findings - that greater diversity leads to social malaise - have created a quandary for him. He's been the most important social scientist leading the revival of the civic culture school of social capital research. Yet, at the same time his own findings on detrimental diversity go against his previous arguments on the social benefits of greater civic connections:
Putnam claims the US has experienced a pronounced decline in "social capital," a term he helped popularize. Social capital refers to the social networks -- whether friendships or religious congregations or neighborhood associations -- that he says are key indicators of civic well-being. When social capital is high, says Putnam, communities are better places to live. Neighborhoods are safer; people are healthier; and more citizens vote.Putnam reportedly "kicked the tires" on his research before publication, hesitant to distribute evidence that posed a key challenge to his career work. That might explain why he sent his manuscript to an obscure journal, Scandinavian Political Studies. I don't think I've ever read a scholarly article published in that journal! And I'm sure a scholar of Putnam's stature would have been accepted for publication at even a second-tier scholary press in the states!
The results of his new study come from a survey Putnam directed among residents in 41 US communities, including Boston. Residents were sorted into the four principal categories used by the US Census: black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. They were asked how much they trusted their neighbors and those of each racial category, and questioned about a long list of civic attitudes and practices, including their views on local government, their involvement in community projects, and their friendships. What emerged in more diverse communities was a bleak picture of civic desolation, affecting everything from political engagement to the state of social ties.
Putnam knew he had provocative findings on his hands. He worried about coming under some of the same liberal attacks that greeted Daniel Patrick Moynihan's landmark 1965 report on the social costs associated with the breakdown of the black family. There is always the risk of being pilloried as the bearer of "an inconvenient truth," says Putnam.
In any case, additional research could clarify Putnam's downside of diversity thesis by using time-series analysis to map the longevity of detrimental diversity. That is, how long lasting is the phenomenon of social malaise arising under high rates of ethnic diversity? At what point do groups tend to lose their original ethic identities and merge under a dominant American one?
Such a study would have to hold constant the rates of immigration across time periods. One criticism of the current wave of immigration is that Latin American immigrants have greater geographical contiguity to their original homelands, and there is there more periodic repatriation and less language assimilation, which results in more lasting segmentation of social groupings. If that phenomenon holds throughout 21st-century American history, Putnam's most recent findings could have very serious implications for the continued unity and viability of the American polity.