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The Flip-Side of Cultural Diversity?

A study conducted by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam finds less civic activity in diverse communities.

The study is the largest ever on civic engagement in America, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America. Putnam surveyed residents in 41 US communities, sorting residents were 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 their civic attitudes and practices, including their views on local government, their involvement in community projects, and their friendships.

The Findings: Lower “Social Capital”

The study 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 found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

Putnam has studied the problem of declining civic activity for quite some time, finding that the US has experienced a pronounced decline in “social capital”  – which refers to the social networks — friendships, religious congregations, neighborhood associations and so on.  He states that when social capital is high, communities are better places to live, neighborhoods are safer, people are healthier, and more citizens vote.

Putnam writes that those in more diverse communities tend to:

distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color 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…People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’ — that is, to pull in like a turtle.” 

These findings challenged the two dominant schools of thought on ethnic and racial diversity, the “contact” theory and the “conflict” theory. Under the contact theory, more time spent with those of other backgrounds leads to greater understanding and harmony between groups. Under the conflict theory, that proximity produces tension and discord. But Putnam’s findings reject both theories: In more diverse communities, there were neither great bonds formed across group lines nor heightened ethnic tensions, but a general civic malaise, with levels of trust lower even among members of the same group.

The “Diversity Paradox”

In a nation that is inexorably becoming increasingly diverse, how are we to interpret these findings?  

First, it is important to note that there are also some very positive recent findings about diversity, While ethnic diversity may, in the short run prove a liability for social connectedness, other research suggests it can be a big asset when it comes to driving productivity and innovation. In high-skill workplace settings. Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist and  author of “The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies”  finds that the different ways of thinking among people from different cultures can be a distinct advantage:

Because they see the world and think about the world differently than you, that’s challenging. But by hanging out with people different than you, you’re likely to get more insights. Diverse teams tend to be more productive.”

Page calls this the “diversity paradox.” He thinks the contrasting positive and negative effects of diversity can coexist in communities, but we must be wary of civic engagement falling off too far.

Putnam’s Take

When he published a detailed analysis in the journal Scandinavian Political Studies, Putnam argued that the negative effects of diversity can be remedied, and that history suggests that ethnic diversity may eventually fade as a sharp line of social demarcation.

In the final section of his paper, Putnam discusses how social identity can change over time, stating that experience shows that social divisions can eventually give way to “more encompassing identities” that create a “new, more capacious sense of ‘we.”

He also points out that increasing diversity in America is not only inevitable, but ultimately valuable and enriching. To help reduce divisions that hinder civic engagement, he suggests programs such as expanding support for English-language instruction and investing in community centers and other places to foster meaningful interaction. Putnam states: 

I think over the long run, as we get to know one another, and as we begin to see things that we have in common with people who don’t look like us, this allergy to diversity tends to diminish and to go away. So this is not something that I think as an argument against immigration. On the contrary, actually, I think in the long run we’ll all be better. But I don’t think that progressives and integrationists like me do our cause any service by hiding from ourselves the fact that it’s not easy.

Putting It Into Perspective

I believe it is important to remember that social diversity is a rather recent phenomenon, and the American consciousness is still evolving as is plainly demonstrated by the obvious dog whistle racism of the anti-Obama crowd.

What is also important to note is that Putnam does not extrapolate some universal principle that heterogeneous societies have any less potential for social cohesion than homogeneous ones -only that it takes time for people to look past their differences, and the American experience demonstrates that over time society can change.

For example, one of the remarkable aspects of the study is that it focuses on diverse communities. In fact, 50 odd years ago diverse neighborhoods were unheard of. I recall the changes in my old neighborhood, Bedford Stuyversant, Brooklyn. There was “white flight”following the construction of the subway line between Harlem and Bedford in 1936, as African Americans left overcrowded Harlem for more available housing in Bedford–Stuyvesant. But today, my daughter lives right near my old home in Clinton Hill, which is now a diverse neighborhood.

So it would not be fair to overgeneralize based on a study of diversity given such a short time frame.

Our Polarized Society

I believe that it would also be mistaken to lay off the problems of American polarization on attitudes about race on the part of the members of society themselves. To put this in perspective, bear in mind that even as America’s oligarchical structures have tightened over the  past few decades, society as a whole has nonetheless managed to trend toward a more diverse perspective.

This has occurred despite increased political polarization. When there is a demonstrative and concerted effort by the wealthiest class – including the media and politicians it controls- to manipulate people’s thought processes such that they devolve into a divisive, polarized mental framework, we should avoid the temptation to simply cite racial attitudes. While this is a contributing factor, alienation has much deeper roots, and It takes a great deal in such a divisive environment to take the bull by the horns and overcome the mental conditioning that is damaging the cohesiveness of American society,

I observe that change is inspired by trauma and shock. And given the increasing disparity in wealth distribution, mistrust of our leaders, expanding unemployment and the decline of the American middle class, we have a very interesting opportunity as a society today to evolve – together.

The key is to see past our differences, and Putnam agrees with me here. The only thing holding us back is that we submit to the mechanisms of control.