[URBANTH-L] REV: Is Diversity Bad for Cities? (A review of Robert Putman's latest book)

Angela Jancius jancius at ohio.edu
Thu Aug 9 20:30:02 EDT 2007

The downside of diversity
A Harvard political scientist finds that diversity hurts civic life. What 
happens when a liberal scholar unearths an inconvenient truth?

The Boston Globe
By Michael Jonas  |  August 5, 2007

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 
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 extent of the effect is shocking," says Scott Page, a University of 
Michigan political scientist.
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.
"We can't ignore the findings," says Ali Noorani, executive director of the 
Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. "The big question we 
have to ask ourselves is, what do we do about it; what are the next steps?"
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.
His findings on the downsides of diversity have also posed a challenge for 
Putnam, a liberal academic whose own values put him squarely in the 
pro-diversity camp. Suddenly finding himself the bearer of bad news, Putnam 
has struggled with how to present his work. He gathered the initial raw data 
in 2000 and issued a press release the following year outlining the results. 
He then spent several years testing other possible explanations.
When he finally published a detailed scholarly analysis in June in the 
journal Scandinavian Political Studies, he faced criticism for straying from 
data into advocacy. His paper argues strongly that the negative effects of 
diversity can be remedied, and says history suggests that ethnic diversity 
may eventually fade as a sharp line of social demarcation.
"Having aligned himself with the central planners intent on sustaining such 
social engineering, Putnam concludes the facts with a stern pep talk," wrote 
conservative commentator Ilana Mercer, in a recent Orange County Register 
op-ed titled "Greater diversity equals more misery."
Putnam has long staked out ground as both a researcher and a civic player, 
someone willing to describe social problems and then have a hand in 
addressing them. He says social science should be "simultaneously rigorous 
and relevant," meeting high research standards while also "speaking to 
concerns of our fellow citizens." But on a topic as charged as ethnicity and 
race, Putnam worries that many people hear only what they want to.
"It would be unfortunate if a politically correct progressivism were to deny 
the reality of the challenge to social solidarity posed by diversity," he 
writes in the new report. "It would be equally unfortunate if an ahistorical 
and ethnocentric conservatism were to deny that addressing that challenge is 
both feasible and desirable."
Putnam is the nation's premier guru of civic engagement. After studying 
civic life in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s, Putnam turned his attention to 
the US, publishing an influential journal article on civic engagement in 
1995 that he expanded five years later into the best-selling "Bowling 
Alone." The book sounded a national wake-up call on what Putnam called a 
sharp drop in civic connections among Americans. It won him audiences with 
presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and made him one of the 
country's best known social scientists.
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.
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.
After releasing the initial results in 2001, Putnam says he spent time 
"kicking the tires really hard" to be sure the study had it right. Putnam 
realized, for instance, that more diverse communities tended to be larger, 
have greater income ranges, higher crime rates, and more mobility among 
their residents -- all factors that could depress social capital independent 
of any impact ethnic diversity might have.
"People would say, 'I bet you forgot about X,'" Putnam says of the string of 
suggestions from colleagues. "There were 20 or 30 X's."
But even after statistically taking them all into account, the connection 
remained strong: Higher diversity meant lower social capital. In his 
findings, 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," Putnam writes.
In documenting that hunkering down, Putnam 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 
Putnam's findings reject both theories. In more diverse communities, he 
says, there were neither great bonds formed across group lines nor 
heightened ethnic tensions, but a general civic malaise. And in perhaps the 
most surprising result of all, levels of trust were not only lower between 
groups in more diverse settings, but even among members of the same group.
"Diversity, at least in the short run," he writes, "seems to bring out the 
turtle in all of us."
The overall findings may be jarring during a time when it's become 
commonplace to sing the praises of diverse communities, but researchers in 
the field say they shouldn't be.
"It's an important addition to a growing body of evidence on the challenges 
created by diversity," says Harvard economist Edward Glaeser.
In a recent study, Glaeser and colleague Alberto Alesina demonstrated that 
roughly half the difference in social welfare spending between the US and 
Europe -- Europe spends far more -- can be attributed to the greater ethnic 
diversity of the US population. Glaeser says lower national social welfare 
spending in the US is a "macro" version of the decreased civic engagement 
Putnam found in more diverse communities within the country.
Economists Matthew Kahn of UCLA and Dora Costa of MIT reviewed 15 recent 
studies in a 2003 paper, all of which linked diversity with lower levels of 
social capital. Greater ethnic diversity was linked, for example, to lower 
school funding, census response rates, and trust in others. Kahn and Costa's 
own research documented higher desertion rates in the Civil War among Union 
Army soldiers serving in companies whose soldiers varied more by age, 
occupation, and birthplace.
Birds of different feathers may sometimes flock together, but they are also 
less likely to look out for one another. "Everyone is a little 
self-conscious that this is not politically correct stuff," says Kahn.
So how to explain New York, London, Rio de Janiero, Los Angeles -- the great 
melting-pot cities that drive the world's creative and financial economies?
The image of civic lassitude dragging down more diverse communities is at 
odds with the vigor often associated with urban centers, where ethnic 
diversity is greatest. It turns out there is a flip side to the discomfort 
diversity can cause. If ethnic diversity, at least in the short run, is a 
liability for social connectedness, a parallel line of emerging research 
suggests it can be a big asset when it comes to driving productivity and 
innovation. In high-skill workplace settings, says Scott Page, the 
University of Michigan political scientist, the different ways of thinking 
among people from different cultures can be a boon.
"Because they see the world and think about the world differently than you, 
that's challenging," says Page, author of "The Difference: How the Power of 
Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies." "But by 
hanging out with people different than you, you're likely to get more 
insights. Diverse teams tend to be more productive."
In other words, those in more diverse communities may do more bowling alone, 
but the creative tensions unleashed by those differences in the workplace 
may vault those same places to the cutting edge of the economy and of 
creative culture.
Page calls it the "diversity paradox." He thinks the contrasting positive 
and negative effects of diversity can coexist in communities, but "there's 
got to be a limit." If civic engagement falls off too far, he says, it's 
easy to imagine the positive effects of diversity beginning to wane as well. 
"That's what's unsettling about his findings," Page says of Putnam's new 
Meanwhile, by drawing a portrait of civic engagement in which more 
homogeneous communities seem much healthier, some of Putnam's worst fears 
about how his results could be used have been realized. A stream of 
conservative commentary has begun -- from places like the Manhattan 
Institute and "The American Conservative" -- highlighting the harm the study 
suggests will come from large-scale immigration. But Putnam says he's also 
received hundreds of complimentary emails laced with bigoted language. "It 
certainly is not pleasant when David Duke's website hails me as the guy who 
found out racism is good," he says.
In the final quarter of his paper, Putnam puts the diversity challenge in a 
broader context by describing how social identity can change over time. 
Experience shows that social divisions can eventually give way to "more 
encompassing identities" that create a "new, more capacious sense of 'we,'" 
he writes.
Growing up in the 1950s in small Midwestern town, Putnam knew the religion 
of virtually every member of his high school graduating class because, he 
says, such information was crucial to the question of "who was a possible 
mate or date." The importance of marrying within one's faith, he says, has 
largely faded since then, at least among many mainline Protestants, 
Catholics, and Jews.
While acknowledging that racial and ethnic divisions may prove more 
stubborn, Putnam argues that such examples bode well for the long-term 
prospects for social capital in a multiethnic America.
In his paper, Putnam cites the work done by Page and others, and uses it to 
help frame his conclusion that increasing diversity in America is not only 
inevitable, but ultimately valuable and enriching. As for smoothing over the 
divisions that hinder civic engagement, Putnam argues that Americans can 
help that process along through targeted efforts. He suggests expanding 
support for English-language instruction and investing in community centers 
and other places that allow for "meaningful interaction across ethnic 
Some critics have found his prescriptions underwhelming. And in offering 
ideas for mitigating his findings, Putnam has drawn scorn for stepping out 
of the role of dispassionate researcher. "You're just supposed to tell your 
peers what you found," says John Leo, senior fellow at the Manhattan 
Institute, a conservative think tank. "I don't expect academics to fret 
about these matters."
But fretting about the state of American civic health is exactly what Putnam 
has spent more than a decade doing. While continuing to research questions 
involving social capital, he has directed the Saguaro Seminar, a project he 
started at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government that promotes efforts 
throughout the country to increase civic connections in communities.
"Social scientists are both scientists and citizens," says Alan Wolfe, 
director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston 
College, who sees nothing wrong in Putnam's efforts to affect some of the 
phenomena he studies.
Wolfe says what is unusual is that Putnam has published findings as a social 
scientist that are not the ones he would have wished for as a civic leader. 
There are plenty of social scientists, says Wolfe, who never produce 
research results at odds with their own worldview.
"The problem too often," says Wolfe, "is people are never uncomfortable 
about their findings."
Michael Jonas is acting editor of CommonWealth magazine, published by 
MassINC, a nonpartisan public-policy think tank in Boston. 

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