Written By ‘Classical Liberal’
The mainstream media would have us all believe that racial and ethnic diversity is an undoubted source of civic strength. However, research by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam shows that diversity does have a downside.
Putnam is arguably America’s most respected authority on civic engagement. After researching civic life in Italy in the 1970s and 1980s, Putnam shifted his focus to the USA, publishing the highly influential book Bowling Alone in 2000, which showed that there had been a sharp decline in civic engagement among Americans.
Putnam conducted the largest ever study of civic engagement in the USA, involving interviews with nearly 30,000 people in 41 communities across the country, eventually published in the academic journal Scandinavian Political Studies in June 2007. Participants 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 neighbours 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.
Putnam 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, neighbours trust one another only half as much as they do in the most homogenous communities. Nearly all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse communities.
Putnam argues that America has experienced a sharp decline in ‘social capital’, a term which he helped to popularise. Social capital refers to the social networks – whether neighbourhood associations, religious congregations or friendships – that are key measures of civic health. He claims that neighbourhoods are better places to live when social capital is high – communities are safer, people are healthier, and more citizens vote.
Having released his initial findings in 2001, Putnam spent considerable time ‘kicking the tires really hard’ in order to be sure of his conclusions. He realised, for example, that more diverse communities tended to be bigger, have greater income differentials, higher crime rates, and more mobility among their residents – all variables that could impact civic engagement regardless of any impact ethnic diversity might have. However, even after taking such variables into account, the link remained strong – higher diversity did mean lower social capital.
Putnam observed 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’, he concludes.
Putnam’s Struggle with His Findings
Putnam is a self-proclaimed progressive whose own values put him squarely in the pro-diversity camp. As such, his findings on the downsides of diversity posed a personal challenge for him. This is why he spent several years testing other possible explanations, as set out above.
Putnam believes that political science should be ‘simultaneously rigorous and relevant’, meeting high research standards whilst also ‘speaking to concerns of our fellow citizens’. And, with a subject as charged as race and ethnicity, he worries that many people only hear 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 opines.
It is unusual, and to Putnam’s great credit, that he has published findings as an academic that are not the ones he would have wished for as a civic leader. There are legions of academics who never produce research results that disagree with their own worldview. In the well-chosen words of Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, ‘The problem too often is people are never uncomfortable about their findings’.
Putnam is not alone. His 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.
For example, 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.
Diversity is not an undoubted strength. This is yet another lie peddled by the mainstream media. Diversity does have a downside, as demonstrated by Putnam’s commendably scholarly research. Indeed, when we compare the research conducted by most academics interested in race an diversity with Putnam’s research, it is clear that they have no interest in true scholarship and are simply interested in pushing their own Marxist worldview and spewing unfounded criticisms of everyone who dares to disagree with them.