Diversity study finds that ethnic and racial diversification destroys the bonds of society

Below in its entirety is John Leo’s column (also published at City Journal ) on Robert Putnam’s groundbreaking study of diversity.

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, is very nervous about releasing his new research, and understandably so. His five-year study shows that immigration and ethnic diversity have a devastating short- and medium-term influence on the social capital, fabric of associations, trust, and neighborliness that create and sustain communities. He fears that his work on the surprisingly negative effects of diversity will become part of the immigration debate, even though he finds that in the long run, people do forge new communities and new ties. [LA comments: If Putnam’s hope is that people will eventually form new communities and new ties, then he is conceding that the racial diversification destroys our historic and existing communities and ties. So why should we have the diversity at all? Just to show that we’re not “racist”? In fact, further down in the review, you will see that Putnam makes precisely that point: diversity is good because it helps us overcome prejudice. Meaning that we must destroy our existing society in order to destroy our prejudices.]

Putnam’s study reveals that immigration and diversity not only reduce social capital between ethnic groups, but also within the groups themselves. Trust, even for members of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friendships fewer. The problem isn’t ethnic conflict or troubled racial relations, but withdrawal and isolation. Putnam writes: “In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’-that is, to pull in like a turtle.”

In the 41 sites Putnam studied in the U.S., he found that the more diverse the neighborhood, the less residents trust neighbors. This proved true in communities large and small, from big cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Boston to tiny Yakima, Washington, rural South Dakota, and the mountains of West Virginia. In diverse San Francisco and Los Angeles, about 30 percent of people say that they trust neighbors a lot. In ethnically homogeneous communities in the Dakotas, the figure is 70 percent to 80 percent.

Diversity does not produce “bad race relations,” Putnam says. Rather, people in diverse communities tend “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.” Putnam adds a crushing footnote: his findings “may underestimate the real effect of diversity on social withdrawal.”

Neither age nor disparities of wealth explain this result. “Americans raised in the 1970s,” he writes, “seem fully as unnerved by diversity as those raised in the 1920s.” And the “hunkering down” occurred no matter whether the communities were relatively egalitarian or showed great differences in personal income. Even when communities are equally poor or rich, equally safe or crime-ridden, diversity correlates with less trust of neighbors, lower confidence in local politicians and news media, less charitable giving and volunteering, fewer close friends, and less happiness.

Putnam has long been aware that his findings could have a big effect on the immigration debate. Last October, he told the Financial Times that “he had delayed publishing his research until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity.” He said it “would have been irresponsible to publish without that,” a quote that should raise eyebrows. Academics aren’t supposed to withhold negative data until they can suggest antidotes to their findings.

Nor has Putnam made details of his study available for examination by peers and the public. So far, he has published only an initial summary of his findings, from a speech he gave after winning an award in Sweden, in the June issue of Scandinavian Political Studies. His office said Putnam is in Britain, working on a religion project at the University of Manchester, and is currently too busy to grant an interview.

Putnam’s study does make two positive points: in the long run, increased immigration and diversity are inevitable and desirable, and successful immigrant societies “dampen the negative effects of diversity” by constructing new identities. Social psychologists have long favored the optimistic hypothesis that contact between different ethnic and racial groups increases tolerance and social solidarity. For instance, white soldiers assigned to units with black soldiers after World War II were more relaxed about desegregation of the army than were soldiers in all-white units. But Putnam acknowledges that most empirical studies do not support the “contact hypothesis.” In general, they find that the more people are brought into contact with those of another race or ethnicity, the more they stick to their own, and the less they trust others. Putnam writes: “Across local areas in the United States, Australia, Sweden Canada and Britain, greater ethnic diversity is associated with lower social trust and, at least in some cases, lower investment in public goods.”

Though Putnam is wary of what right-wing politicians might do with his findings, the data might give pause to those on the left, and in the center as well. If he’s right, heavy immigration will inflict social deterioration for decades to come, harming immigrants as well as the native-born. Putnam is hopeful that eventually America will forge a new solidarity based on a “new, broader sense of we.” The problem is how to do that in an era of multiculturalism and disdain for assimilation.

John Leo is the editor of the Manhattan Institute’s mindingthecampus.com.

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Thucydides writes:

There is something pathetic, and even a bit comical, about Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam “discovering” the negative effect of multicultural diversity on the “fabric of associations, trust, and neighborliness that create and sustain communities.” Only an academic, isolated within the impoverished perspectives of our American academic culture of the left could have been in the dark about this. We can infer Putnam is a liberal from the fact he doesn’t want to publish until he can develop proposals to offset the negative effects of diversity. He has said elsewhere that he was surprised and disappointed by his findings. His fears of proceeding are understandable even if his timorousness is discreditable; after all, consider what recently happened to his former president, Larry Summers.

It seems to be a case of reality breaking in, in the case of Putnam, at least, on the liberal Enlightenment dream that we are in the midst of process that will eventually converge on a universal civilization, in which human difference will disappear, or perhaps only survive as Marx thought in the form of colorful practice such as ethnic cuisines or special dress on commemorative occasions. Putnam apparently retains the hope of an eventual emergence in the long term of a new culture, presumably closer to the liberal ideal, but acknowledges in effect much destruction in the meantime, as you point out.

Of course, there is another possibility which is too horrible for a liberal like Putnam to contemplate: that there is a permanent and ineradicable tendency of human beings to form distinct identities (“communities” in Putnam’s terms); that such identities inevitably function through practices of inclusion and exclusion (“prejudice,” in liberal terms); and that in some cases, at least, the members of these communities will adhere to such conflicting outlooks that there can be no peaceable modus vivendi between them: there can only be war or separation. Further, given the multiplicity of forms that human association can take, while there will be many communities which do not meet the minimum natural requirements for human flourishing (I will not here speculate on what the content of such requirements would be, but presumably they would include a certain level of personal security, material well-being, and procedural guarantees against violence), there will be others that do, but which do not privilege liberal practice. In fact, it is quite possible that certain non-liberal forms will better meet these minimal requirements than liberal communities that have fallen as a result of their liberalism into serious social disorder and insecurity, a possibility which no liberal can admit.

Putnam sees the breakdown of existing communities through multiculturalism as leading to individual social isolation. This is probably only an interim result. We will not end up in a Rawlsian world of isolated individual rights-bearers functioning in a world of liberal legalism or constitutionalism. People will seek new identifications, and there is no telling what will emerge. Think of Europe in the 20th century after WW I and the breakup of German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires and the associated collapse of traditional institutions of government and religion. When the Soviet Union imploded in the early 1990’s, it was not so much pursuant to individuals demanding liberal rights as it was to peoples demanding recognition of their various forms of life. It remains to be seen what will emerge in Russia, but the Putin government seems to be heading in a direction that will not be at all palatable to liberals, except to the extent that they can side with those hostile to us as a means of tearing down our own institutions in pursuit of “a better world.” It does not occur to liberals like Putnam that our civilization may be “a thin and precarious crust, erected by the wills and personalities of a very few, and only maintained by rules and regulations skillfully put across and guilefully maintained.” (J.M. Keynes).

From a broader perspective, the rise of militant Islam follows on the collapse of socialism as a second, and perhaps even more shattering blow to the wildly unrealistic views of liberals about the human condition upon which their utopian hopes are based. Putnam’s partial epiphany is only one of many that will be seen, primarily at first among those in that branch of liberalism known as neo-conservatism, but surely this will spread in time even to the core. It takes a long time for a comprehensive belief system to crumble, even one as unrealistic as liberalism, but the process seems to have started. It is probably more from the lack of any apparent alternative than real commitment to the liberal faith that so many hold back from acknowledging this situation. The partial epiphanies that frequently provoke your frustrated comment are part of that process.

Van Wijk writes:

Putnam is liberalism in microcosm. Liberals are forever telling us that we are prone to emotionalism while they simply follow where reason leads them. But they don’t. Liberalism is a religion, period, and the fanatical adherence of liberals to their faith rivals that of the most vehement Moslem. Here we have an academic, someone sworn to pursue the truth in the tradition of the Greeks who created the academy, willfully blinding himself so that he may please his god.

It makes you wonder how many liberals all over the world see the truth on a daily basis and then pretend that they had not seen it at all, or convince themselves that the truth is actually false and the false true. How exhausting it must be.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 26, 2007 05:27 PM | Send

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