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Diversity and civic life - Putnam's research

Wretchard at The Belmont Club points to a Financial Times article on research conducted by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam about the effect of diversity on civic life. From the FT article,

A bleak picture of the corrosive effects of ethnic diversity has been revealed in research by Harvard University's Robert Putnam, one of the world's most influential political scientists.

His research shows that the more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust anyone – from their next-door neighbour to the mayor.

This is a contentious finding in the current climate of concern about the benefits of immigration.

Putnam is known for his research in social capital and civic engagement and for his book Bowling Alone. See also his work through the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America and its project and book Better Together.  The FT article suggests that Putnam's research has not yielded an expected optimistic picture of social diversity and multiculturalism.  Putnam has "delayed publishing his research until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity, saying it "would have been irresponsible to publish without that".

What are we to make of this?  Has the push for diversity and multiculturalism been wrong headed, misguided or based on a faulty premise?  Is a vision for a multicultrual society realistic?  Or, worst is a diversity emphasis just a shallow desire to rid the world of conflict without a clear understanding of human nature and society?  I'm not rejecting the idea of the importance of diversity.  I am criticizing the naive belief that it is an unalloyed benefit to communities.

Putnam's Bowling Alone focused on the diminishment of civic involvement by individuals.  The problem I found with his book was a lack of treatment of those places where people gather institutionally.  People will be engaged civically when their group is.  I've seen this time and again. If the groups fail, then the likelihood of civic engagement will not happen.

A bowling team is not that much different than a work team in a business. It is a set of relationships organized for a specific purpose. Social capital described as the value that a set of relationships brings to a place is not just something that happens in communities. It is also one of the principal economic engines of business.  The connections that people make with other people provide them access to information that contribute to the strength of a business.  (If you want an excellent treatment of social capital as a competitive strategy in business, read Ron Burt's Brokerage and Closure.)

What I don't think Putnam was clear on in Bowling Alone, and would lead to the misapprehension about the social benefits of diversity that his research has now shown him is that people are not primarily individuals.  The atomistic self is what Putnam was challenging in his earlier work.  People are social beings as well.  In fact, I'd make the claim that we are social beings before we are individuals. That our relationships in various social institutional forms, like the family or community, are fundamental in establishing our own individual identities.  Therefore, communities are only as strong as their social institutions.

Yes, I'm saying culture precedes our own individual identities.  If we were to remove the potentially divisive character of ethnic diversity from the communities and seek to create some new cultural identity, as in many respects is being attempted by a cultural of mass consumerism, then we don't end up with a new ethnic culture, but a non-culture.  This is so because cultures are not simply personal preferences that are ubiquitous and changeable. No, they are built on traditions and values that are part of the warp and woof of our ancestral identities that reside in us.

If you have ever been to a Scottish Highland games, you'll see people whose ancestral connection to Scotland are many generations removed, dressed in kilts, tossing the caber because it reconnects them with something hardwired into them as descendents.  The same is true for every ethnic group.

Are the traditions and values of our ancestors a strength or are they an obstacle to a peaceful, prosperous society?  Putnam's research may be showing the latter. But is that a given or is there some room to affect change in this regard?

From where I stand, there are people who believe that ethnic traditions and values are the reason why there is turmoil and strife in the world.  Isn't this the logical explanation behind Islamic terrorism?  Yet, I find this too simplistic.  Because it defies what is self-evident, that these traditions and values, when affirmed, create communities of strength where social capital is a plentiful asset.  Go to any ethnic festival.  The celebration of their history, traditions and values elevates and unites them as a commuity.

Of course, none of this describes why Putnam's research is showing diversity's dark side.  If we look at this from the perspective of Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, we see that diversity's strengths are in the microcosm of multiple ethnic traditions and values, not the macrocosm of a blended culture.  These "preferential attachments" (see Albert-Laszlo Barabasi's Linked) naturally allow for the history and traditions of our ancestors to live in on the how we live today.  I don't have to be Samoan or Puerto Rican to appreciate their values and traditions.  I don't even have to adopt them. However, I can appreciate them.

The conflict in many respects is not really between one ethnic group and another, but a competition for influence and power within the broader community.  When you add into that environment a push to rid ourselves of our cultural baggage so that we can all be alike, then we have a cultural petri dish of potential conflict. Some of this conflict is played out when ethnic neighborhoods crowd in on one another.  Read the comments on Wretchard's post. The person who comments on Pittsburgh is absolutely correct.  Pittsburgh's geography has allowed it to be a great city of ethnic diversity.  As they say fences make good neighbors.  In other words, boundaries to communities just as in relationships serve as a protective structure.

What Putnam should consider is that ethnic groups, all groups, are formed by not just tranditions and values, or relationships by family ancestry or proximity, but also by the institutionalization of these traditions, values and relationships in organizations that carry the banner of our people.  This is why the symbols of nationality, like the flag, are so important to ethnic and national identity.

So, what's the answer?  Teach your children their history and heritage, while teaching them them to respect those who are different from them.  Pride and humilty.  The key to making diversity as social capital asset for communities.

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