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Monday, August 06, 2007

"The Downside of Diversity"

In the Boston Globe, there's this long-ish piece, "The Downside of Diversity:  A Harvard political scientist finds that diversity hurts civic life.  What happens when a liberal scholar unearths an inconvenient truth?"  (A strange title, no?  What work is "liberal" doing?)  The piece is about Robert Putnam's ("Bowling Alone") new study finding 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."

I'd welcome any reactions from political or social scientists to either the piece or the study.  For what it's worth, I came away from the article wondering if Putnam's study provides some support for my intuition that some non-"diverse" institutions (e.g., some religious universities) are important in pluralist societies precisely because of their non-"diversity."  What can we learn from this study, or what should this study make us want to know, about what Paul Horwitz calls "First Amendment institutions" (like universities, etc.). 

Posted by Rick Garnett on August 6, 2007 at 02:23 PM in Constitutional thoughts | Permalink


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The study can be downloaded here: http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1467-9477.2007.00176.x.

Some of the most interesting data are found in Table 3 (on page 16 of the study, page 152 in the journal), and the text in the few paragraphs thereafter. Putnam did some multivariate analysis and found that the following variables are strong predictors of trust/distrust and other measures of civic engagement (and stronger predictors than diversity, at least to my untrained eye): Age (younger are less trusting); homeownership (more trusting); education (more education = more trusting); ethnicity (African-American and Latino residents trust neighbors less); poverty rate (higher rate = less trust); financial satisfaction/stability (more = more trust); and crime (more crime = less trust). Along the lines of some of the earlier posts, population density was negatively correlated with trust, as was "Census Tract Percent Living Same Town as Five Years Earlier" (that is, the higher the percentage of people in the census tract (about 4,000 people per tract) who had lived in the same town five years ago, the less trust among neighbors; at least that's how I understand it). Strangely, though, the more years that a survey respondent had lived in the community, the greater the trust. David points out in the post he hyperlinks to above that the study did not appear to control for whether respondents had grown up as children in ethnically diverse communities, which one might expect to be a predictor of trust in adulthood. But even with all the variables that Putnam did account for, census tract homogeneity remained a moderately strong predictor of trust and civic engagement.

One last interesting tidbit, given the New York Times Magazine's piece on municipal immigration "reform" (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/05/magazine/05Immigration-t.html?ref=magazine), is that citizenship percentage within the community is weakly correlated with increased trust.

Posted by: Alex | Aug 7, 2007 2:48:12 PM

If a study showed that communities do not form tight bonds where members share nothing in common aside from the cost of rent, I doubt that anyone would be surprised, even if members happened to be the same race. This study (which defines diversity by white, black, hispanic ...) would be more interesting if it was extended to other diverse "communities" educational, professional, etc. Such communities may share other ties that make "race", and whatever is assumed to accompany it, insignificant in the formation of whatever defines a healthy community in that particular area.

"Diversity", as discussed here, is simultaneously given too much and too little credit. It has the distinction of being the correlate to failing communities, but it is not sufficiently recognized as being an indicator for more significant differences that exist between the members of these communities. The correlated diversity is based purely on "race", as if skin color prevents people from forming the bonds of a community.

Indeed, this article seems most useful in identifying a fundamental problem with the whole idea of diversity. It is simultaneously viewed as something superficial and something substantial. It is substantial when it helps engineers solve problems. It is substantial when it assists students prepare for the real world. But it started out as a reason for integration, which fundamentally saw "race" as a superficial thing that would become insignificant if people could just spend enough time together to realize that they are not defined as much by the differences in their skin color or history as they are by their shared humanity and future. Thus, in a sense, the purpose of diversity will be achieved when the things that make us diverse are not the things that we primarily identify with. Find such communities (which do exist) and I bet there is no way to correlate negative effects to racial diversity.

I suggest that this study is best viewed as an indicator of how little progress we have made in integrating the society. Integration is successful where a focus on shared interests predominates. Outside of specific groups(more narrowly defined than "neighborhood") we have not gotten past focusing on the superficial.

Posted by: Andrew | Aug 6, 2007 9:38:45 PM

Even if diversity hurts civic life today, I do not think it follows that diversity itself is the culprit. Have diverse communities existed long enough to draw the conclusion that inherent in diversity are these civic failings? Perhaps the failings are merely symptomatic of the changes and growth required for society to fully benefit from diversity. Perhaps once society has adapted to thrive in diversity we will all be better off.

From this perspective, it appears that institutions retaining their non-diversity may maintain stability in the short term to their future detriment.

Posted by: Jim Green | Aug 6, 2007 6:24:21 PM

I gave some commentary on the study (or more accurately, the summary of the study, since like Jeff I haven't read anything but reports) at my blog about a month back.

Posted by: David Schraub | Aug 6, 2007 5:59:07 PM

I don't profess to have read the study (I only read the article and have seen it discussed elsewhere), but I am led to wonder about certain aspects of its design. As a brief aside, even back in "Bowling Alone" Putnam acknowledged that there may exist connections between social capital (or the determinants thereof) and certain less socially desired behaviors. But on the point of diversity, I am wondering how long the communities as issue were studied. (For instance, note this quote: "Diversity, at least in the short run," he writes, "seems to bring out the turtle in all of us.").

If, in fact, Putnam is observing these communities over a relatively short time frame (or perhaps at only one time), then his findings may be driven more by community turnover and instability than by diversity per se. This isn't to say that all diverse communities have high turnover or that non-diverse communities have low turnover, but there is the possibility that diversity and turnover are highly correlated. If this is so, then turnover in the community may lead to instability of mores and community understandings as to expected behaviors and/or conduct. This could lead to the type of anomie outlined by Durkheim. Hence, we could see this expressed in various non-social behavior (e.g. lack of trust, "turtle behavior"). If we control for community flux and turnover over time through time series analysis of these communities, then we could be sure that he is truly capturing the impact of diversity - as opposed to anomie. Of course, as the article outlined, Putnam says that he's answered most of these "what about X?" questions, so I imagine that someone has asked this already and it has been sufficiently answered.

Posted by: Jeff Yates | Aug 6, 2007 4:06:42 PM

Which I now see is mentioned in the article. To quote a popstar, "D'oh!"

Posted by: David S. Cohen | Aug 6, 2007 3:50:42 PM

Interesting. Sitting in my pile of things to read at some point in the near future is a book that says pretty much the exact opposite: Scott E. Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies (Princeton University Press 2007).

Posted by: David S. Cohen | Aug 6, 2007 3:49:33 PM

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