In Other Words

Doubting Diversity’s Value

Scandinavian Political Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2, June 2007 From Paris, France, to Paris, Texas, almost all Western countries are becoming more ethnically diverse. The main reason is rising levels of immigration. The flow of people across borders can stimulate innovation, dynamism, and creativity, as well as help reduce the social and economic effects of ...

Scandinavian Political Studies,
Vol. 30, No. 2, June 2007

From Paris, France, to Paris, Texas, almost all Western countries are becoming more ethnically diverse. The main reason is rising levels of immigration. The flow of people across borders can stimulate innovation, dynamism, and creativity, as well as help reduce the social and economic effects of declining birthrates. But does growing heterogeneity pose a threat to overall social solidarity? According to leading Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, the answer may very well be yes.

In an article titled "E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century," published in the June 2007 issue of Scandinavian Political Studies, Putnam elaborates on his celebrated work on social capital — defined most simply as social networks upon which people depend. He analyzes material from a large, nationwide study of ethnic diversity carried out in the United States in 2000. Putnam finds that trust in others is high and social capital correspondingly well-developed in homogeneous communities, such as largely white suburbs. Both are low in more diverse neighborhoods, such as ethnically mixed inner-city areas.

Such a correlation is probably to be expected. After all, we feel most at home with people who are like ourselves. However, Putnam also finds something he didn’t anticipate: In more diverse communities, Americans distrust not only people who aren’t like them but also people who are. Diversity seems to encourage social isolation, not enrichment. In diverse neighborhoods, all citizens display lower levels of confidence in local government and media; are less likely to be involved in local voluntary groups; are less likely to vote; and have lower levels of expressed happiness.

Can these results be explained by factors other than diversity? For example, diverse communities might have higher crime rates, be larger, or experience more poverty than less mixed ones. However, Putnam shows that these factors do not account for his results. Greater diversity goes hand-in-hand with reduced trust in neighbors in poor, crime-ridden areas, just as much as in rich, relatively crime-free areas. It is ethnic difference, as such, that reduces trust and social capital. Putnam’s conclusion, pithily put, is that "[m]any Americans today are uncomfortable with diversity."

For social liberals, of whom Putnam is one, this finding is itself distinctly uncomfortable. Perhaps multiculturalism just will not work? Putnam rejects such a pessimistic conclusion. The negative effects of diversity can be overcome by a mixture of positive social change and enlightened public policy. He provides a number of encouraging examples. For instance, a generation ago the U.S. Army was divided along racial lines, but today it has become a "relatively color-blind institution." American soldiers today on average have many more interracial friendships than Americans as a whole. The same is true with certain religious institutions, particularly evangelical megachurches, which are much more racially diverse than in the past.

Until now, the aim of social policy has nearly always been to reduce the segregation between ethnic groups, concentrating mainly upon racial minorities. Putnam’s research, however, strongly implies that getting all groups to identify with a community is most important — that is, trying to foster an overall sense of pride and involvement with an institution or neighborhood. Pride in the military and identification with its goals almost certainly was a prime factor that explains the changes in the army.

How far do Putnam’s findings apply elsewhere — for example, in Europe? We do not know for certain, because the detailed materials Putnam was able to analyze for the United States do not exist even for individual European societies, let alone across national borders. Yet there is a lively debate about the tensions between diversity and the welfare state that certainly makes Putnam’s work relevant for Europe, too.

Three years ago, David Goodhart, the editor of the British magazine Prospect, caused a storm in a number of European countries when he argued that increasing immigration could undermine the welfare state. The welfare state is based upon sharing; yet sharing is in conflict with diversity because people feel stronger obligations to others when they are like themselves. Goodhart argued that the very reason the United States has a minimal welfare state is its diversity, which is much more long-standing than in Europe. He claimed that multiculturalism and the European welfare state are intrinsically at odds. Putnam’s work is much more rigorous than that of Goodhart, but it does provide some backing for it. If diversity does compromise solidarity, it is a fact that should be brought out in the open, not dismissed for ideological reasons. It might make multicultural ideals more difficult to realize, but, as Putnam shows, it is not a reason to abandon them. The strong implication, paradoxical though it might sound, is that multiculturalism will only work in countries that can, at the same time, foster a strong sense of national identity.

At the moment, I am not wholly convinced by the arguments of either author. Putnam says diversity weakens social capital within a community, but what, actually, constitutes a community in today’s society? In an era of electronic networking, it cannot necessarily be identified with a physical neighborhood. Moreover, he does not really explain how it is that diversity undermines the social capital of all groups living in a certain area. Goodhart’s thesis seems questionable at best. Sweden, for instance, is a country that has experienced a good deal of recent immigration — about 13 percent of its population is foreign-born. Yet it has sustained its generous and effective welfare system, albeit with many stresses and strains.

I would certainly like to see Putnam’s work taken further, and I imagine he will do so. It is based mainly on statistical correlation rather than studies of actual local neighborhoods. As he recognizes, it has no time dimension. The next step should be to look at specific areas as they change over time. This is work that would profit from having a comparative dimension. If such work were replicated in Europe, it would shed light both upon Putnam’s claims and the question of whether the European welfare state can serve the many as well as the few.

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