Thursday, August 09, 2007

Does Diversity Cause Us To Mistrust One Another?

Via Ruchira Paul and 3QD, an article in the Boston Globe about the work of Robert Putnam, a Harvard University political scientist. The Globe summarizes the gist of the article as follows:

It has become increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam -- famous for "Bowling Alone," his 2000 book on declining civic engagement -- has 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, 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.

"The extent of the effect is shocking," says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.

The study comes at a time when the future of the American melting pot is the focus of intense political debate, from immigration to race-based admissions to schools, and it poses challenges to advocates on all sides of the issues. The study is already being cited by some conservatives as proof of the harm large-scale immigration causes to the nation's social fabric. But with demographic trends already pushing the nation inexorably toward greater diversity, the real question may yet lie ahead: how to handle the unsettling social changes that Putnam's research predicts. (link)

What makes this all more interesting is the fact that Robert Putnam is not himself a conservative, but a progressive-minded scholar who supports diversity. He didn't expect these findings when he started this project, and has worked hard to make sure they are understood correctly -- though anti-immigrant conservatives have definitely been eating this up.

I want to speculate a little on how South Asian immigrants might fit into the 'diversity problem' Putnam's study raises, but before that it seems important to get into a little more detail about just what Putnam is saying. Please forgive the long quote:

The results of his new study come from a survey Putnam directed among residents in 41 US communities, including Boston. Residents 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 neighbors 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. What emerged in more diverse communities was a bleak picture of civic desolation, affecting everything from political engagement to the state of social ties.

Putnam knew he had provocative findings on his hands. He worried about coming under some of the same liberal attacks that greeted Daniel Patrick Moynihan's landmark 1965 report on the social costs associated with the breakdown of the black family. There is always the risk of being pilloried as the bearer of "an inconvenient truth," says Putnam.

After releasing the initial results in 2001, Putnam says he spent time "kicking the tires really hard" to be sure the study had it right. Putnam realized, for instance, that more diverse communities tended to be larger, have greater income ranges, higher crime rates, and more mobility among their residents -- all factors that could depress social capital independent of any impact ethnic diversity might have.

"People would say, 'I bet you forgot about X,'" Putnam says of the string of suggestions from colleagues. "There were 20 or 30 X's."

But even after statistically taking them all into account, the connection remained strong: Higher diversity meant lower social capital. In his findings, Putnam writes 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." (link)

Wow -- that's a long list of problems associated with living in diverse communities! Personally, I've never felt the difference Putnam's study finds, but for the most part I've mainly lived in relatively diverse places. I've lived in glum diverse places (Malden, MA; Bethlehem, PA) -- where no one would give me the time of day or even stop and say 'hi' -- and somewhat happier diverse places (Potomac, MD; Parsippany, NJ; New Haven, CT; Durham, NC; and my current town of Conshohocken, PA). Most places I've lived, though, I've felt that most people do "hunker down" and spend their evenings in front of the TV. I've never lived in the vibrant downtown of a big city (sigh), nor have I ever lived in a place that was really ethnically homogeneous -- so perhaps I've only seen one side of this.

People interested in seeing more detail -- and hearing it directly from Putnam, might want to check out the article in question here. For the most part it should be readable for non-academics (it helps if you know what he means by "social capital"), though Putnam does get into some statistical analysis that goes over my head.

The other big questions are 1) why could this be happening, 2) what can be done about it, and 3) is it a permanent problem, or merely a temporary phenomenon associated with recent immigration, which will dissipate over time?

One can easily speculate that the answer to (1) has to do with the natural mistrust produced when people have different ethnic and racial backgrounds, different cultural values, speak different languages, and so on. The answers to (2) and (3) are harder.

Again, thinking speculatively here, I'm not sure that anything can be actively done about (2), but I do feel quite confident on (3) that the mistrust and the lower "social capital" Putnam sees in more diverse communities is likely to dissipate over time -- as immigrants acculturate and/or assimilate. Here, one's experience as a second-gen desi comes into play. And the high levels of interracial dating and marrying out of one's ethnic group seen among second and third generation Asian immigrants suggests that blending is already well under way.

Putnam himself agrees with that prognosis, and in his article, quotes Barack Obama to that effect. Obama has called for:

. . . an America where race is understood in the same way that the ethnic diversity of the white population is understood. People take pride in being Irish-American and Italian-American. They have a particular culture that infuses the (whole) culture and makes it richer and more interesting. But it's not something that determines people's life chances and there is no sense of superiority or inferiority. . . . [I]f we can expand that attitude to embrace African-Americans and Latino-Americans and Asian-Americans, then . . . all our kids can feel comfortable with the worlds they are coming out of, knowing they are part of something larger. (link)

Obama is in effect calling for "race" to start acting more like immigrant "ethnicity" -- for it to be malleable, and open to the possibility of its own diminishing value as an element of division. Are South Asians a "race" or an "ethnicity"? Though I'm proud of my Indian heritage and proud of being both an Indian American and a practicing Sikh, I tend to agree with Obama on the value of thinking of oneself as part of "something larger," and of not allowing one's ethnic background to determine one's "life chances."

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Falstaff said...

Hi. Sorry, but the link to the study you provide doesn't seem to work. Any chance you could provide the citation so I can look it up? Thanks.

3:32 PM  
Amardeep said...

Hi Falstaff, try this link.

I think the link in my post involved a 'cookie'.

4:16 PM  
Ruchira said...

Having lived in very homogenous (as in white, in the US) and very mixed (both in the US and in New Delhi, India) neighborhoods, I still am not able to put my finger on what actually contributes to higher or lower levels of civic engagement.

There are probably a lot of things involved apart from changing demographics based on race alone. Not just in the US but also in India.

When I was young, most woman stayed home and sometimes they formed the bulwark of neighborhood watch groups and kept an eye on the up keep of civic amenities. There was more social contact with one's neighbors. I have heard the same from my American friends who grew up in the 1950s and 60s about the state of affairs in the US. My own generation (and the younger ones) in India and the US is much more busy, with both spouses employed outside the home in many cases. I have noticed that more and more, socialization and activism both involve professional relations and concerns, moving away from neighborhood issues. Notably, this trend is more prevalent in Indian middle class neighborhood than in the US. It is also noticeable, coincidentally or not, that the state of residential roads, drains and garbage pick-up in New Delhi, in the same neighborhood where I grew up, is a shambles. Any connection between socialization among neighbors and the civic amenities? I don't know. The ethnic mix of the area on the other hand, has not changed since my parents' days.

I will copy here something I wrote in the comments section of my own post to which Amardeep has linked, regarding my observations in the US:

You can slice this baloney any which way you like and make a compelling (if somewhat superficial) case for all scenarios. I live in a hugely diverse city. I also hear the words "third world culture" being thrown around a lot in regards to the way the city functions - often by those who themselves came from third world countries. The suspicion is that every population group is focused on its own narrow ethnic / cultural interests and there is no sense of ownership for the community at large. The suspicion is not entirely unfounded. But what is interesting is that the indifference to community duties or the lack of civic strength cannot be explained away entirely due to this "Tower of Babel" or the aggressive "salad bowl" culture of the city.

Many working class neighborhoods in Houston are ethnically seggregated. We have distinctly African American, Vietnames and Latino neighborhoods, as also some low income white areas. But most affluent neighborhoods are very diverse. Guess where the civic amenities function well? It always comes down to how much is at stake for the citizens and what community they are invested in.

I think that the impetus to engage in civic activities is not rooted only in the expected outcome of our efforts. It is also connected to a "feel good" attitude - we want our friends to "appreciate" our commitment. It appears that there are several tangibles and intangibles as to why people will or will not do their civic duty like voting. The most important of course is how high the political stakes are. During acute financial, national or cultural upheavals voters turn out in large numbers despite severe obstacles of weather, mobility and time constraints. When not much is at stake on the political / national scene, the visible reason for voter lethargy is inconvenience - time away from work, driving, standing in line, bureaucratic calisthenics etc. But there are some other less obvious reasons why we participate in the political /civic process - we want to be SEEN by our neighbors and friends as conscientious citizens. A good deed done in anonymity is like a tree falling in the forest. So our tendency to withdraw when we do not know our neighbors is not just the suspicion of the "other" but also our own " lethargy and indifference" when we we consider ourselves invisible among strangers or away from the eyes of our friends.

An interesting example of this was when a Swiss canton (racially homogenous) tried to make it easier for its citizens and arranged for voting by phone from home. Percentage of votes cast actually went down! When voting from home via telephone took away the "look at me" incentive, many did not bother to vote.

(A lengthy comment but this is not a simple issue. Will cross post at SM.)

11:44 AM  
Sourav said...

Whereas the social effects of diversity may be so, does it not have positive effects on academia and industry? Numerous times I have come across the idea that the US comes out with the most number of original ideas because you have people from different parts of the world working together.

10:33 PM  
Daniel said...

It isn't heterogeneity that causes mistrust but rather an imbalance in social capital between people in a community.

7:12 PM  
Falstaff said...

Amardeep: Thanks. My comments on Putnam's findings here:

1:14 PM  

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