Robert Putnam published a new study challenging our notions of Diversity. E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century

The results are counterintuitive. Traditionally, social scientists backed either the Contact or Conflict Theories. Contact theory (Multiculturalism) suggests that once diverse groups interact, they grow to trust one another. Conflict theory (Balkanization) holds that increased diversity results in greater tribalism and intergroup conflict. Both theories are wrong. People withdraw into isolation and social capital falls steeply.

In his previous studies (Bowling Alone), Putnam showed that the size of social networks in the United States has declined in the past two generations. There was a 1/3 decline in the number of close friends over the past few generations.

That’s a devastating decline that may have huge intellectual and economic costs. His latest work on diversity offers at least one possible cause for shrinking social trust.

Over the short and medium terms, increased ethnic diversity has significant social costs. Across the board, there is lower social trust of all members of society, lower investment in social capital, lower group cohesion and solidarity, and lower satisfaction in life. People have fewer friends, less faith in government (but an inexplicable demand for more government spending they know won’t work) and so on.

Superficially, Conflict Theory appeared to be winning the contest in social sciences. In every country with high levels of immigration, there are greater levels of ethnic segregation and lower levels of ethnic trust. Contact theory, which is the idea behind Multiculturalism, never had much empirical evidence to back it up.

Putnum’s intitial results may even suggest that Conflict Theory is correct. If you mix ethnicities together, there is a decline in inter-racial trust as seen here.

San Francisco ranked lowest in social trust. Other metropolitan areas, like Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta and others ranked low as well. The highest levels of social trust were in rural areas, such as New Hampshire and Montana, with Rural South Dakota as the most racially inclusive and trusting community in the survey, yet the least racially mixed.

So if you live in white-bread South Dakota and never saw a black man in your life, you will be extremely trusting of blacks and have high levels of respect for them. Perhaps this could even be explained by small-town virtues.

If Putnam stopped there, his results would have been very controversial. But he analyzed this even deeper. Conflict Theory may be wrong too (but I wonder whether this is so at the end).

There is a correlation between rising diversity and lowered trust for everyone in society, not just between members of different races. As diversity increases, intra-racial trust declines just as sharply as inter-racial trust. Racism is not the causal factor. Virtually by definition, racism cannot be the factor for distrusting your own race.

The fact that intra-racial trust erodes is the most interesting finding. Again, San Francisco and East Bay California are the least trusting communities. They do not know or trust their neighbors, whites distrust whites and Hispanics distrust Hispanics. Individuals are more likely to distrust their neighbors in general, even if this includes members of their own ethnicity.

This is shocking actually. If we wanted to accept the Conflict theory, we would assume people would insulate themselves within their ethnic tribe, not just “hunker down” and withdraw themselves from all of society. If so, this is a worse effect than Conflict Theory anticipated.

Putnam studied the effects of this lack of social-trust and found this:

• Lower confidence in local government, local leaders and the local news media.
• Lower political efficacy – that is, confidence in their own influence.
• Lower frequency of registering to vote, but more interest and knowledge about politics and more participation in protest marches and social reform groups.
• Less expectation that others will cooperate to solve dilemmas of collective action (e.g., voluntary conservation to ease a water or energy shortage).
• Less likelihood of working on a community project.
• Lower likelihood of giving to charity or volunteering.
• Fewer close friends and confidants.
• Less happiness and lower perceived quality of life.
• More time spent watching television and more agreement that ‘television is my most important form of entertainment’.

Rising Diversity creates Prisoner’s Dilemmas, where lack of trust eliminates cooperation.

Could there be a rational or psychological explanation for this? There are transaction costs when you deal with strangers. You have to measure their willingness and ability to uphold their end of a contract. If someone is very different from you, you have less ability to judge so you cannot confidently trust strangers. You also know that everyone has the same problem so community cooperation breaks down and everyone fends for themselves. I cannot speculate too much further.

His finding correlate to a number of seemingly unrelated studies. For example, people in big cities donate less money to charities than rural states like South Dakota or Mississippi.

Putnam concludes:

“Diversity does not produce ‘bad race relations’ or ethnically-defined group hostility, our findings suggest. Rather, inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbours, regardless of the colour 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. Note that this pattern encompasses attitudes and behavior, bridging and bonding social capital, public and private connections. Diversity, at least in the short run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us.

Diverse communities tend to be larger, more mobile, less egalitarian, more crime-ridden and so on. Moreover, individuals who live in ethnically diverse places are different in many ways from people who live in homogeneous areas. They tend to be poorer, less educated, less likely to own their home, less likely to speak English and so on.”

One possible explanation is that these are not effects of diversity so much as population density. In metropolitan cities, everyone is a stranger, so individuals are more detached from social networks.

Putnam does not believe that this is just a metropolitan vs rural phenomenon. Small rural towns with diverse populations, such as Yakima, Washington have low social trust. This is suggestive, but his sample size of diverse small towns is too small to be statistically powerful in my opinion. More research should be done to answer this question.

There are some results that are merely politically incorrect. Blacks have the least trust of other races, followed by Hispanics. Whites are the most trusting of other ethnic groups.

There are no major generational differences, so this is not affected by elderly Archie Bunkers. Young adults are actually the least trusting of outsiders, but all other generations remain at the same level of trust.

Putnam argues that self-selection and mobility probably minimize this effect. Voluntary segregation and relocation means that people uncomfortable around other ethnic groups tend to leave those neighborhoods, so those who remain are, probably, more accepting of different ethnicities. Or, as the results show, they pretend they are but don’t trust foreigners as far as they can spit.

Immigration is not all bad.

Immigration enhances Scientific and Economic productivity. This is particularly true of immigrants who wish to acculturate and are intellectuals (ie have high IQs, scientifically gifted, learn English, follow American laws, work hard, learn social norms etc). Basically, they enter the Middle Class. The United States welcomes the Nobel Prize Winners of the World.

What about the less gifted immigrants who fill low-wage jobs? There is a weaker economic benefit, but one that is still positive on average. Is this weak economic benefit sufficient to overcome the massive loss of social capital lost through diversity? Now we cannot be sure. We should research the economic costs of lost social capital that Putnam discovered.

There’s also another question here. Is Immigration the same as Diversity?

Putnam believes that long-term effects of diversity are positive, but merely asserts this without showing concrete evidence. He falls into the same trap as the previous generations of social scientists. His proof only extends over the short and medium term, any argument without evidence past that time period should be discarded.

There is one obvious case where this is not true: blacks in America. Social trust has not increased, and blacks are actually the least trusting ethnic group despite being in the US longer than recent immigrants. Or Jews in Europe, or Chinese and Indian immigrant communities in Indonesia and Malaysia. These groups settled in foreign lands centuries ago but are still distrusted today. Putnam waves this away without serious explanation.

Putnam argues that identity is a social contruct which may be modified to artifically lower diversity over the long term. Basically he advocates assimulation. The Middle Class and Religion are two ways to forge new unifying identities. He found that evangelical megachurches are very ethnically diverse, as the people abandoned older identities and joined a new religious identity.

Identity as a social construct is not a really scientifically sound theory. It cannot be falsified because it can be twisted to fit any bit of evidence. And that’s what makes his argument about long-term diversity weak. So weak it actually reflects doubt about his main findings.

For instance, in the 20th century, “Whiteness” was expanded to an ever larger group of ethnicities. Originally, the word White in America was exclusive to Germanic Protestants. It was gradually expanded to include Celtic, Latin and Slavic Europeans as well as Jews, Armenians, Turks, and others.

Putnam views this as evidence that ethnicities can forge a new common identity. I do not, because that is a gross simplification of the whiteness definition in America.

Legally, the definition of white changed, in part to accomodate the legal insanity of Southern Segregation. But did legal and cultural definitions lead to an actual change in ethnicity?

Putnum found that diversity increases distrust between whites. Could this be because “whites” are not a homogenous identity themselves and he just measured inter-racial distrust? The Irish and English never got along well after all. Whoever said the Irish were white anyway?

In communities like New York City, there are many “white” groups who retain distinctive ethnic identities. There are Greeks, Russians, Jews, Poles, Irish, and Italians. They are deemed “white” according to the census polls but do not consider themselves as such. There is a similar problem with defining “Hispanic” for the exact same reasons.

So I must question his key finding. Does diversity actually decrease trust within ethnic groups? Irish distrust of new Russian immigrants is not the same as Irish distrust of other Irish. Nor is Cuban distrust of Mexicans.

So we must examine the effects of diversity within sub-categories for Whites and Hispanics. I’m not convinced that Putnam actually killed Conflict Theory yet and I’d like to see more detailed studies to confirm Putnam’s core findings.

In conclusion, this is a really good paper, even if a few points might be questionable. It should make everyone reconsider their idealistic notions for or against immigration and the effects on society. It’s not a simple positive or negative effect and this should be seriously considered in public policy debates.