Jonas, Michael "The Downside of Diversity." Boston Globe 8/05/07. Via Foundation Center Online
Although it has become commonplace to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength, a new study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam concludes just the opposite, the Boston Globe reports. The largest study ever undertaken on civic engagement in America, E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century (38 pages, PDF) is based on detailed interviews with nearly thirty thousand residents in forty-one communities. The multiyear study found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings. According to Putnam -- author of Bowling Alone, which details the decline of civic engagement in the United States -- people living 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."
While diversity may make people uncomfortable, discomfort isn't necessarily a bad thing. Recent scholarship has found that cultural differences can produce a dynamic give and take, generating solutions that might have eluded a more homogeneous group. Still, Putnam's study -- first published in Scandinavian Political Studies -- adds to the growing body of research indicating that more diverse populations seem to extend themselves less on behalf of collective needs and goals.
The findings emerge amid intense political debate about issues such as immigration and race-based admissions to schools. Putnam, a liberal academic whose own values put him squarely in the pro diversity camp, worries that many who pick up the report wil read into it what they want to, and some conservatives are already citing his findings as proof of the harm large-scale immigration causes to a nation's social fabric. Putnam argues, however, that the negative effects of diversity can be remedied with targeted efforts and that increasing diversity in America is not only inevitable but ultimately valuable and enriching.
"It would be unfortunate if a politically correct progressivism were to deny the reality of the challenge to social solidarity posed by diversity," he writes in the report. "It would be equally unfortunate if an ahistorical and ethnocentric conseratism were to deny that addressing that challenge is both feasible and desirable."
Although progressives seem uncomfortable with the study's results, who is more tribal than progressives and the little tribes within it? How often have I had to sit in a circle among progressives and meditate, hug, dance, chant, or otherwise bond? It is worse than church or a fraternity house. When those progressive gatherings are "diverse," they don't mean by politics, religion (unless exotic) or even by geography. When I go to progressive gatherings up in the woods somewhere wearing my Dallas Cowboys cap and introducing myself as an insurance person from The Big D I notice that solidarity is not what it might be. They do hug me when ordered to do so, but with a little shrug of repugnance. Can't blame them. We all need times to flock with our own kind and other times when a little diversity might do us good. Speaking as a white male Christian Hypocrite from Texas, one of many here, I have noticed that diversity is often a little provincial and maybe none the worse for that.