Day By Day

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Putnam on Diversity

This is getting a lot of play, especially from the right.

The Financial Times reports:

A bleak picture of the corrosive effects of ethnic diversity has been revealed in research by Harvard University’s Robert Putnam, one of the world’s most influential political scientists.

His research shows that the more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust anyone – from their next-door neighbour to the mayor.


The core message of the research was that, “in the presence of diversity, we hunker down”, he said. “We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.”

Prof Putnam found trust was lowest in Los Angeles, “the most diverse human habitation in human history”, but his findings also held for rural South Dakota, where “diversity means inviting Swedes to a Norwegians’ picnic”.

When the data were adjusted for class, income and other factors, they showed that the more people of different races lived in the same community, the greater the loss of trust. “They don’t trust the local mayor, they don’t trust the local paper, they don’t trust other people and they don’t trust institutions,” said Prof Putnam. “The only thing there’s more of is protest marches and TV watching.”

Read it here.

This account is tantalizing, but maddingly frustrating. Just what was meant by "class, income and other factors"? What measures of "trust" are they using? Is this just a simple regression analysis or what? I want to see the original study. Damn journalists.

Putnam makes the reasonable observation that, while immigration and the free flow of labor and capital has material benefits to both importing and exporting societies, there are social costs involved. This is commonsensical and each of us must decide whether or not the economic benefits outweigh the social costs. I happen to think they do. Obviously this puts me in a minority. Putnam seems to imply the opposite.

I really want to know how he calculates social costs.

Putham delayed publishing his results until he could come up with recommendations on how to correct for the social costs of immigration. I am interested in seeing what he thinks, although I am not encouraged by his past work, especially "Bowling Alone" (the book that made him famous). "Bowling" was deeply flawed in its original form (although I understand he has corrected some of its deficiencies in later editions), and its recommendations just plain silly.

Putnam takes the traditional sociological position that everything is a social construct. He argues that current conditions and trends “have been socially constructed, and can be socially reconstructed”. That is not encouraging. I, for one, don't want to be socially reconstructed, and I suspect that would be true for most people. Here Putnam betrays the social scientists' lust for power, based in the assumption that human nature is infinitely malleable and therefore societies can and should be engineered to conform to their recommendations.

At the end of the article Putnam does more than imply a goal of re-engineering society:
“What we shouldn’t do is to say that they [immigrants] should be more like us. We should construct a new us.”
As Count Floyd used to say, "That, kids, is really scary."

At least Putnam has the sense to criticize the mindless cult of diversity that has overtaken our public institutions. This is why so many on the right have rushed to embrace his statements. I suspect, though, that as his larger agenda becomes clear they will find him less attractive. I should note, parenthetically, that Putnam's study is just the latest in a sudden barrage of high-level social science research that has directly contested many of the assumptions governing public policy across a whole range of institutions and issues. I sense a sea change a'coming.

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