The Boston Globe kick-started an debate last Sunday when they uncovered a study Robert Putman, Harvard Professor and author of Bowling Alone, published earlier this year. The Globe’s article was titled “The Downside of Diversity”. It opened as such:
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.
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.
From here, author Michael Jonas took his editorial down five paths.
The first path was political. Conservative groups are already using this study as proof America needs tougher immigration laws. Simultaneously, the left is arguing it is time to take action and address our lack of social capital by rebuilding our social institutions.
The second path was comfort, or should I say discomfort. Much like Florida’s defense the Creative Class, and Suroweicki’s insistence that a homogeneous crowd lacks wisdom, Putnam states the discomfort that comes with multicultural surroundings “helps explain why teams of engineers from different cultures may be ideally suited to solve a vexing problem. Culture clashes can produce a dynamic give-and-take, generating a solution that may have eluded a group of people with more similar backgrounds and approaches.”
The third path was Putnam’s liberal philosophy. Putnam has “long staked out ground as both a researcher and civic player, someone willing to describe social problems and then have a hand in addressing them.” This was well documented in Bowling Alone, a book loaded with half content and half diatribe, whereby Putnam insisted the dearth of social capital in America required civic action rather than letting society take its coarse. By stepping out of the bounds of science once again for this report, many social scientists are sounding off, calling “his prescriptions underwhelming.”
The fourth path was proximity. Putnam’s data shows that ethnically diverse neighborhoods have a “hunkering down” effect whereby individuals, unable to connect with their neighbors, have closed themselves off. Jonas noted “in documenting that hunkering down, Putnam challenged the two dominant schools of thought on ethnic and racial diversity, the ‘contact’ theory and the ‘conflict’ theory. Under the contact theory, more time spent with those of other backgrounds leads to greater understanding and harmony between groups. Under the conflict theory, that proximity produces tension and discord.” Putnam’s data seems to debunk both: proximity to diversity doesn’t produce contact or conflict but rather “brings out the turtle in all of us.”
The fifth and final path was time. “In the final quarter of his paper, Putnam puts the diversity challenge in a broader context by describing how social identity can change over time. Experience shows that social divisions can eventually give way to ‘more encompassing identities’ that create ‘a new, more capacious sense of ‘we.'”
In my opinion, this final path is the most important for us to understand. Reading the data at face value ignites political agendas. Coupling the data with Putnam’s interpretations and recommendations for action waters prevents the reader from understanding the bigger issue here. Believing that the current trend will continue leads on to conclude that human will soon evolve into mutant turtles. Perhaps part teenager. Perhaps part ninja. But I digress.
That “bigger issue” is the effects of post-industrialization on Western society. In Bowling Alone, Putnam noted that social capital tends to get depleted and rebuilt as a society transitions from one architype to the next (from agrarianism to industrialism and from industrialism to post-industrialism), writing “America had (previously) experienced a period of dramatic technological, economic, and social change that rendered obsolete a significant stock of social capital.”
In other words, this has happened before. At certain periods in history we seem to exhibit an unwillingness to accept our new diversity; however, a lack of acceptance does not turn into contact or conflict. Rather, we go inside our own shells, our own caves, our own gated communities and regroup. Soon, we will emerge with a new social fabric.
Still, Putnam downplayed this issue in Bowling Alone so that he could focus on immediate, liberal (philosophical, not political) action to change the course of what he viewed as declining social capital. In his latest report, Putnam once again rejects the forest to focus on the trees.
About a year ago I got really charged on this issue for a number of reasons. After thorough analysis of the subject, I started a book. I have no idea if it will ever get published, but one chapter outlines Putnam’s approach to social capital and juxtaposes his opinion with other leading thinkers on the subject, specifically Francis Fukuyama and Alvin Toffler. I’ve attached the chapter if you are interested in reading more about this issue – I would love any feedback you may have:
Read more about what the critics, bloggers, and pundits of the world are saying (and not saying) about this subject here:
Yahoo! News by Pat Buchanan
Social Capital Blog
The Conservative Voice