1.  In case you haven’t heard all the hoopla, sociologist Robert Putnam, most famous for his book “Bowling Alone,” has published a new article arguing that “In the short to medium run, … immigration and ethnic diversity challenge social solidarity and inhibit social capital.”

2.  It’s an excellent article; a thought provoking read.  Apart from a dicey section on the multivariate analysis of data to control for the effect of certain variables, the study is completely accessible to non-experts.  Don’t make the same mistake as 98 percent of the people who are currently dismissing Putnam’s results: read the article for yourself.

3.  An aside: More interesting than Putnam’s article, in my view, has been the sociology of its reception.  There’s a palpable hesitancy, in polite liberal circles, to bring up the subject.  First, it’s never his article, but rather somebody’s gloss on it that my colleagues suggest I read.  Second, no person of conscience broaches the subject of Putnam’s article unless, in the same breath, he also recommends a book or article that purports to advance a countervailing thesis.  Putnam’s work is clearly radioactive.

4.  Never fear the truth, whatever it might be.

5.  Putnam’s article might ultimately rival Christine Letts’s “Virtuous Capital” for the volume of eyebrow-raising commentary it will generate—much of it, I predict, involving a great deal of hand-wringing.

6.  Liberals are in some ways hoist on their own petard: Putnam uses variation in ethnic/racial category as a proxy for “diversity.”  This is what I sometimes refer to as the Whitman’s Sampler Model of diversity, an impoverished notion that enables well-meaning liberals to declare victory when they have “one of these, one of these, and one of those” on their staff or on their board.

7.  Putnam’s results will play handily to those conservatives who believe that self-segregation works with, rather than against, “the grain of human nature.”  We hear this kind of argument in apologetics for “a conservatism comfortable with materialist self-interest.”  These same conservatives will likely pass over in silence those sections of the article that review the many benefits of increased immigration and diversity, among them: greater creativity; better, faster problem-solving; and more rapid economic growth, among others.  Putnam never argues that diversity is, on balance, a bad thing.

8.  Putnam’s results discredit the idea that greater diversity is correlated with increased inter-ethnic hostility.  He stresses that “[d]iversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation.”  To put it another way, “In more diverse settings, Americans distrust not merely people who do not look like them, but even people who do.”

9.  Putnam points out that:

All our empirical analysis to this point has involved ‘comparative statics’—that is, we have compared people living in places with different ethnic mixes at one point in time—namely different American communities in the year 2000.  Although our evidence does suggest that it is the level of diversity that matters, not the rate of change, we have not yet considered any ‘dynamic’ evidence about the effects of immigration and diversity over long periods of time within a single place (whether a single community or the nation as a whole). Exploring the dynamics, as opposed to the comparative statics, of diversity and social capital requires entirely different methods, and my research group has only begun to explore those avenues.

What would these further studies likely reveal?

10.  Finally, and most importantly in my opinion, Putnam doesn’t argue that we can’t learn to respond to ethnic and racial diversity better than we currently do.  We’re not fated forever to wallow in our ignorance and respond irrationally to fear of the “other,” however much recent history has inclined us to this view.


imageAlbert Ruesga blogs about nonprofits, foundations, and civil society at White Courtesy Telephone.

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