Diversity is not black and white
By Christopher Caldwell – FT.com August 11, 2007
The latest round of research done by sociologist Robert Putnam has been spreading around the world in dribs and drabs for most of this decade. Mr Putnam, who teaches at both Harvard and the University of Manchester, is known for his work on social capital, which he defines as "social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness".
Since social capital is linked to better health, wealth and education, longevity and a stronger democratic life, it is something worth guarding. Mr Putnam lamented its decline in a bestseller called Bowling Alone. At the start of this decade, Mr Putnam undertook a vast study that led him to a troubling conclusion: one of the big causes of the decline of social capital is racial diversity.
This summer, Mr Putnam's work on diversity came a step closer to penetrating the consciousness of the public when one of his lectures was published in the journal Scandinavian Political Studies. His social science colleagues have been mulling over his research for years and none has seriously challenged his conclusions. So an ideological crisis is looming. One of the cherished shibboleths of public policy, corporate identity and interpersonal relations - the idea that "diversity is strength" - is losing its legitimacy.
Mr Putnam studied 30,000 people, urban and rural, rich and poor, young and old, male and female, across the US. He found a steady correlation between ethnically mixed environments and withdrawal from public life. People living amidst diversity tend to "hunker down", in his words. They trust their neighbours less (whether of other races or their own), vote less and give less to charity. About the only things they excel at, in Mr Putnam's account, are television-watching and protest marching. They lead sadder lives.
This conclusion, viewed a certain way, is just laboriously documented common sense. People trust people like themselves more than they trust people unlike themselves. Life is short and diverse groups waste precious time arguing over ground rules. Once a certain level of diversity is surpassed, a community ceases to be a community. What makes "the gay community" and "the African-American community" communities, at least in politically correct jargon, is that they are not diverse. Mr Putnam himself acknowledges a long list of "evidence that diversity and solidarity are negatively correlated". One could cite Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser's demonstration that ethnic diversity helps account for much of the weakness of the US welfare state relative to those in Europe.
But Mr Putnam's study does not simply point to a few difficulties in administering diversity - it undermines the official doctrine of western governments that diversity is always, and in every way, a positive force in society. It makes one wonder if diversity would still be considered a positive force at all if it were not an official doctrine, and one with a mighty apparatus of enforcement. Admirably,Mr Putnam wants to keep people from overreacting to diversity (the social fact). But the way he chooses to do this is by taking refuge in diversity (the state ideology). He insists that "ethnic diversity is, on balance, an important social asset". What exactly does he mean by this? Diversity is indeed an asset, in the sense that companies that pay careful attention to it will spend a lot less time defending lawsuits against government prosecutors. But what is its inherent value?
Here, Mr Putnam's gift for specificity and syllogism fails him. While he describes and empirically verifies the problems of diversity, he does little more than speculate about its advantages. Mr Putnam credits one social scientist with having "powerfully summarised evidence that diversity (especially intellectual diversity) produces much better, faster problem-solving". But intellectual diversity is not the kind of diversity that Mr Putnam is studying, and it is not the kind that official programmes promote, particularly in human resources departments and on college campuses. What is promoted is racial diversity. While it is assumed in theory that this will bring intellectual diversity in its wake, that has not happened in practice. Indeed, a powerful conformism has become the mark of American universities in precisely the decades when they have been growing more diverse. Mr Putnam also cites the desegregation of the US Army as evidence that people get used to diversity over time. But even the best army is organised along hierarchical and authoritarian lines that make it a poor place to look for lessons about life in a democratic republic.
"The central challenge for modern, diversifying societies," writes Mr Putnam, "is to create a new, broader sense of 'we'." But surely to "broaden" anything is to attenuate it. If you doubt this, imagine how your spouse or business partner would take such a suggestion. To ask for a "broader sense of 'we' " is to ask that we simply make our peace with waning social capital.
It is our duty to live with the diversity around us. But it is not our duty to sing the praises of diversity ideology. Racism and certain other forms of exclusion corrode a society morally. But diversity, as an ideology, is not a matter of avoiding those occasions of sin. It is an active, ruthless and crusading belief system. Its effects resemble those of "meritocracy" on the community life of London's Bethnal Green, as described in Dench, Gavron and Young's The New East End. It involves identifying, discrediting and breaking up close-knit communities in the interest of mixing them more easily into some new ideal of the nation. (Emphasis added. Ed.)
There have been great gains from this ideology, and great losses. Mr Putnam's research shows that the latter are more obvious than the former.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standardhttp://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/40e39d52-47a3-11dc-9096-0000779fd2ac.html?nclick_check=1
Last updated 09/10/2007