Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Putnam Study

John Leo reports on a diversity study by Robert Putnam that raises troubling questions about the benefits of diversity. Specifically, he finds that living in diverse areas is correlated to a bevy of negative effects on the residents:
Diversity does not produce “bad race relations,” Putnam says. Rather, people in diverse communities tend “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.” Putnam adds a crushing footnote: his findings “may underestimate the real effect of diversity on social withdrawal.”

Neither age nor disparities of wealth explain this result. “Americans raised in the 1970s,” he writes, “seem fully as unnerved by diversity as those raised in the 1920s.” And the “hunkering down” occurred no matter whether the communities were relatively egalitarian or showed great differences in personal income. Even when communities are equally poor or rich, equally safe or crime-ridden, diversity correlates with less trust of neighbors, lower confidence in local politicians and news media, less charitable giving and volunteering, fewer close friends, and less happiness.

Putnam does say that these harms are across the short and mid-term, and in the long-run diversity remains an overall benefit. Still, these are findings to give one pause.

I first came across the study at MvdG's place (this is an expansion of the comment I left there), and have seen it in several other locales since then. As I blog rather frequently on the perks of diversity, and consider myself a cheerleader for its benefits, I feel it's only fair to blog on this study as well.

The Putnam study is indeed distressing. The one variable I didn’t see him control for (and he may have, I'm relying on a summary) was comparing people who grew up in diverse surroundings versus those who moved in at adulthood. Most of the research I’ve seen as indicated that childhood is a crucial time for getting people to accept and thrive in diverse environments–and that they experience performance leaps as a result. Putnam’s study might indicate that these benefits don’t accrue if you start too late (this is also buttressed by his findings of long-term gains to offset the short- and mid-term losses). If Putnam's study is to be synthesized with the studies that do find long-term benefits for children who grow up and are educated in diverse environments, it would suggest that integrating schools is a "try-or-die" situation--if you don't catch kids early enough, simply putting them in diverse situations later on will blow up in your face.

That being said, Putnam's study does impress that diversity is not a panacea. It has benefits, especially along the axis of racial distributional justice. But its pursuit can have costs as well, and it is unfair not to take those costs into account. Ultimately, I think the best use of our brightest minds, confronting Putnam's work, is to figure out how to eliminate the relationship he's finding. More than the study itself, I am worried by the people reacting to it with satisfaction bordering on glee. Regardless of what you think about various state-incentivized plans to encourage diverse living, everybody is hurt when simply living next door to someone of another culture risks lowering your quality of life--not because of increased crime or worse schools, but because of psychological discomfort and distress. Putnam's study doesn't just describe a finding, it describes a problem.

It's a problem--but I don't believe that it is an immutable one. People can grow comfortable around those who previously thought to be inscrutably, exotically different. It's a problem, but one that we can solve. So, let's solve it.


PG said...

A very good point about the potential difference between growing up in versus moving into diversity. I grew up in a racially diverse area (about half white, a little more than a quarter black, a little less than a quarter Latino) where I wasn't part of any of the major racial groups, and I think I'm reasonably comfortable with diversity and feel a sense of social responsibility. Now that I think of it, I actually have engaged in more volunteer activity in situations where my fellow volunteers are likely to be different from me -- in high school, after college and while living in NYC -- than in college, where there was a higher level of both racial and socioeconomic homogeneity.

My parents, on the other hand, obviously lived in that same area for the whole time I did growing up, but are less involved with that diverse community than with their own ethnic community, despite its limited scope in proximity to them. Having moved to the U.S. as adults, they will forever think of themselves and their offspring, and of others as "Americans."

I'd also be curious about the effect of religion on happiness and social cohesion and community. Although my own communities are built mostly on secular bases because I am not religious, most of the people I know have had religion-based community at some point in their lives. I'd want to disaggregate the greater sense of coheshion and happiness that may derive from religion from the effects of racial diversity. (Even if there is some correlation between particular ethnicities and particular religions...)

Anonymous said...

If diversity was consistent with human nature you wouldn't need to come up with all kinds of "interventionist" plans to force it on people. Trying to force changes in human nature has never really worked out all that well.

Also, in advocating his "solution" to diversity's ill effects of "constructing a new us" -- it seems to me that Putnam is all but admitting that the old "melting pot" model of assimilation that served the US well for 200 years was actually a good thing -- contrary to what "progressives" have been preaching for 40-plus years now. There's no doubt that we will reap the whirlwind from the foolish notion of encouraging immigrants to "keep" their culture instead of encouraging assimilation.

David Schraub said...

Mary: The problem is that our current segregated existence isn't a product of "natural" human instincts either. It is the result of a variety of heavily subsidized governmental programs and policies all of which either were designed to or had the effect of creating and maintaining a segregated sphere (See Sheryll Cashin, The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class are Undermining the American Dream (New York: PublicAffairs, 2004), Chap.3, pp. 83-124). She concludes the chapter: "Individuals acting on their personal prejudices and preferences might have chosen, in the absence of exclusionary public and private policies, to cluster among their own race and economic class. But it would not have been possible for millions of individuals acting independently to create the regime of systematic stratification and exclusion that reigns today." (123)

But aside from that, I'd note that your first and second argument seem to be at odds with each other. The "melting pot," at the very least, implies that various different groups and races do, in fact, melt together. A segregated social sphere is the exact opposite of this--nothing could stand in further opposition to assimilation than having a Black neighborhood, a White neighborhood, Chinatown, a Latino block, etc.. But, most demographers have found that the primary barrier to integration has been "White flight"--Black people start to move in and integrate an area, White people pull up stakes and flee (the tipping point is usually a Black population of 20% or higher), and thus the neighborhood--instead of integrating and facilitating assimilation, simply switches from White to Black. The implication is that, insofar as assimilation is not happening, it's because of White reticence--they don't want to "melt" their culture into those of Blacks, or Asians, or Latinos, or anybody else--and they will move to avoid it.

Ergo, regardless of whether one wants assimilation (like you) or a "salsa bowl" (like me), one has to support efforts to integrate American society--and since White people have been the overwhelming barrier to that end, they're the one's we need to focus on.