Monday, August 6, 2007

New Study Says that Diversity May Hurt Civic Life


A recent Boston Globe story announced a rather shocking assertion: That diversity may actually hurt, rather than help, to increase civic engagement. Perhaps even more startling is that the data comes from none other than the "guru of civic engagement,” Robert Putnam.

The results of this new study emanate from a survey Putnam conducted among residents in 41 U.S. communities. Residents were asked how much they trusted their neighbors and those of four categories used by the U.S. Census (black, white, Asian, Hispanic). They were also asked about their civic attitudes and practices. “What emerged,” writes the Globe, is a “bleak picture of civic desolation, affecting everything from political engagement to the state of social ties.” Specifically, the study found that the greater the diversity in a community, the less people vote, volunteer, give to charity, and work on community projects. They also tend to trust each other less than those living in more homogenous settings.

In short? Higher diversity equals lower social capital.

Putnam suggests that people who live in diverse settings may be more likely to “hunker down, i.e., pull in like a turtle.” As the BG piece points out, this is bound to make those who champion diversity as a necessary and healthy part of democracy, education, and civic life rather uncomfortable. Yet, others argue that the study results are important to “put out there” because they highlight the challenges of an increasingly diverse culture. Social identity, Putnam argues, can and will change over time, with “social divisions” giving way to more encompassing identities” that “create a new, more capacious sense of ‘we,’” he writes.

And while more diversity may hinder strong social ties and capital, other research indicates that it may be an asset for driving productivity and innovation. Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist and author of Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, has found that in high-skill workplaces, different ways of thinking among people from different cultures can push new ways of doing things. “Diverse teams tend to be more productive,” he asserts. As the Globe puts it, “those in more diverse communities may do more bowling alone, but the creative tensions unleashed by those differences in the workplace may vault those same places to the cutting edge of the economy and of creative culture.”

Page calls it the “diversity paradox.” According to the Globe, he thinks that the contrasting positive and negative effects of diversity can coexist in communities, but “there’s got to be a limit.” If civic engagement falls off too far, he says, it’s easy to imagine the positive effects of diversity beginning to wane as well. “That’s what’s unsettling about [Putnam’s] findings,” Page says.

5 comments:

heather cronk said...

I think the central problem here is that none of those folks interviewed (or larger swaths of American society) are going to trust one another if they perceive that their actions are isolated -- that they're "acting alone" ("bowling alone" is SO overrated).

I've been wrestling lately with not just how to generate more social capital throughout the country (that's old hat, I think), but with how to tie together the social capital that's already being generated. Over the past few weeks, I've been talking to a few prominent bloggers about the value of connecting their blogs (and their blog readers) to offline action. I've suggested to them that blogging about important issues and conversations of the day is great, but not connecting their readers to complementary offline action is a wasted opportunity.

I think the same holds true for non-blogging community activists. Maybe the magic variable that Putnam overlooked is that one's level of civic engagement depends not only on the racial diversity of one's neighborhood/workplace, but also the diversity of entry points to civic action...

What would happen if the folks surveyed by Putnam began to see that there was a coherent, citizen-centered, citizen-directed movement in their neighborhoods, cities, and states to create social change? What would happen if all the great "Web 2.0" tools that we now have at our disposal (largely for free) were utilized effectively by anyone with a computer to rally support for their ideas to effect change? And what would happen if all of those connected dots were reflected in every venue from the blogosphere to the grocery store?

One of the things we're trying to do at PledgeBank.com is provide a space where everyone is an expert and everyone is an organizer -- all they need is a good idea. We provide them with the tool to rally support for that idea, and we provide a space for folks to get a snapshot of the great things happening across the country. There are other sites doing pieces of this work, both with social missions (Idealist) and corporate (Facebook). But none of these sites alone is the ultimate answer...we need to start tying them together.

I'd encourage more of an inspection of what we're doing as a national community to paint a portrait of the great things happening across the U.S. (and beyond) that is coherent and cohesive. Let's get beyond nonprofit databases and anonymous volunteerism. Let's give visibility to the babysitting co-ops and the neighborhood watches and the church bazaars that are happening in our communities every day...and that are vibrant and valid entry points to real social change.

Paul said...

I am actually not surprised by Putnam's finding. I believe it merely demonstrates that Americans still don't know how to handle diversity and that there is great distrust, suspicion and plain fear even in diverse communities.

Last night at dinner, my sister was telling me that one of the reasons she lives in her community is that it is more diverse. Then she shared about how angry she was that some African Americans in the community are claiming discrimination because basketball hoops at a local playground were clubbed because there had been violence on the courts. And some African American kids had chased her son and his friends in a park.

What struck me in her stories was that she was beginning to show the turtle effect, and that she had limited experience with diverse cultures.

I shared with her the time when I was 12 or so and some white kids chased a friend and me from a park near our home. They said they had knives, so we got another bigger riend who actually did have a knife and came back to the park looking for these guys. If these kids had been African American, it would have reinforced my youthful racism and fears of black people.

I think the bottom line of Putnam's study is that building trust and "bridging social capital" (to use his term) requires intentional work in many cases. There is a lot of distrust and misunderstanding and it can be blown out of proportion on both sides easily.

And when that trust and understanding is there, it makes it so that harder conversations are possible.

I look at this as another reason why Public Allies is necessary because our Allies are masters at bridging.

Jon said...

Building off of the previous posts, I am struck by the conclusions that Putnam and colleagues draw from the results. Although they addressed many of the factors that could help explain the findings/provide alternative findings, they do not mention a few important caveats.

First, this study estimated the correlation between diversity and trust (and other indicators of social capital); they did not estimate the impact of creating diversity in a community or in a school. That is, they did not design a model program, implement the diversity program, create diversity in a community (actually numerous communities) and then evaluate how the diversity program impacted the social capital in a community. As they mention in their research paper, they surveyed samples within disparate communities across the country, ranging from urban centers to rural enclaves. However, how the communities became diverse or not diverse was always through the most socially productive ways. To then generalize that diversity overall results in lower levels of social capital. To Paul's point, policymakers and practitioners need to be intentional about cultivating a positive diverse community - this is especially true when the diversity within a community is not originally developed through the most healthy of ways (as one example, look at Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. It has gone from a predominantly low-income, African American community to a community that now contains a large number of high-income white families. As Paul points out, this introduction of diversity, without any mediation, will most likely end with lack of trust and communal activities.

Second, the study looks at broad communities; for example 'Los Angeles.' As folks in any urban city know, a community will vary greatly from one neighborhood to another - and in some cases, from one street to another. What might look like high levels of diversity is actually a very racially and economically fragmented community. It would be interesting to analyze the data using that lens if at all possible.

Third, after controlling for various other factors that could affect social capital in a community, diversity plays a relatively small role; for instance, other factors, such as % of community that rents their home, explained 3-to-4 times as much of the variance as diversity. Diversity remains significant, which is important, but it's also important to recognize the relative of importance of diversity.

Sara said...

Using racial categories misrepresents the diversity because there are other equally significant ethnic identities, such as religion. For example the current rift between Muslims and Christians in the U.S. since 9-11 is huge, but by identifying people by race this is ignored because Saudi and Iraqi Muslims are labeled white just like Christians such as Jerry Falwell and George Bush.
Plus the American Anthropological Association is calling for an overhaul of US Census Racial Classifications because they don't reflect scientifically acurate categories. They have two flaws. First, they fail to corelate with current genetic and biological classification schemes. And, second, they do not acurately reflect how people self-identify.

Grassroots Grantmakers said...

As I read Putnam's article and have perused comments, I can't help but wonder many find this study threatening. I see some practical realities and great promise in Putnam's recent article. The "hunkering down" that Putnam describes is now new news. Stories of community change are rich with hunkering down stories - stories of newcomers and old-timers going to their respective corners and either finding ways to peacefully co-exist or duke it out it until the salve of relationships can break down stereotypes and open the door for a redefining what community means in this particular place and time.

While I could site many examples of "hunkering down", consider the story from my German grandmother of the deep divide that once existed between Germans and Czechs in my small Texas town when she was a girl - tensions that flared when her brother (German) introduced his new Czech bride to the family and was forced off the family land and even barred from the family cemetery. Not a proud moment in my family history, to be sure, but a reminder that these times of "new" and our communities response ("hunkering down") are not so "new".

The promise of Putnam's article is in the reminder that we have done this before - not perfectly and certainly not elegantly - but that we have the capacity to do it again. Isn't our experience that the uncomfortable negative of new diversity is just what Putnam says - short-term? And that Putnam is right-on when he says that we will find our way - as we have done before - to a long-term benefit?

Rather than hand-wringing about the short-term negatives, I would rather see more energy invested in adding to the suggestions that Putnam makes for navigating this bend in the river so we can get to a place where we can more fully tap into the richness of community diversity. He suggests re-investing in public spaces, being more purposeful in reaching out to newcomers, creating more opportunities for new immigrants to learn English. What else? We have deep experience in this area - surely we can expand this list and shape it an agenda that inspires action.