A Downside To Diversity?

This coming Sunday New York Times Magazine features a fascinating article (subscription sadly required) about research by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam about some of the social and psychological down-sides of diversity. Simply put, as diversity goes up, our trust goes down, and our social isolation increases--at least in the short-run:

For decades, students of American society have offered dueling theories about how encountering racial and ethnic diversity affects the way we live. One says that simple contact — being tossed into a stew of different cultures, values, languages and styles of dress — is likely to nourish tolerance and trust. Familiarity, in this view, trumps insularity. Others argue that just throwing people together is rarely enough to breed solidarity: when diversity increases, they assert, people tend to stick to their own groups and distrust those who are different from them.

But what if diversity had an even more complex and pervasive effect? What if, at least in the short term, living in a highly diverse city or town led residents to distrust pretty much everybody, even people who looked like them? What if it made people withdraw into themselves, form fewer close friendships, feel unhappy and powerless and stay home watching television in the evening instead of attending a neighborhood barbecue or joining a community project?

This is the unsettling picture that emerges from a huge nationwide telephone survey by the famed Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and his colleagues. “Diversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation,” Putnam writes in the June issue of the journal Scandinavian Political Studies. “In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’ — that is, to pull in like a turtle.”

In highly diverse cities and towns like Los Angeles, Houston and Yakima, Wash., the survey found, the residents were about half as likely to trust people of other races as in homogenous places like Fremont, Mich., or rural South Dakota, where, Putnam noted, “diversity means inviting a few Norwegians to the annual Swedish picnic.”

More significant, they were also half as likely to trust people of their own race. They claimed fewer close friends. They were more apt to agree that “television is my most important form of entertainment.” They had less confidence in local government and less confidence in their own ability to exert political influence. They were more likely to join protest marches but less likely to register to vote. They rated their happiness as generally lower. And this diversity effect continued to show up even when a community’s population density, average income, crime levels, rates of home ownership and a host of other factors were taken into account.

. . .

Putnam’s argument is more nuanced. Diversity has clear benefits, he says, among them economic growth and enhanced creativity — more top-flight scientists, more entrepreneurs, more artists. But difference is also disconcerting, he maintains, “and people like me, who are in favor of diversity, don’t do ourselves any favors by denying that it takes time to become comfortable,” Putnam says.

Why that discomfort seems to translate into social isolation and a weakening of civic bonds remains anyone’s guess. Studies by Wendy Berry Mendes, a social psychologist at Harvard, and her colleagues find that when research subjects play a cooperative game with someone of another race, they can show physiological signs of distress — reduced cardiac efficiency and arterial constriction, for example. On a daily basis, this alarmed reaction might make people pull inward. Putnam himself speculates that, with kaleidoscopic changes going on around them, people in diverse communities might experience a kind of system overload, shutting down “in the presence of confusing or multiple messages from the environment.”

Still, in Putnam’s view, the findings are neither cause for despair nor a brief against diversity. If this country’s history is any guide, what people perceive as unfamiliar and disturbing — what they see as “other” — can and does change over time. Seemingly intractable group divisions can give way to a larger, overarching identity. When he was in high school in the 1950s, Putnam notes, he knew the religion of almost every one of the 150 students in his class. At the time, religious intermarriage was uncommon, and knowing whether a potential mate was a Methodist, a Catholic or a Jew was crucial information. Half a century later, for most Americans, the importance of religion as a mating test has dwindled to near irrelevance, “hardly more important than left- or right-handedness to romance.”

The rising marriage rates across racial and ethnic lines in a younger generation, raised in a more diverse world, suggest the current markers of difference can also fade in salience. In some places, they already have: soldiers have more interracial friendships than civilians, Putnam’s research finds, and evangelical churches in the South show high rates of racial integration. “If you’re asking me if, in the long run, I’m optimistic,” Putnam says, “the answer is yes.”

Read it all (if you have a subscription).

This finding supports David Brook's explanation for opposition to immigration reform, and it is consistent with my own experience. While many people thrive in a diverse community (my wife spent years in Colombia and after we adopted our son, we became an multiracial family), but to many others exposure to a different culture can be very disconcerting. Still, Dr. Putnam's larger optimism is also well-founded. He is quite correct that the U.S. military is indeed quite integrated--far more so than any university campus--and that suggests that this is a short-term rather than long term problem.


Nick+ said…
Chuck, this is a great article. Depressing, but informative.

Thanks for pointing it out.

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