Noted Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam recently published the results of a major study with surprising findings: that community diversity is linked to relatively lower levels of key other measures of civic engagement and healthy community involvement. The Boston Globe article refers to him as the “bearer of bad news” – and he faces the perhaps unwelcome role of liberal scholar providing research supporting conservative devaluation of diversity.
IT HAS BECOME increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.
But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.
Conservative groups have already picked up on this story (Putnam says, “It certainly is not pleasant when David Duke’s website hails me as the guy who found out racism is good…”) and no doubt will continue to use this as fodder in their tactics of discrimination. A more important question is, what lies behind Putnam’s findings? And perhaps the biggest questions will be, how do we quantify the greater BENEFITS of diversity? And how do we find other ways of overcoming the lower social capital (low voter turnout, low civic engagement, low charitable contributions, etc.) that can be more likely to appear in places like urban neighborhoods?
“Diversity, at least in the short run,” Putnam writes, “seems to bring out the turtle in all of us.” In the short run, indeed; let’s be mindful of the long run.