Has diversity made us 'hunker down'?


Three propositions about change in modern societies are made by the US social scientist Robert Putnam in an important study of diversity and community. Based on a large scale study, he says his findings have general relevance beyond the United States.

They should be taken seriously because he is now such an influential voice on the relationship between social capital - defined as social networks characterised by reciprocity and trustworthiness - and social policy issues on both sides of the Atlantic - including in Ireland, which figures in his argument.

Ethnic diversity will increase substantially in nearly all of them, firstly. Increased immigration and diversity are not only inevitable but desirable over the long run, since diversity is an important social asset. Immigration is associated with higher creativity, economic growth, mitigation of demographic ageing and it benefits both originating and destination societies through financial remittances and new social networks.

In the short to medium term, however, Putnam finds that immigration and ethnic diversity inhibit social capital. This is a provocative and controversial claim, which he has been reluctant to publicise before checking out exhaustively. Given the bitter arguments about the politics of immigration in the US and Europe over the last five years that is not surprising. He is afraid opponents of immigration will use his findings opportunistically and short-sightedly, putting those who support it mistakenly on the defensive.

Hence his third broad point must be emphasised in tandem with the second: that in the medium to long term successful immigrant societies create new forms of social solidarity by constructing more encompassing identities.

The central challenge for modern diversifying societies is how to create a broader sense of "we" that goes beyond the older assimilationist idea of making them like us. The history of the US and other societies shows this can be done with the right policies.

Putnam's research on the US has now been published in the June issue of Scandinavian Political Studies in an article based on a lecture he gave in Norway last year (it can be accessed at http://tinyurl.com/2p v3r2). It is based on a large nationwide survey throughout the US in 2000, with a sample size of about 30,000 people, in 41 very different communities. They ranged from large metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles, Houston or Boston to small towns and rural areas. It was conducted alongside the national census of that year, giving extra controls and leverage in the analysis of the race, education, income and other characteristics of the sample compared with the population as a whole.

In order to assess the relationship between social capital and ethnic diversity in the US, Putnam divided the US population into four categories: Hispanic, non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic black and Asian.

He finds that "the more ethnically diverse the people we live around, the less we trust them", based on a direct question on that subject to each person in the sample.

The same applies to neighbourhoods. And trust reduces even within these same four groups in more diverse communities. As he puts it, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to "hunker down", that is, "to pull in like a turtle".

The analysis is extended exhaustively to other aspects of life. In areas of greater diversity there is lower confidence in local media, leaders and government; lower confidence in having political influence; lower vote registration, though more propensity to participate in protest marches and reform groups; less likelihood of working on a community project, giving to charity or volunteering; fewer close friends and confidants; less happiness and lower perceived quality of life; and more time spent watching television and relying on it as entertainment.

Putnam further analyses the data to show that these patterns hold true even when relative affluence and poverty, political persuasion, gender, age and class are taken into account. In fact the data may underestimate the real effect of diversity on social withdrawal; but he will do more work on whether the underlying division between whites and blacks in the US outweighs the effects of more recent Hispanic and Asian immigration.

Generally speaking, he concludes, "many Americans today are uncomfortable with diversity". That bears out the impression we have from the debate on Hispanic immigration, especially in the Republican party. It is striking that these findings relate to what Putnam describes as "comparative statics" - people living with different ethnic mixes at one point of time, ie the year 2000. The picture changes when examined historically, the point of his third proposition. Over time immigrant communities adapt and create new ways to include newcomers.

But this may take several generations - as can be seen readily in the way his category of "non-Hispanic white" includes both the Irish, Italians, Poles and Jews who fought successively for recognition over the last 150 years, as well as the Protestant Anglo-Saxons who resisted their inclusion. Several major lines of social division have shifted graphically, notably religious affiliation which is much less salient than it was 50 years ago.

This story can be replicated elsewhere, raising the question of how typical US experience is. Putnam believes the US probably shows the way for other societies such as Germany, France, Britain, Sweden and Ireland, with which he compares it. In the short term there is a trade off between diversity and community, but over time wise policies can ameliorate that for all concerned.

He allows that different balances of public and private power in the US and Europe may make a difference here. There is a strong case for aid to affected localities to allow them adjust to ethnic change.

In Ireland recent reports indicate that social capital is holding its own or increasing. But it is unequally distributed between classes. And we know too little about precisely how immigrant newcomers are received in terms of trust and reciprocity and whether we too are actually hunkering down in response.

It is safest to assume most newcomers are not simple "guest workers" but will stay and therefore require us to create a more encompassing Irish identity to include them.