For a number of years, Harvard Professor Robert Putnam has been working on the issue of ethnic diversity and social capital. During that time, he’s spoken about the research at a host of “closed door” seminars, including one I organised at the Australian National University in August 2005.
Now, Putnam has gone public with the research. As he told the FT:
A bleak picture of the corrosive effects of ethnic diversity has been revealed in research by Harvard Universityâ€™s Robert Putnam, one of the worldâ€™s most influential political scientists.
His research shows that the more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust anyone â€“ from their next-door neighbour to the mayor.This is a contentious finding in the current climate of concern about the benefits of immigration. Professor Putnam told the Financial Times he had delayed publishing his research until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity, saying it â€œwould have been irresponsible to publish without thatâ€.Â
The core message of the research was that, â€œin the presence of diversity, we hunker downâ€, he said. â€œWe act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And itâ€™s not just that we donâ€™t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we donâ€™t trust people who do look like us.â€
Prof Putnam found trust was lowest in Los Angeles, â€œthe most diverse human habitation in human historyâ€, but his findings also held for rural South Dakota, where â€œdiversity means inviting Swedes to a Norwegiansâ€™ picnicâ€.
I worked on Putnam’s research team in 2001-02 (and wrote up the experience). This made me curious to see if his US findings could also be replicated in Australia. In a paper published in the Economic Record last month, I found pretty similar effects across Australian neighbourhoods. The more languages are spoken on your neighbourhood, the less likely people are to trust one another.
Trust, Inequality and Ethnic Heterogeneity
Using a large Australian social survey, combined with precise data on neighbourhood characteristics, I explore the factors that a ffect trust at a local level (â€˜localised trustâ€™) and at a national level (â€˜generalised trustâ€™). Trust is positively associated with the respondentâ€™s education, and negatively associated with the amount of time spent commuting. At a neighbourhood level, trust is higher in affluent areas, and lower in ethnically and linguistically heterogeneous communities, with the effect being stronger for linguistic heterogeneity than ethnic heterogeneity. Linguistic heterogeneity reduces localised trust for both natives and immigrants, and reduces generalised trust only for immigrants. Instrumental variables specifications show similar results. In contrast to the USA, there is no apparent relationship between trust and inequality across neighbourhoods in Australia.
Immigration has been, on balance, a terrific thing for Australia. But progressives are making a bad mistake if they pretend that ethnic diversity has no negative consequences.Â