Defining "us"

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 University’s Robert Putnam, one of the world’s most influential political scientists.

His research shows that the more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust anyone – 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 “would have been irresponsible to publish without that”. 

The core message of the research was that, “in the presence of diversity, we hunker down”, he said. “We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.”

Prof Putnam found trust was lowest in Los Angeles, “the most diverse human habitation in human history”, but his findings also held for rural South Dakota, where “diversity means inviting Swedes to a Norwegians’ picnic”.

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
Andrew Leigh
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 (‘localised trust’) and at a national level (‘generalised trust’). Trust is positively associated with the respondent’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. 

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16 Responses to Defining "us"

  1. Bruce Bradbury says:

    How do you and Putnam define heterogeneity? My intuition would be that a location made up of two ethnic groups, each with 50% of the population would have less trust than a location made up of 10 ethnic groups, each with 10% of the population. Are you telling me my intuition is wrong here?

    Do either of you look at the intersection of ethnicity and class? I would surmise that it might be a strong correlation between ethnicity and class that would lead to lack of trust rather than ethnic diversity per se.

  2. Don Arthur says:

    What are the consequences of lower levels of trust? What does the evidence say?

  3. Geoff R says:

    Mentioned this in my lecture this morning.

  4. Claire says:

    It’d be interesting to compare endogamous versus exogamous communities. Do you have any data on that, especially on areas with stable exogamy?

  5. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Is there a paper or book, or just press release?

  6. Andrew Leigh says:

    Bruce, I define heterogeneity as fractionalisation, using a Herfindahl-type measure. But if I test for polarisation (your intuition), I get very similar results. I haven’t run the horse-race.

    Don, I say just about everything I know on “why trust matters” in the first paragraph of the paper.

    Geoff, thanks for the generous plug.

    Claire, I try to get some exogenous variation by defining the regions very broadly (eg. I may choose to live in postcode 2602 based on its trust levels, but my decision to live in Canberra is more exogenous with respect to its trust).

    Sinclair, I have a paper (linked above). Putnam will soon have a book. I may at some point also have a book.

  7. Sinclair Davidson says:

    I’ve seen your paper – it’s the famous ‘Leigh issue’ of the the Record.

  8. Ben says:

    In today’s Australia, we no longer believe the fairytale that European settlement (colonisation, invasion – choose your own term) has been all “beer and skittles” for the former inhabitants. In a similar way it is time to come to a more mature understanding of multiculturalism. One that acknowledges the damage to social cohesion and trust alongside the irrefutable benefits from plurality of culture and identity.

  9. I’ve seen some evidence which tends to bear out Bruce’s suggestion, but sadly I’ve forgotten where I saw it.

  10. Claire says:

    I’m not asking about exogeny, I’m asking about exogamy. Systematic marriage outside one’s own social group.

  11. Geoff R says:

    I have an extract from Imagining Australia in the course reader but I also mentioned Murray Goot’s criticism of it.

  12. “His research shows that the more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust anyone – from their next-door neighbour to the mayor.”

    Wow! Who’d have thought it? Does this mean that with respect to race riots, pogroms and lynchings it is not a coincidence that race and ethnicity were involved? Social science reveals the hidden truth.

    A sensible (and uplifting) NYT editorial yesterday
    said America “has an iron stomach for seemingly undigestible newcomers.”

    Have we, and Europe, got cast iron stomachs?

  13. Andrew Leigh says:

    Claire, I find it an interesting question, but I don’t know of any Australian evidence that’s on point.

  14. cam says:

    There was a study that determined wealth was a better determinant of the likelihood of civil war than ethnic mixes. They also found that of the poorer ones the homogeneous societies were the most likely.

    With Australian immigration the first-generation immigrants settle in areas close to low-skilled jobs, but as as they become wealthy enough flee to the suburbs. I have written on that before, citing a study, but I cannot find the link atm.

    It would be interesting to discover how trust fits in with those and when the drop in trust becomes destructive to the point of violence or domestic migration to other parts of the city/country.

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