Diversity and Trust

Robert Putnam has published his first piece of research in his project on the negative relationship between ethnic diversity and social capital. This has been a long-running research agenda for Putnam (I worked for him on it as a research assistant in 2001-03). The paper is in the journal Scandinavian Political Studies: full text available here until the end of August. A summary appears in today’s New York Times magazine. I’m obviously biased, but I think this is one of the most interesting research agendas in social science today.

On a much more modest scale, I have an academic paper and popular writeup on the diversity/trust relationship in Australia, and find similar results to Putnam.

I’ve put Putnam’s conclusion over the fold.

My argument here is that in the short run there is a tradeoff between diversity and community, but that over time wise policies (public and private) can ameliorate that tradeoff. Even while pressing forward with research to confirm and clarify these arguments, we must also begin to ask about their implications for public policy. This is surely not the place for a comprehensive proposal for immigration reform, but a few comments may illustrate the policy directions suggested by my analysis.

Immigration policy is not just about numbers and borders. It is also about fostering a sense of shared citizenship. Whatever decisions we reach on numbers and borders, America is in the midst of renewing our historical identity as a nation of immigrants, and we must remind ourselves how to be a successful immigrant nation.

•  Tolerance for difference is but a first step. To strengthen shared identities, we need more opportunities for meaningful interaction across ethnic lines where Americans (new and old) work, learn, recreate, and live. Community centers, athletic fields, and schools were among the most efficacious instruments for incorporating new immigrants a century ago, and we need to reinvest in such places and activities once again, enabling us all to become comfortable with diversity.
•  Most immigrants want to acculturate – to learn English, for example. Expanding public support for English-language training, especially in settings that encourage ties among immigrants and natives of diverse ethnic backgrounds, should be a high priority.
•  Since the long-run benefits of immigration and diversity are often felt at the national level (scientific creativity, fiscal dividends, and so forth), whereas the short-run costs (fragile communities, educational and health costs, for example) are often concentrated at the local level, there is a strong case for national aid to affected localities.
•  Our field studies suggest that locally based programs to reach out to new immigrant communities are a powerful tool for mutual learning. Religious institutions – and in our era, as a century ago, especially the Catholic church – have a major role to play in incorporating new immigrants and then forging shared identities across ethnic boundaries. Ethnically defined social groups (such the Sons of Norway or the Knights of Columbus or Jewish immigrant aid societies) were important initial steps toward immigrant civic engagement a century ago. Bonding social capital can thus be a prelude to bridging social capital, rather than precluding it. To force civic and religious groups who work with immigrants to serve as enforcement tools for immigration laws, as some have suggested, would be exceptionally counterproductive to the goal of creating an integrated nation of immigrants.

But we need to work toward bridging, as well as bonding. Senator Barack Obama, whose life story embodies ties between immigrant and native-born America, has called for

. . . an America where race is understood in the same way that the ethnic diversity of the white population is understood. People take pride in being Irish-American and Italian-American. They have a particular culture that infuses the (whole) culture and makes it richer and more interesting. But it’s not something that determines people’s life chances and there is no sense of superiority or inferiority. . . . [I]f we can expand that attitude to embrace African-Americans and Latino-Americans and Asian-Americans, then . . . all our kids can feel comfortable with the worlds they are coming out of, knowing they are part of something larger. (Obama 2007)

Scientific examination of immigration, diversity and social cohesion easily could be inflamed as the results of research become part of the contemporary political debate, but that debate needs to be informed by our best efforts to ascertain the facts. It would be unfortunate if a politically correct progressivism were to deny the reality of the challenge to social solidarity posed by diversity. It would be equally unfortunate if an ahistorical and ethnocentric conservatism were to deny that addressing that challenge is both feasible and desirable. Max Weber instructed would-be political leaders nearly a century ago that ‘Politics is a slow boring of hard boards.’ The task of becoming comfortable with diversity will not be easy or quick, but it will be speeded by our collective efforts and in the end well worth the effort. One great achievement of human civilization is our ability to redraw more inclusive lines of social identity. The motto on the Great Seal of the United States (and on our dollar bill) and the title of this essay – e pluribus unum – reflects precisely that objective – namely to create a novel ‘one’ out of a diverse ‘many’.

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  1. Pingback: An introduction to social capital and Indigenous policy « John Rawnsley

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