Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Article #4- "The Downside of Diversity" by Jonas

In contrast to the melting pot theory taught in elementary classrooms across the country, famed social scientist Robert Putnam recently released a study that suggests that racial and ethnic diversity may have its drawbacks. Putnam’s findings come from a huge study that compiled 30,000 detailed interviews with subjects from 41 different US cities, the largest study ever on civic engagement.

The results are troubling: the more diverse a community, the less likely its citizens are to engage in civic activities. Cities with greater diversity volunteer less, vote less, and give less to charity than their less-diverse counterparts. The author of “Bowling Alone”, a landmark book published in 2000 that suggested Americans were getting less and involved in civic life, Putnam is no stranger to the subject of social isolation.

Researchers looking to refute the study are not likely to find holes in Putnam’s data. The author, well-known for his liberal and progressive views, conducted a rigorous examination on his study. He spent a period of over five years re-examining his own conclusions after initially realizing the “inconvenient truth” he was about to release.

In summarizing his findings, Putnam notes that people tend to “hunker down” and withdraw from their neighbors. He even found that tensions are high between members of the same ethnic group. Conservative think tanks have been quick to latch on to Putnam’s research, suggesting that the study proves the negative implications of lax immigration laws.

Putnam disagrees with such views, suggesting that a more diverse America is inevitable, not to mention valuable.


  1. I'm really interested to hear what others think about this study. It is fascinating to me, particularly because when Putnam came out with "Bowling Alone" there was so much discussion about how technology might be contributing to the isolation he discussed. I think the Internet has in some ways brought people together, but it other ways it does isolate us. It seems that how this connects with diversity and civic engagement is yet to be determined.

  2. This seemed self-evident to me: when faced with unfamiliarity, humans become more tribal, drawing in around smaller groups that they identify as more like themselves. If a community is fairly homogenous, everyone feels part of the same community and so is willing to help one another out, but the more diverse the community, the more likely people are to feel, "Well, why can't they (meaning the other *groups,* not necessarily individuals) take care of themselves?"

    The question then is how to make a community diverse and yet interconnected.

  3. Jen, I was going to say something like this, too. Although I come at it from a somewhat different perspective, that of the human tendency to define one group as same an another group as "other" in the anthropological sense. My interpretation was that those in the homogenous communities were more likely to do community service to help those outside their own community, because it was easier to help those 'others' who were outside their own community rather than those who might need it in their own. I guess the question is whether what definition Putnam was using for civic/community service - does it have to be within one's own community?