Friday, October 13, 2006

Multiculturalism and the decline of neighborliness

Harvard Political Science Professor Robert Putnam has an interesting study on the effects of ethnic diversity on trust, according an article at the Financial Times.

In short, multiethnicity undermines trust within communities.

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 neighbor to the mayor. ...
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".
When the data were adjusted for class, income and other factors, they showed that the more people of different races lived in the same community, the greater the loss of trust. "They don't trust the local mayor, they don't trust the local paper, they don't trust other people and they don't trust institutions," said Prof Putnam. "The only thing there's more of is protest marches and TV watching."

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."

Commentary Back in the mid-1990s, Putnam wrote a popular book called Bowling Alone, which described the breakdown of communities as reflected in a decline in membership in group organizations. Apart from the FT summary, I can't find a summary of Putnam's work on ethnic diversity anywhere on the web.

About the only question that comes to mind is whether what is attributed to multiethnicity can really be explained by the word multiculturalism. Webster's defines ethnicity as " of or relating to large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background".

Race is apparently only one aspect of ethnicity and maybe the least important one — we find Swedes distinguished from Norwegians in one of Putnam's examples of "diversity" — and it may be that communities which are homogenous with respect to religion, language and culture have a higher trust coefficient than communities of the same racial background but have different religious and cultural contexts.

The warring communities in Northern Ireland immediately come to mind as an example. Putnam himself says, in diverse communities we distrust people who do look like us.

But if Putnam is correct, then one of the central tenets of multiculturalism — that it brings people together if they simply "respect" each others differences — immediately requires qualification.

In fact, it becomes entirely conceivable that the multiculti program is actually the driver behind many of the tensions which are now rising in places like France, the Netherlands and the UK.

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