A recent Boston Globe story announced a rather shocking assertion: That diversity may actually hurt, rather than help, to increase civic engagement. Perhaps even more startling is that the data comes from none other than the "guru of civic engagement,” Robert Putnam.
The results of this new study emanate from a survey Putnam conducted among residents in 41 U.S. communities. Residents were asked how much they trusted their neighbors and those of four categories used by the U.S. Census (black, white, Asian, Hispanic). They were also asked about their civic attitudes and practices. “What emerged,” writes the Globe, is a “bleak picture of civic desolation, affecting everything from political engagement to the state of social ties.” Specifically, the study found that the greater the diversity in a community, the less people vote, volunteer, give to charity, and work on community projects. They also tend to trust each other less than those living in more homogenous settings.
In short? Higher diversity equals lower social capital.
Putnam suggests that people who live in diverse settings may be more likely to “hunker down, i.e., pull in like a turtle.” As the BG piece points out, this is bound to make those who champion diversity as a necessary and healthy part of democracy, education, and civic life rather uncomfortable. Yet, others argue that the study results are important to “put out there” because they highlight the challenges of an increasingly diverse culture. Social identity, Putnam argues, can and will change over time, with “social divisions” giving way to more encompassing identities” that “create a new, more capacious sense of ‘we,’” he writes.
And while more diversity may hinder strong social ties and capital, other research indicates that it may be an asset for driving productivity and innovation. Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist and author of Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, has found that in high-skill workplaces, different ways of thinking among people from different cultures can push new ways of doing things. “Diverse teams tend to be more productive,” he asserts. As the Globe puts it, “those in more diverse communities may do more bowling alone, but the creative tensions unleashed by those differences in the workplace may vault those same places to the cutting edge of the economy and of creative culture.”
Page calls it the “diversity paradox.” According to the Globe, he thinks that the contrasting positive and negative effects of diversity can coexist in communities, but “there’s got to be a limit.” If civic engagement falls off too far, he says, it’s easy to imagine the positive effects of diversity beginning to wane as well. “That’s what’s unsettling about [Putnam’s] findings,” Page says.
Monday, August 6, 2007
Posted by cingib at 6:52 PM