Putnam's Paradox

Diversity accomplishes many things--but it may not make us better citizens.
by | November 2007

It's become one of the immutable slogans of our time--"diversity is our strength." But Robert Putnam, the prominent Harvard University political scientist best known for his "bowling alone" theory of civic disengagement, has come up with some troubling new evidence. A massive survey he conducted suggests that people who live in ethnically diverse neighborhoods are more likely to distrust their neighbors and less likely to participate in the political process.

"I suspect that it is simply easier for government to satisfy their citizens in more homogeneous communities," he said in an interview, "because as the range of backgrounds and views widens, it is harder and harder to satisfy everyone."

Putnam's team conducted detailed telephone interviews with 30,000 Americans--a far larger sample than usual in such surveys--and dug more deeply in 41 communities across the country. Even accounting for such factors such as income and local crime rates, Putnam found that residents of diverse communities are less likely to have confidence in their neighbors--even those of their own race--than people who live in more homogenous areas.

"The more ethnically diverse the people we live around, the less we trust them," Putnam writes in his study, published this summer. "This study does suggest that diversity, in the short run, is a serious problem." What's more, residents of diverse neighborhoods tend to have lower confidence in local government and are less likely to register to vote or sign up for community projects or other forms of volunteering.

Other social scientists have done research recently suggesting diversity has its drawbacks. But many maintain nonetheless that diverse areas tend to be more vibrant and economically healthier. "When you interact with people who are different, it's difficult and trust goes down," says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist who has written a book about diversity, "but there's strong empirical evidence that productivity goes up."

Perhaps in part because Putnam is well-known as a liberal, his study was immediately seized upon by conservatives, especially opponents of an open-door immigration policy. The Orange County Register in Southern California recently published an op-ed about it entitled "Greater Diversity Equals More Misery." Putnam says such statements ignore his point that the problems associated with diversity can be overcome over time.

We forget, he suggests, that there were similar levels of discomfort among communities receiving European immigrants a century or more ago. He maintains that the current waves of immigrants can be successfully assimilated over time if social divisions are subsumed within the sort of shared identity that has always unified Americans.

But Putnam doesn't think we should shy away from discussing the difficulties that lie along the road. "In the long run, it's going to be much better for America that we are a diverse society," he says. "In the short run, there are some adjustment problems."