Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Short and long run effects of diversity 

A summary of reactions to Robert Putnam's research appears in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education (temp link, thanks to loyal reader jw).

Putnam�s study underscores three crucial points:

  1. Ethnic diversity is increasing and inevitable and in the long-run is a valuable asset for advanced countries. The study highlights the economic, cultural, and developmental benefits from immigration and diversity for both sending and receiving countries. Immigrants comprise a disproportionate share of America�s Nobel Laureates and distinguished scholars and artists. Economic productivity is often higher (and crime rates often lower) in places with greater numbers of immigrants.
  2. Putnam�s research indicates that at least initially our fear of what is new and different means that increased immigration and diversity reduce trust, social solidarity, and social capital. (Previous research suggests that where levels of social capital are higher, children grow up healthier, safer and better educated; people live longer, happier lives; and democracy and the economy work better.) Extensive analysis of a large national sample of Americans finds that controlling for many other factors at the individual and community level, people of all ethnic backgrounds tend to �hunker down� in more diverse neighborhoods. Trust (even of one�s own race) is lower, friends fewer, altruism and community cooperation rarer, confidence in local institutions weaker, and TV-watching more frequent.
  3. In the long run, successful immigrant societies like the U.S. overcome such fragmentation by creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity, and more encompassing identities. The study notes that the U.S. has done this through popular culture, education, national symbols, and common experiences. In addition to the successful history of American immigrant assimilation a century ago, Putnam lauds the US Army, many evangelical megachurches, and (as with European immigrants a century ago) the Catholic Church, as contemporary success stories for encouraging shared identities and inter-ethnic ties.
Rod Dreher writes,
I predict this research will have absolutely zero impact on the immigration debate. Why? Because Diversity is a dogmatic secular religion. To dissent from its dogmas is to declare oneself to be a heathen. Seriously, to question its premises is to be thought of as a closet hater by the Establishment. You would get about as far questioning Creationism at a backwoods Bible college as you would questioning Diversity at a US university, corporation or whatnot. In fact, that's a good comparison, because it's the secular left that's always cracking on religious people for ignoring science when it doesn't suit their ends.
I think the reaction to Putnam is overblown. I don't think you'd find many new immigrants throughout history that did not set off the kind of short-run reactions that Putnam describes. Doesn't matter if it's Irish need not apply, or reaction to French-speaking Quebecois in northern New England, or the Italians, or modern-day equivalent.

It's the third point Putnam makes that's key: The cross-cutting cultural experiences of the U.S. Army (where my German-American father-in-law met Jewish and black soldiers for the first time in the Pacific theater, and ended up lifelong friends with some) and large churches (I witness with wonder the Sudanese congregants at a local Lutheran church, getting some early worshiping done before their own native-language service immediately after.) It is the desire to keep those groups distinct these days that is hindering our ability to benefit from diverse immigration, and it is the accidental blending that is giving these groups common ties.

But Dreher makes a good point regarding the American university, and its desire to fight against creating commonality on a uniquely American culture.

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