Saturday, July 14, 2007

We Don't Bowl Together

Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, began research on diversity nearly six years ago. He announced some initial findings in 2001 but the announcement was mostly ignored. This year, his findings on diversity were partially delivered in a lecture republished in Scandinavian Political Studies (full text available here), a rather small journal. The findings were, to say the least, controversial. Conventional thinking about diversity in the United States could have been wrong for several years.

The basics of the finding were simple but shocking. Diversity, defined here as heterogeneous ethnicity, had some surprising findings. Putnam claimed immigration-fueled diversity enhanced creativity, rapid economic growth in the developed world, and mild economic improvements in the developing world. Despite these positives, Putnam claimed diversity hurts the development of strong social networks or “social capital.” Diverse societies had less social capital in the short-term but diversity enhanced a society as individuals create new identities in the long-term.

The layperson tends to base diversity on “contact theory,” the idea of setting up encounters between different people would improve inter-group trust. Empirical data disagrees with this theory and supports “conflict theory.” Identity markers tend to change our attitudes about different people, particularly our out-group attitudes. The most dramatic example is the Stanford Prison Experiment (detailed in The Lucifer Effect, the most chilling book of the year). The Stanford Prison Experiment used mostly people of the same race and degenerated into severe mistrust and eventual abuse at the hands of “normal kids.” Heterogeneity creates more negative out-group attitudes but that was only part of the story, particularly if a researcher looks at race.

Ethnically heterogeneous communities are more likely to default on loans, allow infrastructure deterioration, raise fewer voluntary donations, invest in fewer public goods, and distrust others socially. People in heterogeneous communities are less likely to practice reciprocity in contrived situations like “the prisoner’s dilemma” or bona fide situations like carpooling. The lack of social trust and reciprocity in heterogeneous societies goes beyond distrust of others but heterogeneous societies also foster distrust in the in-group dynamics. In sum, heterogeneity lowers trust in the short-term.
Putnam found distrust cut across virtually all meaningful barriers and discovered few statistically significant factors that influenced the data. Large cities are no more trusting than small towns, the old and young are about the same, women and men are equally trusting, and red states are the same as blue states. Poverty causes some differences in the expression of trust but the level of trust but the level of trust was not different. Studies of government resources like parks or libraries as a factor, the “potholes-to-playgrounds ratio,” finds more of these resources in heterogeneous communities and government negligence is eliminated as a statistically significant factor. Conservatives are more likely to distrust than liberals but the level of distrust was still significant among liberals. The difference between liberals and conservatives may be due to self-reporting issues with liberals less likely to admit distrust of other ethnic groups.

The result of distrust in Putnam’s view was not conflict but withdrawal from community life. Putnam called this “constrict theory” but cutely described it as “turtling.” People tend to avoid social life, engage in fewer civic organizations, and feel more helpless in their community. “Race wars” were improbable in the study but declining social capital motivated de facto segregation. The helpless and isolation people felt could be solved by one thing; moving. Oddly enough, previous research demonstrated phenomena like “white flight” began with people claiming to be the most trusting of other races.

Is diversity all bad? Putnam’s slow release of the findings (he claims the rest of the findings will be published later) was believed to conceal the hidden agenda of protecting diversity programs. Some conservative critics of the diversity movement have claim this as evidence against the dogmatism of diversity. The problem with the political views of diversity is the demand that diversity programs be weighed as good or bad. The study demonstrates that diversity costs social capital and, like all capital exchanges, we should evaluate the benefits against the cost. Conservative objections to diversity ignore the benefits (and due to immigration, inevitability) of diversity. Liberals may need to concede diversity’s inherent value as higher than other costs. Instead of a good/bad problem, the better question is; “Is diversity worth the cost?”

The university is the hardest place to crack because universities are financially committed to diversity. Many public schools foster programs, offices, and employees to teach and protect diversity. These programs are based on the debunked contact theory and have little incentive (or legal leeway) to change. Years of legal wrangling to prevent discrimination has resulted in some progress but also a great deal of backlash. Even left wing people have pointed out that universities could learn from Putnam’s shining example; the U.S. Army.

World War II vets were an exception to the contact hypothesis, with mixed units having more positive feelings about desegregating the army than all-white units. The rule returned with high rates of inter-racial fragging in Vietnam. In the 30-years since, members of the military tend to have more heterogeneous friends than civilians. Putnam is unable to explain the change but believes this institution could indicate a direction for the rest of us. He claims military folks have a sense of shared identity that extends beyond race. It is one theory and requires greater study.

One possible solution for the university is “school spirit,” a new identity that people could use above race. School spirit could enhance the conflict theory between schools but could improve the climate on individual campuses. Studies have shown that people are more likely to donate money to a university if they felt “connected” while at school. The problem with this theory is that schools already spend a lot of time and money raising school spirit and the method of connection. Events like pep rallies, football games, and spirit weeks are expensive to promote and hold. Schools that want to increase diversity may need to weigh the costs of promoting school spirit.

Despite conservative comments, Putnam’s study doesn’t call for the elimination of programs like women’s studies or African-American studies. These programs may facilitate turtling but it’s unclear if these programs cause turtling. People without these programs tend to feel threatened, enhancing backlash and apathy toward the results of conflict like discrimination. Diversity is valuable but we may need a different approach to discrimination than contact theory.

No comments: