Thursday, June 21, 2007

Home Alone -- For Good?

In last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Erica Goode's "Home Alone" reports on the recent work of Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and colleagues, in examining the effect of racial and ethnic diversity on community interaction. Putnam's findings as reported by Goode appear surprising, counter-intuitive and bleak: "What if, at least in the short term," Goode asks, "living in a highly diverse city or town led residents to distrust pretty much everybody, even people who looked like them? What if it made people withdraw into themselves, form fewer close friendships, feel unhappy and powerless and stay home watching television in the evening instead of attending a neighborhood barbecue or joining a community project?" This, according to the article, is a pretty accurate description of (some of) diversity's effects. Diversity leads to discomfort, which leads to "social isolation and a weakening of civic bonds."

Using information from the 2000 Census in conjunction with a survey of almost 30,000 residents of 41 communities nationwide, Putnam and his colleagues found diversity to be inversely proportional to levels of trust, community engagement, and even reported quality of life. The immediate reaction from dyed-in-the-wool liberals -- or "Sesame Street" types, as labeled by Goode -- at least judging from my own response and that of friends with whom I discussed the study, was not unanticipated. "I bet they didn't take community size/crime/transience/whatever into effect," you might say, but for the most part, they seem to have done so. The age, affluence, poverty, citizenship, ethnicity, language, commuting time, education level, residential mobility, homeownership, gender, financial satisfaction, work hours, area of the country, census tract population density, and comparative income of all survey respondents was also taken into account statistically, and the findings still held. For anyone who still thinks something has been left out or miscalculated (and my friends have some ideas, largely centering around poor self-reporting and underestimation-- "living in New York makes me want to go home and watch Entourage on TV constantly, and I might tell a statistician that I do, but I'm really too busy doing community things"), Goode reports Putnam to be glumly confident that these factors, too, can be examined and ruled out.

It is a reluctant conclusion for Putnam, according to Goode, because he is in fact a big proponent of the value of diversity himself. Goode closes her article with a reference to Putnam's "optimistic" hope that people's views of and reactions to diversity may change over time, and quotes him as saying that "people like me, who are in favor of diversity, don’t do ourselves any favors by denying that it takes time to become comfortable." It is left to the reader, however, to imagine how such a shift might occur in a population of listless, depressed recluses, shunning outside contact in favor of quality time with the television. Wouldn't it be easiest if we all just relocated to rural South Dakota, where we would be twice as likely to trust people from different racial backgrounds, right up until they actually moved into the neighborhood?

As a matter of fact, an entire third of Putnam's paper is devoted to the topic of "Becoming Comfortable with Diversity," a portion of the study almost uniformly overlooked by news reports on his findings. (The Saguaro Seminar, Putnam's research collective at the Kennedy School, openly criticizes many news articles as biased or otherwise inaccurate, although Goode's is not among them.) In this section, Putnam observes that racial and ethnic "diversity," as social constructs, are fairly malleable concepts to begin with. Arguing not for a glorified melting pot but for a society where individuals identify themselves in a wider range of ways, Putnam envisions reducing the social divisions caused by racial and ethnic identities while preserving the personal importance of the identities themselves. In other words, Putnam believes, we need to figure out how to create strong identities that are shared across racial lines.

In examining institutional ways to forge such permeable shared identities, Putnam singles out two: the evangelical "megachurch," and the United States Army. Both, he suggests, have changed greatly in the past several decades to move from uniquely segregated environments to powerful forces of social integration. In the Army, which Putnam describes as having been in the not-so-distant past "not a race-relations success story," today's soldiers have been found to have many more and closer interracial friendships than their similar civilian counterparts. This reduction of divisive social boundaries to the point that the US Army has become a "relatively color-blind institution," Putnam says, is evidence that "something that the Army has actually done...has had the effect of reconstructing social identities and increasing social solidarity even in the presence of ethnic diversity."

Putnam demurs as to possible causes for this, but the Army's success in creating these "bridging" bonds is especially relevant to the school integration debate. In fact, the military has worked extremely hard to integrate every aspect of its soldiers lives, from their barracks to their service academies to their children's schools. As detailed here, the military was a pioneer in the fight for school integration, desegregating its own schools before Brown v. Board, and their unique voice had special power in the fight to keep America's colleges and universities diverse. If the experience of the military is to be an example, a big part of the process towards becoming comfortable with diversity is simply to be immersed in it.

Putnam does, indeed, believe that in the long run, whatever negative effects his study found to result from exposure to diversity are far outweighed by the long-term benefits of a diverse society. In the meantime, it is more important than ever that Americans overcome what Putnam may have proven to be a serious hindrance to success in that society as fast as possible. How do we get there? "To strengthen shared identities, we need more opportunities for meaningful interaction across ethnic lines where Americans (new and old) work, learn, recreate, and live," Putnam concludes. "Community centers, athletic fields, and schools were among the most efficacious instruments for incorporating new immigrants a century ago, and we need to reinvest in such places and activities once again, enabling us all to become comfortable with diversity."

To learn more about the Saguaro's research on social capital and diversity, go to

No comments: