Saturday, January 13, 2007

Not unimportantly, it demonstrates Putnam's academic integrity...

I have been a big fan of Robert Putnam's bestselling book Bowling Alone. In it the Harvard sociologist painstakingly measures our social capital by tracking such things as voter registration, church attendance, and bowling leagues (hence the title), among other social institutions.

His conclusions and predictions were well-thought out and match up with my real-world observations.

Thus is was with some shock I read about his latest research results concerning diversity:
In the presence of [ethnic] diversity, we hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us. [More of an important and well-written article]

Putnam has been widely cited by liberal critics of our social and economic institutions. His opinions on diversity will doubtless confuse and anger many, and affect the outcome of many debates, notably immigration.

Still his analysis may not be as damning as it first seems - it may simply frame the questions more clearly.
Even if there were a stark choice between diversity and social solidarity, it is not clear that the latter would be better. In 1856 Walter Bagehot, deprived of the diversity which the past century and a half has brought, railed against his tight-knit society, which he thought stifled excitement and innovative thinking. “You may talk of the tyranny of Nero and Tiberius,” he wrote, “but the real tyranny is the tyranny of your next-door neighbour.” [More]

Regardless, as long as as much freedom as possible is reserved for individuals, I'm pretty sure we can make life work.

It is interesting to speculate how this reluctant conclusion by Putnam might have helped quell the outrage Tom Dorr's USDA nomination hearing. His infamous remarks:
"I know this is not at all the correct environment to say this, but I think you ought to perhaps go out and look at what you perceive [are] the three most successful rural economic environments in this state. ..... And you'll notice when you get to looking at them, that they're not particularly diverse, at least not ethnically diverse. They're very diverse in their economic growth, but they have been very focused, have been very non-diverse in their ethnic background and their religious background, and there's something there obviously that has enabled them to succeed and to succeed very well."

Of course, even setting aside his frank (and possibly now accurate) views on diversity, Dorr packed too much baggage for that trip.

(Crimony, Tom, you can't talk libertarian and game the FSA! Sheesh...)

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