Financial Times, October 8, 2006
A bleak picture of the corrosive effects of ethnic diversity has been revealed in research by Harvard University’s Robert Putnam, one of the world’s most influential political scientists.
His research shows that the more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust anyone–from their next-door neighbour to the mayor.
This is a contentious finding in the current climate of concern about the benefits of immigration. Professor Putnam told the Financial Times he had delayed publishing his research until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity, saying it “would have been irresponsible to publish without that”.
The core message of the research was that, “in the presence of diversity, we hunker down”, he said. “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.”
Prof Putnam found trust was lowest in Los Angeles, “the most diverse human habitation in human history”, but his findings also held for rural South Dakota, where “diversity means inviting Swedes to a Norwegians’ picnic”.
When the data were adjusted for class, income and other factors, they showed that the more people of different races lived in the same community, the greater the loss of trust. “They don’t trust the local mayor, they don’t trust the local paper, they don’t trust other people and they don’t trust institutions,” said Prof Putnam. “The only thing there’s more of is protest marches and TV watching.”
British Home Office research has pointed in the same direction and Prof Putnam, now working with social scientists at Manchester University, said other European countries would be likely to have similar trends.
His 2000 book, Bowling Alone, on the increasing atomisation of contemporary society, made him an academic celebrity. Though some scholars questioned how well its findings applied outside the US, policymakers were impressed and he was invited to speak at Camp David, Downing Street and Buckingham Palace.
Prof Putnam stressed, however, that immigration materially benefited both the “importing” and “exporting” societies, and that trends “have been socially constructed, and can be socially reconstructed”.
In an oblique criticism of Jack Straw, leader of the House of Commons, who revealed last week he prefers Muslim women not to wear a full veil, Prof Putnam said: “What we shouldn’t do is to say that they [immigrants] should be more like us. We should construct a new us.”