Diversity and Trust

From Financial Times,

When Robert Putnam published “Bowling Alone” six years ago, the book brought the Harvard professor such fame he was invited to speak at Camp David, 10 Downing Street – and Buckingham Palace.

When he arrived to meet the Queen, he found Her Majesty absent but her top courtiers anxious to hear his advice for a multi-racial Britain. Noting that great royal houses had often used marriage to forge important political alliances, he advised them to “go look for a nice Bangladeshi girl for one of the royal princes”. There was dead silence. “No-one spoke,” he said. “Later, the man from Downing Street who had taken me there said, ‘Bob, maybe that wasn’t quite what they wanted to hear.’ ”

Mr Putnam was still talking about “Bowling Alone” at a Manchester University seminar last Friday, where he quoted Yogi Berra, the malapropism-prone baseball star: “If you don’t go to someone’s funeral, they won’t come to yours.”

The Harvard Professor was making a point about “social capital”, the commodity he drew to global attention in “Bowling Alone”. In the book, he argued 20th century trends such as working women, the growth of television and urban sprawl meant people were more disconnected from families, friends and civic society than ever before. Instead of church on Sunday or the monthly bridge club, they stayed home or even went bowling – alone.

Now, after several years of further research, Putnam has come up with a more disturbing picture of contemporary American life: the more people of diverse ethnic backgrounds live in a community, the lower the level of trust among the community’s citizens.

This is, as he knows, an extremely contentious finding in a climate of growing concern about immigration in the US. It is potentially more controversial in Europe, which is struggling to cope with Islamic communities that can be actively hostile to Western democracy at their most extreme, and even in more moderate forms often prefer to live apart rather than integrate.

Putnam makes an important distinction between two different types of social capital: Bridging, in which an individual from one religious, ethnic, or class group, does something for someone in another group for an expected return, and bonding, when people who are “like us” – white Irish Catholic police officers, say, or black Alabama Baptist labourers – act in the expectation of a return.

The second kind, says Putnam, can “lead to Bosnia or Beirut” at most, and ever-wider social distance in wealthier societies.

It makes for close and warm relations among the “in” group but can freeze out or even make enemies of those considered “out”.

His diversity research reveals not just that bonding capital is strong and bridging capital weak in ethnically diverse communities, but also that both are weak in such societies: distrust permeates all relationships and people try to “minimise the hits on them from the society around them” by withdrawing into private space, often in front of a television.

That is a depressing picture. But Prof Putnam, a liberal who sometimes seems to shrink from the impact of his own findings, insists there are ways of avoiding it.

To illustrate, he tells the story of his eight-year-old granddaughter, Miriam, whose father is Puerto Rican and who was brought up for the first few years of her life in Puerto Rico, then moved to an American school. She came home one day to ask her mother “what’s a Hispanic?” Told it was some one of Latin American origin, she asked, “am I a Hispanic?”

Prof Putnam says: “Miriam was learning how US society draws lines. Not for any sinister reasons, it just creates a category called Hispanic to describe people. But it’s a social construction, and it can be deconstructed.”

He points to the “melting pot” period of early 20th century America, a time when all kinds of people came to the US – Irish, Italians, Germans, Swedes, Jews. “The picture that they all, after a little friction, got on and that Jews taught the Irish how to dance the hora, was mainly wrong,” he says. “It was more like “Gangs of New York”. It changed very slowly, but it did change.

“I think we can do a lot to push change along more rapidly. The US military is one example. There was a lot of racial tension around the time of the Vietnam war. Now, polls show that US military personnel have many more friendships across ethnic lines than civilians. And that was deliberate. If officers were told they wouldn’t make colonel if they were seen to discriminate, they changed.”

Another anecdote: “From the 1920s onwards, almost all American humour was Jewish humour. And it was referred to as such. Now, you wouldn’t think of describing Woody Allen as a Jewish comedian. It’s just humour. It’s become American”.

Does the American experience translate more widely? Probably, says Prof Putnam. He would be surprised if there were large variations on his findings which are, to date, exclusively from the US. He hopes to learn more from research he will do in association with Manchester University, which last week announced it was starting a programme on “social change”, which he will direct.

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