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Wednesday, August 8

The downside of diversity?

A Harvard political scientist finds that diversity hurts civic life. What happens when a liberal scholar unearths an inconvenient truth?

Lots of 'splaining to do.

From the Boston Globe:

IT HAS BECOME increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam -- famous for "Bowling Alone," his 2000 book on declining civic engagement -- has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings."The extent of the effect is shocking," says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.

Robert Putnam was shocked too as he has always been aligned with the progressive, more diversity camp. But his findings were pretty conclusive. Instead of just presenting his findings as a social scientist would do, he began advocating for ways to correct this much to the dismay of those who favor racism.

"Diversity, at least in the short run," Putnam writes, "seems to bring out the turtle in all of us."

Scott Page, author of "The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies," would point out that in cities like NY, London, LA and Rio which are famous melting pots and the driving forces behind the world's creativity and innovation, that the different viewpoints and cooperation are what drive up productivity. It's a challenge.

In other words, those in more diverse communities may do more bowling alone, but the creative tensions unleashed by those differences in the workplace may vault those same places to the cutting edge of the economy and of creative culture.

Page calls it the "diversity paradox." He thinks the contrasting positive and negative effects of diversity can coexist in communities, but "there's got to be a limit." If civic engagement falls off too far, he says, it's easy to imagine the positive effects of diversity beginning to wane as well. "That's what's unsettling about his findings," Page says of Putnam's new work.
Personally, I see the creative culture that exists in a diverse community although now that I think of it, the civic minded people in a diverse community usually have some social commonality. Even in my very diverse former parish, the Masses were divided up by culture and language. It was to welcome those immigrants from different countries who seemed to like living in this area, however, perhaps it would have been more beneficial to combine all Catholics in church services and get volunteers to teach English and social customs to new immigrants while infusing a bit of each culture into the regular Sunday Masses. But that's just one little example I thought of while reading the article. Maybe rather than sneering at new immigrants in the supermarket, we ought to kindly point out to them how the 'program' works here in order to speed up the checkout process when the line is out the door. Maybe we ought to go back to teaching civics in the schools.

I know that I am totally liberal when it comes to immigrants and I bend over backwards for them (and maybe more than some people deserve) but that is because of my upbringing. Personally, I can't bear to live in a homogeneous community for very long. It's way too boring. While I adore NH and Maine, after a while everyone begins to look the same. I suppose it is just what you're used to.

What do people think?

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