Living in a highly diverse city or town leads residents to distrust pretty much everybody, even people who look like them
For decades, students of American society have offered dueling theories about how encountering racial and ethnic diversity affects the way we live. One says that simple contact — being tossed into a stew of different cultures, values, languages and styles of dress — is likely to nourish tolerance and trust. Familiarity, in this view, trumps insularity. Others argue that just throwing people together is rarely enough to breed solidarity: when diversity increases, they assert, people tend to stick to their own groups and distrust those who are different from them.
But what if diversity had an even more complex and pervasive effect? What if, at least in the short term, 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 is the unsettling picture that emerges from a huge nationwide telephone survey by the famed Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam and his colleagues. “Diversity seems to trigger not in-group/out-group division, but anomie or social isolation,” Putnam writes in the June issue of the journal Scandinavian Political Studies. “In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’ — that is, to pull in like a turtle.”
In highly diverse cities and towns like Los Angeles, Houston and Yakima, Wash., the survey found, the residents were about half as likely to trust people of other races as in homogenous places like Fremont, Mich., or rural South Dakota, where, Putnam noted, “diversity means inviting a few Norwegians to the annual Swedish picnic.”
More significant, they were also half as likely to trust people of their own race. They claimed fewer close friends. They were more apt to agree that “television is my most important form of entertainment.” They had less confidence in local government and less confidence in their own ability to exert political influence. They were more likely to join protest marches but less likely to register to vote. They rated their happiness as generally lower. And this diversity effect continued to show up even when a community’s population density, average income, crime levels, rates of home ownership and a host of other factors were taken into account.
It was not a result that Putnam, the author of the much-discussed 2000 book “Bowling Alone,” was looking for when he sat down six years ago to examine the mass of data he had collected. He was hoping to build on his earlier work, which described a precipitous decline in the nation’s “social capital,” the formal and informal networks — bowling leagues, parent-teacher associations, fraternal organizations, pick-up basketball games, youth service groups — that tie people together, shore up civic engagement and forge bonds of trust and reciprocity. Now he wanted to find out more about how social capital varied regionally and over time.
But the diversity finding was so surprising that Putnam said his first thought was that maybe something was wrong with the data. He and his research team spent five years testing other explanations. Maybe people in more diverse areas had less political clout and thus fewer amenities, like playgrounds and pothole-free streets, putting them in a misanthropic mood; or maybe diversity caused “hunkering down” only in people who were older or richer or white or female. But the effect did not go away.
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