Immigration And Bowling Alone

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, is very nervous about the release of his new work. Understandably so. His five-year study shows that immigration and ethnic diversity have a devastating impact on social capital, the fabric of associations, trust and neighborliness that create and sustain communities. In the short to medium range, that is, because in the long run, new communities and new ties are formed, Putnam says. What he fears – correctly – is that his work on the surprisingly negative impact of diversity will become part of the immigration debate.

His study found that immigration and diversity not only reduce social capital between ethnic groups, but also within the groups. Trust, even of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer. The problem is not ethnic conflict or worse racial relations, but withdrawal and isolation. Putnam writes: “In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down,’ – that is, to pull in like a turtle.”

In 41 sites studied in the U.S., the more diverse the neighborhood, the less residents trust neighbors. This was true in communities large and small, from Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Boston to Yakima, rural South Dakota and the mountains of West Virginia. In diverse San Francisco and Los Angeles, about 30 percent of people say they trust neighbors a lot. In ethnically homogeneous communities in the Dakotas, the figure is 70-80 percent. The difference between Los Angeles and homogeneous Bismarck, North Dakota, is roughly as great as the difference between an area with a poverty rate of 7 percent and one with a poverty rate of 23 percent, or between an area with 36 percent college graduates and one with none.
Putnam’s findings are published in the June issue of Scandinavian Political Studies (“E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century“). Diversity does not produce “bad race relations,” he says. Rather, people in diverse communities tend “to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.” Putnam adds a crushing footnote: his findings “may underestimate the real effect of diversity on social withdrawal.”
Neither age nor disparities of wealth explain diversity’s impact, “Americans raised in the 1970s seem fully as unnerved by diversity as those raised in the 1920s.” And the “hunkering down” occurred no matter whether the communities were relatively egalitarian or showed great differences in personal income. Even when communities are equally poor or rich, equally safe or crime-ridden, diversity is associated with less trust of neighbors. It also correlated with lower confidence in local politicians and news media, less charitable giving and volunteering, few close friends and less happiness.

Putnam has long been aware that his findings could have a devastating impact on the immigration debate. Last October he told the Financial Times that he delayed publishing his research until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity. He said it “would have been irresponsible to publish without that,” a quote that is likely to raise eyebrows. Academics are not supposed to withhold negative data until they can suggest antidotes to their findings.

Putnam has not made details of his study public for examination by peers and the public. A long description of his U.S. findings, a speech he gave after winning an award in Sweden, appears only in a foreign journal. His office said Putnam is in Britain, working on a religion project at the University of Manchester, and currently too busy to grant an interview.

Putnam makes two positive points: in the long run, increased immigration and diversity are inevitable and desirable, and successful immigrant societies “dampen the negative effects of diversity” by constructing new identities.

Social psychologists have long favored the optimistic hypothesis that contact between different ethnic and racial groups increases tolerance and social solidarity. For instance, white soldiers assigned to units with black soldiers after World War II were more relaxed about desegregation of the army than were soldiers in all-white units. But Putnam acknowledges that most empirical studies do not support the “contact hypothesis.” In general, they find that the more people are brought into contact with those of another race or ethnicity, the more they stick to their own and the less they trust others. Putnam writes: “across local areas in the United States, Australia, Sweden Canada and Britain, greater ethnic diversity is associated with lower social trust and, at least in some case, lower investment in public goods.”

Though Putnam is wary of what right-wing politicians might do with his findings, the data might give pause to those on the left and in the center as well. If he is right, heavy immigration will inflict social deterioration for decades to come, harming immigrants as well as the native-born. Putnam is hopeful that America will forge a new solidarity based on a “new, broader sense of we.” The problem is how to do that in an era of multiculturalism and disdain for assimilation.


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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