Social Capital and Diversity

I’ve written about Robert Putnam before in this space, but I’ve been holding off on commenting on his most recent ‘discovery’ that ethnic diversity leads to significant losses of public trust. Apparently the full Skytte lecture will be published sometime soon in Scandinavian Political Studies. Still no sign of it, though the Financial Times published a summary of it by way of correcting the first two monumentally negative and conservative John Lloyd articles I linked. The basic argument is: a) immigration and innovation produce diversity, b) diversity creates distrust (people ‘hunker down’ and cease engaging with both the strangers and their ‘own kind’), c) religion and nationalism has historically created a renewed sense of cohesion.

Putnam is famous for his work on social capital, which is just a way to talk about community and civic engagement while using the vocabulary that entrepreneurs and Marxists can understand. Basically, there’s a value in friendships, which we can cultivate and enhance through labor. Our friends can also help us cultivate more material goods: they help us find jobs, collaborate on projects of mutual advantage, assist us in times of hardship, and give us joy in the good times. That’s not Putnam, however: it’s Aristotle. Where Putnam comes into the picture is in an analysis of the nationwide loss of social capital in the United States over the last forty years.

Basically, Americans have fewer friends and acquaintances than they once did. As evidence, Putnam points to our increasing non-participation in traditional social organizations, like church, but also less morally weighty institutions like bowling leagues (thus, Bowling Alone.) The bridging/bonding distinction is well-known at this point: sometimes we cultivate relations with people ‘like’ us, deepening the connections within our community, while other times we cultivate relations across communal divides, extending our friendship network to include members of different races, political persuasions, etc. The two kinds of capital are mutually reinforcing: people with bonding capital develop bridging capital, and vice versa. Just as in business, the (friend-)rich get richer.

So one way of reading Putnam’s research is to say: we’re going through a growth spurt, and we’ll eventually find a way to reproduce the cohesion and sense of identity necessary for trust to develop. Right now, we don’t trust each other because we’re still digesting the massive growth of American multiculturalism, which is a self-reinforcing result of economic success. As we become a wealthier nation, more people immigrate, more ideas and lifestyles become viable, and we’re shoved into increasingly mixed company. Eventually, we’ll subsume these changes in the demographic constitution of the country. The problem with this ‘eventually’ is that we’ve pretty much given up on religion to accomplish identification (we’re not likely to sacrifice religious diversity any time soon) and the nation-state has been ‘in decline’ almost since it was invented by Westphalia. What we need is to stop changing and growing… and we’re not going to do that. In the absence of a full text of the lecture, I’m going to refrain from judging Putnam himself. The Financial Times summary talks about things like the Pledge of Allegiance or the power of World War II to bring people of different ethnicities together (while killing Japs, I guess.) If all his solutions are this lame, I’m thinking his protestations about the coverage are purely for show.

Let’s be clear: the reason Putnam has been so careful about the uptake of his most recent line of research is that he’s afraid of furthering xenophobia and racism. It’s bad enough when people hate foreigners for ‘taking their jobs.’ Just think about your average lonely meathead blaming his friendless existence, like his joblessness, on illegal immigration. But what do we do if Putnam is right about the problem, but not the solution? What if you need a certain minimum amount of ‘bonding capital,’ a certain number of close friends who are mostly ‘like you,’ before you can invest in ‘bridging’? I think this must be true: how can you even say what you’re ‘like’ until you have that basis? Putnam assumes that skin color and cultural education are enough to give this sense of identity, but that’s clearly wrong: you’ve got to share a community with someone before you can connect with other communities, and that initial sharing can’t just be a matter of genetic inheritance or childhood experience. In those situations, you’ve yet to figure out who you are in any deep sense, and yet your provisional identity is caught up with skin color and superficial cultural rituals, so it’s easier to discover “yourself” among others like yourself. For that, you need friends, and as Putnam has shown, people have fewer friends in diverse neighborhoods, even among their ‘own kind.’ The opposite side of the old saw: the (friend-)poor get poorer.

So: what’s the solution? I’m going to say what Putnam seems unwilling to say: I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t think anybody does. Demographics and population pressures are tough issues for any thinker, made tougher by the improbable magnitudes involved: 300 million people is a lot. But maybe, we could start by making an active effort to trust each other. Usually, people deserve it.

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