Monday, October 29, 2007

Diversity is Bad in the Neighborhood, Good at Work

Robert Putnam, famous for Bowling Alone, has now published a study that shows that neighborhood diversity undermines social capital -- positive civic networks -- in a dozen ways. In a recent Scandinavian Political Studies journal, Putnam, very reluctantly, reports that people living in ethnically diverse communities tend to

distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, 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.

At the same time, Michigan political scientist Scott Page reports in The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies that people from diverse cultures make good work teams because they approach the same problem in different ways.

These two findings make sense to me. At work, in "secondary groups," we bring to bear only the relevant parts of our cultural background, suppressing the parts that aren't appropriate to that setting. In our families and neighborhoods, on the other hand -- our "primary groups" -- we bring all of our culture to bear on everything. We need to be able to live with and trust the people in our house. Our lives are better if we can live with and trust the people on our street to share our values.

Some people, Putnam included, view his findings with alarm. I do not. I think his study shows that race is a bad proxy for culture, and is getting worse all the time. When people view different race as a sign of different culture, they have reason to be anxious every time someone of a different race appears in their primary group. In a family, we can get to know individuals, and make a more informed jugment about whether this individual relative is or is not like us, regardless of the other social groups they may be part of. In a neighborhood, on the other hand, it is harder to find out what the neighbors are like -- especially if we view each other with suspicion.

The solution, I think, is to realize that race does not tell us much about someone else's values. Really, class is a much better indicator of whether the new family on the block is like us or not, and the outward indicators of class and status are still pretty crude. If we start from the assumption that people who have the money and the desire to move into our neighborhood are going to be like us in their class values, we might face ethnic diversity -- and sheer change in the neighborhood -- with less anxiety.

Cultural diversity is good for the nation as a whole, and good for the secondary groups within it. Cultural diversity needs to give way, though, to shared values at home, or the family won't work very well. Families do absorb new cultural elements, but slowly and for personal reasons. Neighborhoods are the battleground between these two principles.

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