E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century

The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture
Robert Putnam

Full text in html and in pdf available here until August 30th, 2007. Then, available here


Ethnic diversity is increasing in most advanced countries, driven mostly by sharp increases in immigration. In the long run immigration and diversity are likely to have important cultural, economic, fiscal, and developmental benefits. In the short run, however, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer. In the long run, however, successful immigrant societies have overcome such fragmentation by creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities. Illustrations of becoming comfortable with diversity are drawn from the US military, religious institutions, and earlier waves of American immigration.

Home Alone

Published: June 17, 2007
Does ethnic and racial diversity foster social isolation?

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. When colleagues who heard about the results protested, ”I bet you haven’t thought about X” — a frequent occurrence, Putnam said — the researchers went back and looked at X.
The idea that it is diversity (the researchers used the census’s standard racial categories to define diversity) that drives social capital down has its critics. Among them is Steven Durlauf, an economist at the University of Wisconsin and a critic of Putnam’s past work, who said he thinks some other characteristic, as yet unidentified, explains the lowered trust and social withdrawal of people living in diverse areas. But without clear evidence to the contrary, Putnam says, he has to believe the conclusion is solid. Few would question that it is provocative. The public discourse on diversity runs at a high temperature. Told by one side, the narrative of how different ethnic and racial groups come together in schools, workplaces, churches and shopping centers can sound as if it was lifted from ”Sesame Street.” Told by the other, it often carries the shrill tones of a recent caller to a radio talk show on immigration reform: ”The school my kid goes to is 45 percent Mexican,” he said, ”and I don’t see this as being a good thing for this country. Do we want to turn into a Latin American country?”Putnam’s argument is more nuanced. Diversity has clear benefits, he says, among them economic growth and enhanced creativity — more top-flight scientists, more entrepreneurs, more artists. But difference is also disconcerting, he maintains, ”and people like me, who are in favor of diversity, don’t do ourselves any favors by denying that it takes time to become comfortable,” Putnam says.
Why that discomfort seems to translate into social isolation and a weakening of civic bonds remains anyone’s guess. Studies by Wendy Berry Mendes, a social psychologist at Harvard, and her colleagues find that when research subjects play a cooperative game with someone of another race, they can show physiological signs of distress — reduced cardiac efficiency and arterial constriction, for example. On a daily basis, this alarmed reaction might make people pull inward. Putnam himself speculates that, with kaleidoscopic changes going on around them, people in diverse communities might experience a kind of system overload, shutting down ”in the presence of confusing or multiple messages from the environment.”
Still, in Putnam’s view, the findings are neither cause for despair nor a brief against diversity. If this country’s history is any guide, what people perceive as unfamiliar and disturbing — what they see as ”other” — can and does change over time. Seemingly intractable group divisions can give way to a larger, overarching identity. When he was in high school in the 1950s, Putnam notes, he knew the religion of almost every one of the 150 students in his class. At the time, religious intermarriage was uncommon, and knowing whether a potential mate was a Methodist, a Catholic or a Jew was crucial information. Half a century later, for most Americans, the importance of religion as a mating test has dwindled to near irrelevance, ”hardly more important than left- or right-handedness to romance.”The rising marriage rates across racial and ethnic lines in a younger generation, raised in a more diverse world, suggest the current markers of difference can also fade in salience.
In some places, they already have: soldiers have more interracial friendships than civilians, Putnam’s research finds, and evangelical churches in the South show high rates of racial integration. ”If you’re asking me if, in the long run, I’m optimistic,” Putnam says, ”the answer is yes.”

Economic Development Before the Law

By Johannes Jütting and Denis Drechsler, published in Proyect Syndicate 2007

One of the most pervasive and apparently self-evident assumptions of development economics is that sustainable investment and growth requires the rule of law. Without impersonal, general norms and their enforcement by independent judicial authorities, according to this view, little development, if any, is possible, because the risks facing both labor and capital – including corruption, arbitrariness, and rigid traditions – will be too high. But is this conventional wisdom always right?
Consider an admittedly limited but nonetheless revealing counter-example: South Africa’s booming mini-bus taxi industry. The mini-bus taxis developed in response to severe shortcomings in the country’s public transport system, one characterized by high prices, low-quality service, and a chaotic operating network, but they operate entirely outside of formal laws and regulations. What makes the industry work is a commonly agreed informal business “culture” that is flexible, innovative, and keeps operating costs down.
The results are undeniable: at peak times, mini-bus taxis hold 65% of the entire commuter market. The mini-bus taxi industry thus illustrates the importance of informal conventions. Local culture and traditions not only matter, but they are decisive in shaping the behavior of people – all the more so in developing countries, particularly those that are labeled failed or fragile states, where the courts don’t work and regulations, assuming they exist, thus are inadequately enforced. But malfunctioning formal institutions do not mean that there are no functioning structures at all.
In these societies, the social order is predominantly shaped by informal agreements rather than formal laws and regulations. As the South African example shows, such agreements can even promote a country’s development. In many developing countries, village associations that are solely based on trust and peer pressure provide access to credit and insurance, guarantee help in times of distress, and facilitate the construction of public roads and sewage systems. The community-based health insurance schemes that are prospering all over Africa are a good example of this.
Even so, while informal institutions can improve people’s lives, they can also be detrimental to development. The very resources that form the basis of informal security systems – solidarity, social capital, and collective action, for example, can have perverse effects. For example, forced solidarity will oblige any hard-working farmer in Benin who has accumulated some wealth over the years to share the fruit of his labor with his enlarged family, including distant relatives.
In economic terms, the “informal institution of sharing” may become a disincentive to invest and thus result in opportunistic behavior, because there is no obligation to reciprocate. For all of their success, South Africa’s mini-taxis could not escape high accident rates, violent incidents over un-commissioned routes and fare levels, and tax evasion, which imposed high costs on society, prompting the government to regulate the service.
Moreover, some informal institutions based on longstanding cultural traditions lead to discrimination and violation of human rights, while undermining the authority of formal institutions like the judiciary, police, or military. In these cases, women are often the victims. They might be excluded from participation in informal networks, or have limited influence in appropriating the accrued benefits of collective action. The reported abuse of micro-credits to pay dowries is one alarming example. Likewise, the tradition of female circumcision is still a common practice in African countries such as Guinea, Sudan, Mali, Somalia, and Eritrea, where more than 85 % of young women suffer from it.
Abolishing such customs is a moral obligation, but in other instances, the international community often needs to decide which institutions to change and how. Indeed, one of the most difficult tasks for policymakers is to identify correctly those institutions that are conducive to development and those that may be harmful. Even then, successfully changing institutions is easier said than done, as they are rooted in deeply enshrined norms and values.
Neither the “romantic preservationist” nor the “bulldozing modernizer” approach promises an adequate solution. Institutional reform is a delicate affair that needs to be done with caution and sometimes against the conventional reform dogma. In some cases, good intentions may even aggravate the status quo. For example, trying to eliminate corruption in environments with strong patronage-based power and redistribution mechanisms while failing to address the root problems can do more harm than good, and might lead to violent conflicts over new resources.
Reforms need to acknowledge the mindsets of people and the incentive structures that govern their behavior. Thus, those who benefit from reforms may champion the process, but losers must be adequately compensated in order to prevent them from resisting the transformation. Without building public support and providing proper enforcement mechanisms, changing laws alone is bound to be ineffective. Sometimes it might even pose high costs for the alleged beneficiaries.
Given the complexity of institutional reform, striving for what appears to be optimal might not always be the best approach. Reforms must be adapted to the specific context of each country, and be applied within the boundaries of what is possible. Institutional change requires a long, tedious, and modest implementation of multiple small steps, in which the correct sequencing of reform is crucial. To obtain sustainable results, policymakers need to accept that sometimes “good enough is enough.”