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A new study by Robert D. Putnam concludes that social cohesion is ultimately achievable even in countries with high levels of ethnic diversity. So the Harvard political scientist was bowled over this month when he found that his work was being praised by “racists and anti-immigrant activists”—with hundreds sending him complimentary e-mails.
On a recent tour of Europe, Putnam, best known for his 2000 book “Bowling Alone,” rolled out his findings before crowds of academics as well as several journalists—including John Lloyd of the Financial Times (FT). It was Lloyd’s account that led Putnam, who served in President Carter’s administration, to ever-so-briefly become a darling of the right.
In a phone interview this week from Princeton University, where Putnam is spending his sabbatical year as he finishes a book on religion in American life, the professor described the FT coverage and the resulting brouhaha as, “by two degrees of magnitude, the worst experience I have ever had with the media.”
Putnam, who is the Malkin professor of public policy at Harvard, first revealed the results of his most recent study in Uppsala, Sweden on Sept. 30, where he received the Skytte Prize, a $50,000 award granted annually to the “scholar who...has made the most valuable contribution to political science.” He spoke again days later at the University of Manchester in England, where he is launching a transatlantic research project.
At both talks, Putnam emphasized his study’s three principal conclusions. First, advanced countries such as the U.S. will inevitably see increases in immigration and diversity, which will strengthen the countries overall.
Second, in the short term, diversity and immigration might challenge community cohesion and make people less trustful of each other.
Third, a society can overcome these challenges by breaking down socially constructed barriers, creating a new sense of “we.”
While Putnam’s conclusion is upbeat, a front page headline in the FT on Oct. 9 proclaimed, “Harvard study paints bleak picture of ethnic diversity.”
The majority of the 431-word article dwelled on the more pessimistic parts of Putnam’s findings. But in the second-to-last paragraph, reporter Lloyd paraphrased Putnam as saying that immigration benefits “importing” and “exporting” countries. Lloyd quoted Putnam as saying that trends “have been socially constructed, and can be socially reconstructed.” And in the final paragraph, Lloyd quoted Putnam as saying, “We should construct a new us.”
Still, Putnam thought that the FT—a 118-year-old paper that describes itself as “the friend of the honest financier”—had been less than honest in its portrayal of his work.
Referring to his study’s trio of conclusions, Putnam said, “It’s almost criminal that the Financial Times left the third point out.”
Lloyd, a weekly columnist for the FT who previously served as the paper’s Moscow bureau chief, stands by his reporting.
In a phone interview from London yesterday, Lloyd said that his article in the paper’s Oct. 9 British edition “did include the positive spin” that Putnam put on his work. And Lloyd’s follow-up Web-exclusive analysis includes seven paragraphs explicating Putnam’s more optimistic third point.
As the professor and the reporter put their own spat behind them, though, the implications of Putnam’s research are taking center stage.
‘WE ACT LIKE TURTLES’
Putnam drew his conclusions from a four-year survey following an ethnically-diverse group of over 30,000 respondents from across the U.S.
In more ethnically diverse communities, respondents were more likely to “hunker down.” Those results held true even when Putnam controlled his study for a host of other factors that might affect trust levels—including gender, education, and income.
“We act like turtles,” Putnam said. In diverse communities, people are not only less trusting of neighbors from different backgrounds, but also of those from their own ethnic and racial groups.
Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the world, has the lowest level of trust in the United States, Putnam said. He attributed this to a “socio-psychological system overload,” a type of shock resulting from an influx of heterogeneous newcomers into a generally homogeneous society.
But Putnam said people’s turtle-like behavior when first confronted with diversity fades over time.
OLD TIME RELIGION
Whereas the Catholic-Protestant divide was once a salient feature of American life—and whereas Jews once faced huge hurdles when they sought to integrate into mainstream U.S. society—the separations among religious groups have eroded over the past half-century, Putnam said.
“Growing up in a small Ohio town in the 1950s, I knew the religion of just about every kid in my 600-person high school,” he said. At the time, he explained, virtually all Americans practiced religious endogamy, only marrying those of the same faith.
However, as time passed, the practice of endogamy faded and was replaced by intermarriage across denominational lines, decreasing the importance of religious divisions in American society, Putnam said.
“When my children attended high school in the 1980s, they didn’t know the religion of practically anyone. It simply didn’t matter,” he added.
“In my lifetime, Americans have deconstructed religion as a basis for making decisions. Why can’t we do the same thing with other types of diversity?”
While the challenge of integration is no laughing matter, Putnam uses humor to explain his findings.
In the early 20th century, he said, “Jewish humor” was considered a separate genre from mainstream comedy. Today, Woody Allen is seen as being as American as apple pie.
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