Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Well, not all that devastating

As I said in my last post, a little calculation suggests that the effect of ethnic diversity on social capital isn't all that big. Why didn't Putnam notice this? Two things that often go in different directions--theoretical interest and relevance to public policy--both tended to focus attention on the diversity effect in this case.

The questions that seem "interesting" to social scientists are those where there's debate about the existence or direction of effect. The strong effects of variables like education, race, and home ownership on trust of neighbors are so familiar to people who are familiar with the subject that they don't seem very interesting. (Although when you think about it, they're not necessarily so obvious--for example, why does home ownership make so much difference?) Also, the fact that your own characteristics affect your opinions or behavior is unsurprising--"contextual effects," where other peoples' characteristics affect your views, seem more interesting. In fact, Putnam compares diversity to one of the other contextual effects, percent of the neighborhood with college degrees, and notes that it's large relative to that. But all of the contextual effects are small relative to the major individual characteristics. Hence, differences between neighborhood differences are mainly just the result of the aggregation of individual differences--the neighborhoods with high levels of trust are those that have the sort of people who trust their neighbors (older, more educated, homeowners, and so on). But that doesn't seem all that interesting.

The second factor is relevance to debates on public policy. It's natural to focus on the findings that bear on controversial issues, and diversity or multiculturalism is certainly one. However, although controversial issues are by definition symbolically important, they're not necessarily the most practically important ones. In comparative terms, ethnic diversity in the United States is fairly high, although not at the top (of course, it depends on how you define "ethnic", but that's how it generally comes out). That would still be true if even if restrictions on immigration were dramatically tightened or loosened tomorrow. So although changes in ethnic diversity will certainly have some impact on American society, they probably aren't going to be as important as changes in factors like average educational levels, income, and age distribution--certainly Putnam's results indicate that those will have more effect on future levels of social capital. But those aren't the subject of much political controversy, so we tend to take them for granted.
--David Weakliem


Scott Kemp said...

It has always seemed to me that, given a fair chance, people will tend to congregate with other people like themselves. I like to hang out with basketball players (not that I am much of one, but I think of myself as one, or maybe I would like to think of myself that way.)

I also like to hang out with Christians. & with computer tech-nerds. & ... you get the idea.

Each of the characteristics that different people might have that would make them diverse from their neighbors (ethnicity, economic status, education, religion, ...) is a characteristic of the kind that a person might use to make a decision as to who he wants to hang out with.

So what is the big deal? This is not news, unless one is pre-conditioned to assume that diversity is good for its own sake.

my $.02

David Weakliem said...

There is an plausible argument pointing in the other direction--that people whose contacts are limited to their own group will trust that group but distrust "outsiders," while people who have contact with a wider range of people will develop trust for people in general. However, I agree that the basic finding isn't really surprising. What got my attention was the claim that ethnic diversity made a big difference.