In 2007, Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone and American Grace, spoke with National Public Radio’s Rachel Martin about the findings of a study he conducted about the relationship between diversity and civic engagement. The research raises fundamental questions about the ways that people respond to difference. Below are excerpts from the discussion:
PUTNAM: America will – all of us will, over the long run, benefit from being a more diverse, more heterogeneous place. Places that are more diverse have higher rates of growth on average and they have better cuisine. And it’s just a more interesting place to live.
So in the long run, waves of immigration like we’re going through now and that we’ve gone through in the past and increasing diversity is good for a society. But what we discovered in this research, somewhat to our surprise, was that in the short run the more ethnically diverse the neighborhood you live in, the more you – every – all of us tend to hunker down, to pull in. The more diverse – and when I say all of us, I mean all of us. I mean blacks and whites and Asians and Latinos, all of us. The more diverse the group around us, ethnically, in our neighborhood, the less we trust anybody, including people who look like us. Whites trust whites less. Blacks trust blacks less, in more diverse settings.
MARTIN: I found that fascinating, that it wasn’t a question of active hostility. It wasn’t a question of sort of people throwing rocks at each other or spray-painting each other’s garages, nor was it a matter of everybody, you know, kind of getting together and having, you know, “We are the World” sing-alongs. It was that people tend to withdraw. Why might that be?
Prof. PUTNAM: Like a turtle.
MARTIN: Yeah. Why might that be?
Prof. PUTNAM: Well, I don’t know for sure, actually. It’s an interesting puzzle. I think part of it is that when we’re around a lot of people who we don’t know very well and whose cultural backgrounds and moves we don’t know very well, we don’t know quite how to read anybody. So we don’t know if when somebody looks at us, you know, square on, does that mean hi, glad to have you here, or does that mean get out of my way?
And so I think all of us – you know, this is not a matter of liberal or conservative. It’s not a matter of old or young or rich or poor. We all, it turns out, seem to be a little defensive. And to pull in, as I say, to hunker down – we have fewer friends. The only two things that go up as the diversity of your census track goes up are protest marches and television watching.
…Prof. PUTNAM: Look, I want to make sure that your listeners understand that I think over the long run, as we get to know one another, and as we begin to see things that we have in common with people who don’t look like us, this allergy to diversity tends to diminish and to go away. So this is not something that I think as an argument against immigration. On the contrary, actually, I think in the long run we’ll all be better. But I don’t think that progressives and integrationists like me do our cause any service by hiding from ourselves the fact that it’s not easy.
Below we have embedded the link so you can listen to their entire discussion.
Ask students to reflect on Putnam’s insights using the Project Zero Connect-Extend-Challenge Thinking Routine.