Diverse diversity

Sometimes diversity is good, and sometimes it’s bad. At least, that’s what Robert Putnam’s most recent work shows, according to this article in the Boston Globe, which I found through both Butterflies and Wheels and Arts and Letters Daily. (The Boston Globe website might make you click through a commercial before you read the article.)

I first came across Robert Putnam when I was writing an Honours dissertation in Philosophy, in a book where he talks about the value of civic engagement. Societies where people join choirs, service clubs, sports clubs, whatever, seem to be stronger societies, because people participate. By stronger, I mean that the institutions of government are stronger. The checks and balances work. His claims are all backed up by data. …


But his most recent data sets are showing something different. It turns out that in ethnically diverse societies, people are less likely to join clubs, choirs, whatever. They don’t trust their neighbours, and even more interestingly, they don’t even trust people from their own ethnic groups as much.

On the other hand, it turns out that diverse groups are much more likely to come up with good solutions to problems. It seems that having different points of view helps people to examine their own ideas critically, and to revise them if necessary.

The other thing that I find fascinating about Putnam’s work is that as a scientist, a profession for which I hold the greatest respect, despite finding his more recent data uncongenial, he nevertheless reported it. That’s real intellectual honesty.

Update 9/8/07 – Che has a great post about diversity at Object Dart.

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6 responses to “Diverse diversity

  1. yeaaaahhh…. dunno aeh.

    in a way putnam chasing his own tail. i agree that it’s good he reports his findings neutrally, but…

    modern democracies were constructed during the industrial revolution, and are intended and designed to serve a very different type of political community to what exists in most countries today.

    essentially he’s arguing that multiculturalism doesn’t serve a norm he’s endeared to, “civic demomcracy”. but… multiculturalism has become the norm, and civic engagement of the type he wistfully looks back to has become defunct.

    it’s like arguing that model-t cars were safer, and roads should continue to be constructed to the parameters established by ford.

    society has developed past the old, assimilationistic, civic model, and new models need to be discovered that can cope with diversity.

    fortunately, as putnam indicates, multicultural societies are great at problem-solving.

  2. Well, Dr Tibby – I agree that the societies we live in would be stultifying if we all adhered to the same civic norms, but we can’t make our societies function if we don’t engage at least a little. So the trick is to modify our institutions so that they acoomodate diversity. That is, make the institutions fit the people, not the people fit the institutions.

    This might mean different modes of engagement. Who is to say that hui won’t be just as effective as submissions to a select committee when it comes to reviewing and deciding on the shape of the law? We might also need to broaden our understanding of what constitutes engagement – running a food stall at a school fair is just as ‘engaged’ as turning up to a candidates’ meeting (do any political candidates run old-fashioned meet-the-candidates-meetings anymore in any case?). And I don’t think that Putnam has thought of blogging as a mode of engagement. Hmmm – that might tie into some of your G-3 (?) stuff.

    Part of the problem though, is that if we don’t have some degree of assimilation, some way of merging groups, as the boundaries at least, we end up with something like Kukathas’ liberal archipelago, where groups just talk to themselves. Caricatures, I know, but hey! this is a blog post.

    I think that rather than arguing assimilation vs archipelago, we are better off accepting that neither position is right, and accepting the tension between the two models. I also think that we are better off realising that contemporary societies are incorrigibly diverse, there is no solution as to how we are all going to live together, only on-going compromise, and that the tension created by that on-going compromise is fertile. Out of it comes new ways of understanding and constituting ourselves. So I like to see constitution as a verb, not a noun.

  3. Interesting results, I’m reading right now in the “original source”. I guess that’s quite illustrating about the diversity there in U.S. as well…

  4. yeah, i don’t think it’s so much about assimilation vs. archipelago. instead, we might need to reconceptualise democratic interaction itself.

    the question is how?

    majoritarian politics is the problem, imho.

  5. What about contrarian politics being part of the problem? Watching Labour grill Key the other day in a show of (insert just what it was here), I wondered whether we may be better served by…(insert ideas here).
    Are we mature enough to deal with consensus politics, whereby the good of the (nation, country, NZ, people therein?) is taken into account in a global context?
    I see things coming out of Parliament that are consistently unintelligent, ill considered, and obscure. We are expected to vote for (insert criteria here)?
    I think the system we have is outdated. It is time to grasp the nettle and draw up a constitution that enshrines our rights, includes the Treaty in a real way and addresses our immature adversarial system.
    I don’t hold any hope however.

  6. Hi,

    What fabulous dialogue is going on online. I will have to google this “Kukathas’ liberal archipelago” thing. I am definitely going to throw “contemporary societies are incorrigibly diverse” into conversation sometime soon. Incorrigible is such a great word.
    Must do more reading on your site.