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.