Thinking about diversity

Much of my current research focuses on the connection of Christian political theology with three popular streams of social study/philosophy:

Robert Putnam has recently started publishing the results of his most recent research, and these results, though initial “hidden” across the ocean in the journal Scandinavian Political Studies, are causing a great stir. (This work, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the 21st Century, Scandinavian Political Studies, v. 30, #2, 2007, is finally available online.) Putnam, whose ideological leanings incline him to be in favor of diversity, has been dismayed by his findings. Briefly stated, he and his team have discovered that in the short term increased diversity leads to a reduction in social capital. As people find themselves immersed in increasing diversity, i.e., people not “like them,” they have a tendency to “hunker down” and mind their own business. As they stay to themselves, both bonding social capital – the networks that tie groups of like individuals together, and bridging social capital, the networks Both forms of social capital, i.e., strong social networking, help make a society healthy and individuals to do well.

Enemies of the diversity movement have been practically jumping for joy with the news. “See, we told you so!” Putnam and others who favor diversity say that even if it has some (likely temporary) side effects, diversity is still a good to be pursued. (Commentators include Daniel Henninger in the Wall Street Journal, Clarence Page, and Pat Buchanan).

Here are my initial thoughts as I consider Putnam’s research and what I see in the world”

One a world-wide scale, globalization has the effect of creating at least a short term “hunkering down” on the part of what Huntington calls “civilizations.” “Hunker down” in this area looks like a societal desire to mind their own business, to be isolated from other societies and cultures. We can see this in some of the protests against globalization: “Yankee! Go home! Leave us alone!”

One way to read this is to see globalization producing an increase in bonding within societies (or civilizations), producing a stronger sense of “us vs. them.” At the same time there is a decrease in bridging between civilizations, as they come to see other civilizations as the source of all their problems.

As Putnam discovers in his article (which examines the case specifically in the US), things are not so simple. With the increase of diversity within the nation and our communities, some expect an increase in bridging social capital: “When we spend more time around people who are different, we learn to get along and we all profit from the relationship.” Others expect bridging social capital to decrease while people give themselves to their own group, increasing bonding social capital. Putnam’s findings show this isn’t the case, however. As diversity increases in the US, both bridging and bonding forms of social capital have been waning.

At a national level, I believe this loss of bonding social capital has combined with increasing diversity to lead to new quests for national unity, for a sense of what makes America America. Once upon a time, as the story goes, we had a basic American ethos or identity. While admitting of diversity and various levels of access, there was a broad consensus. When immigrants came to the US they added to our national diversity, but there were clear forces for assimilation. Now, some like Huntington in Who Are We? argue that we have lost the urge to assimilate. We no longer know who we are.

Putnam acknowledges that his current work merely represents a snapshot in time (the year 2000) and thus does not give a fully adequate picture of reality or how society changes in the face of diversity. The question of “Who we are” is hugely important on many levels of “we,” but is too often dealt with statically. This is where I find the value of MacIntyre’s concept of a tradition. He defines a tradition as: “An argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined in terms of two kinds of conflict: those with critics and enemies external to the tradition . . . and those internal, interpretive debates through which the meaning and rationale of the fundamental agreements come to be expressed and by whose progress a tradition is constituted.” MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (p.12) If this kind of time-bound discourse is true of traditions, can it be applicable also to other kinds of entities – societies and civilizations, for example?

Our assumption that bonding social capital must be increasing – in an inverse relationship to bridging social capital – is an illusion. This seems to be a variant of the same illusion we have in “Western” civilization that all Muslims are alike. That is, in the face of their (the Muslims that appear on our news) clear rejection of our civilization, they are expressing their civilizational unity, i.e., strong bonding social networking on the level of the civilization. If increased diversity (and decreased bridging social capital) does not necessarily lead to increased bonding within the group of likes, we could be making a fundamental misjudgment regarding what is happening in the Muslim world.

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This entry was posted in Alasdair MacIntyre, Clash of Civilizations, Diversity, Globalization, Robert Putnam, Samuel Huntington, Social Capital, Tradition. Bookmark the permalink.

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