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Eye on the News

John Leo
Bowling With Our Own
Robert Putnam’s sobering new diversity research scares its author.
June 25, 2007

Selected Responses:

Sent by Steve Sailer on 07-01-2007:

The actual chronology is a little complicated. Putnam talked up his findings in 2001, when I wrote about them for, but then he "hunkered down" and maintained virtual radio silence about them until the fall of 2006, when he gave his indiscreet interview to John Lloyd of the Financial Times. He immediately regretted it and has been on the warpath ever since to get people to ignore his admission to Lloyd that he was covering up until he could come up with solutions (which, by the way, are vapid).

Sent by Bob Putnam on 06-27-2007:

John Leo's recent article about my work on diversity claims that I intentionally delayed publishing our findings. That claim is demonstrably false.

In fact, within weeks of getting the original survey results in early 2001 (six years ago) I issued a national press release describing our preliminary findings in detail. (You can see that press release here; see especially the long section entitled "the opportunity and challenge of diversity.") That press release was covered at the time in many publications, including the LA Times, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and others, often quoting me specifically about the diversity-distrust connection. The SF Chronicle of March 1, 2001, for example, quoted me as follows: “‘Places that are ethnically diverse and that have large numbers of recent immigrants are places that have greater challenges in building connections because people feel more isolated there,’ Putnam said. ‘And that's not just along racial lines, [but] generalized social isolation.’” And a few months later in 2001 (just as soon as the data had been cleaned) we made the full, raw data-set publicly available to anyone through the Roper Center data archive. Over the last six years, those data have become one of the most widely-used data-sets in the social sciences, downloaded and analyzed by hundreds of other researchers. Finally, contrary to Leo's claim, we have not “published only an initial summary” of our findings, but an elaborate 38-page journal article, packed with charts, statistics and methodological details, and as I have said, the raw original data have been publicly available for six years, an invitation to early scrutiny that is almost unprecedented in social science. In short, this story is the exact opposite of suppressing results.

Leo may or may not like our results, but it is both false and irresponsible for him to claim that we have suppressed them or delayed making them public.

John Leo responds:

I did not say that Professor Putnam deliberately delayed publishing his findings. He said that (Financial Times, October 8, 2006). His press release of March 1, 2001 did not contain any information about the study as blunt or dramatic as his new article in Scandinavian Political Studies. Neither did any of the newspapers he cites as reporting on the 2001 announcement. Headlines included “Survey says Atlantans Have Low Trust Level” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution), “Love Thy Neighbor? Not in L.A.” (Los Angeles Times), and “Involvement Knits a Community” Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Professor Putnam did mention the diversity-distrust issue in the San Francisco Chronicle, but only to say that large-scale immigration presents challenges in building connections. No doubt. But the newsworthy and (I would say) devastating short- to mid-term impact of immigration and diversity on communities of all kinds was not reported. Why not?

I erred in saying that Professor Putnam's speech, published as an article in SPS, represented preliminary findings. I should have said it was a summary or commentary on what he found, not the study itself.

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, is very nervous about releasing his new research, and understandably so. His five-year study shows that immigration and ethnic diversity have a devastating short- and medium-term influence on the social capital, fabric of associations, trust, and neighborliness that create and sustain communities. He fears that his work on the surprisingly negative effects of diversity will become part of the immigration debate, even though he finds that in the long run, people do forge new communities and new ties.

Putnam’s study reveals that immigration and diversity not only reduce social capital between ethnic groups, but also within the groups themselves. Trust, even for members of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friendships fewer. The problem isn’t ethnic conflict or troubled racial relations, but withdrawal and isolation. Putnam writes: “In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’—that is, to pull in like a turtle.”

In the 41 sites Putnam studied in the U.S., he found that the more diverse the neighborhood, the less residents trust neighbors. This proved true in communities large and small, from big cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Boston to tiny Yakima, Washington, rural South Dakota, and the mountains of West Virginia. In diverse San Francisco and Los Angeles, about 30 percent of people say that they trust neighbors a lot. In ethnically homogeneous communities in the Dakotas, the figure is 70 percent to 80 percent.

Diversity does not produce “bad race relations,” Putnam says. Rather, people in diverse communities tend “to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.” Putnam adds a crushing footnote: his findings “may underestimate the real effect of diversity on social withdrawal.”

Neither age nor disparities of wealth explain this result. “Americans raised in the 1970s,” he writes, “seem fully as unnerved by diversity as those raised in the 1920s.” And the “hunkering down” occurred no matter whether the communities were relatively egalitarian or showed great differences in personal income. Even when communities are equally poor or rich, equally safe or crime-ridden, diversity correlates with less trust of neighbors, lower confidence in local politicians and news media, less charitable giving and volunteering, fewer close friends, and less happiness.

Putnam has long been aware that his findings could have a big effect on the immigration debate. Last October, he told the Financial Times that “he had delayed publishing his research until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity.” He said it “would have been irresponsible to publish without that,” a quote that should raise eyebrows. Academics aren’t supposed to withhold negative data until they can suggest antidotes to their findings.

Nor has Putnam made details of his study available for examination by peers and the public. So far, he has published only an initial summary of his findings, from a speech he gave after winning an award in Sweden, in the June issue of Scandinavian Political Studies. His office said Putnam is in Britain, working on a religion project at the University of Manchester, and is currently too busy to grant an interview.

Putnam’s study does make two positive points: in the long run, increased immigration and diversity are inevitable and desirable, and successful immigrant societies “dampen the negative effects of diversity” by constructing new identities. Social psychologists have long favored the optimistic hypothesis that contact between different ethnic and racial groups increases tolerance and social solidarity. For instance, white soldiers assigned to units with black soldiers after World War II were more relaxed about desegregation of the army than were soldiers in all-white units. But Putnam acknowledges that most empirical studies do not support the “contact hypothesis.” In general, they find that the more people are brought into contact with those of another race or ethnicity, the more they stick to their own, and the less they trust others. Putnam writes: “Across local areas in the United States, Australia, Sweden Canada and Britain, greater ethnic diversity is associated with lower social trust and, at least in some cases, lower investment in public goods.”

Though Putnam is wary of what right-wing politicians might do with his findings, the data might give pause to those on the left, and in the center as well. If he’s right, heavy immigration will inflict social deterioration for decades to come, harming immigrants as well as the native-born. Putnam is hopeful that eventually America will forge a new solidarity based on a “new, broader sense of we.” The problem is how to do that in an era of multiculturalism and disdain for assimilation.

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