Ethnic Diversity Reduces Trust

Robert Putnam, of Making Democracy Work fame, has published new research, showing a strong correlation between ethnic diversity and lack of trust (via Tinkerty Tonk). Zooming in on various areas of the US, he has produced evidence that ethnically diverse areas display not only less interracial trust, but also less intraracial trust.

[Link] Putnam makes an important distinction between two different types of social capital: Bridging, in which an individual from one religious, ethnic, or class group, does something for someone in another group for an expected return, and bonding, when people who are “like us” – white Irish Catholic police officers, say, or black Alabama Baptist labourers – act in the expectation of a return.

The second kind, says Putnam, can “lead to Bosnia or Beirut” at most, and ever-wider social distance in wealthier societies.

It makes for close and warm relations among the “in” group but can freeze out or even make enemies of those considered “out”.

His diversity research reveals not just that bonding capital is strong and bridging capital weak in ethnically diverse communities, but also that both are weak in such societies: distrust permeates all relationships and people try to “minimise the hits on them from the society around them” by withdrawing into private space, often in front of a television.

The study, as reported, seems fairly solid, although there are a few annoying problems. For one, Putnam is quoted as calling Los Angeles the most diverse place on the planet, which isn’t really true (the most diverse county in the US is Queens, New York). For two, it’s possible that atomistic mistrust and diversity are correlated via a third variable, for example urban culture, which is more individualistic and less trusting than the culture of small towns where everyone knows everyone, and also more ethnically diverse.

But let’s suppose that Putnam took care of these questions in the actual study, which is reasonable. The consequences of mistrust are clearly negative, as Putnam himself showed in both Making Democracy Work and Bowling Alone. But the obvious conservative solution – downplaying diversity – won’t work here. For a start, one of the staples of political science is the fact that stricter border controls tend to increase the level of illegal immigration (no typo).

Putnam himself is looking for solutions, but he already cites one example of successful mitigation of the problems of immigration: the integration of European immigrants into American society. The article explains,

He points to the “melting pot” period of early 20th century America, a time when all kinds of people came to the US – Irish, Italians, Germans, Swedes, Jews. “The picture that they all, after a little friction, got on and that Jews taught the Irish how to dance the hora, was mainly wrong,” he says. “It was more like “Gangs of New York”. It changed very slowly, but it did change.

“I think we can do a lot to push change along more rapidly. The US military is one example. There was a lot of racial tension around the time of the Vietnam war. Now, polls show that US military personnel have many more friendships across ethnic lines than civilians. And that was deliberate. If officers were told they wouldn’t make colonel if they were seen to discriminate, they changed.”

Another anecdote: “From the 1920s onwards, almost all American humour was Jewish humour. And it was referred to as such. Now, you wouldn’t think of describing Woody Allen as a Jewish comedian. It’s just humour. It’s become American”.

Unfortunately, promoting equality and trust via the public sector is only possible in states with big governments. Since the US has about the smallest public sector in the developed world, it needs to find a way to promote this sort of trust in the private sector. Antidiscrimination laws can only go so far; no law in the world could have prevented my mom’s commanding officer from sexually harassing her and telling her that if she complained, it would be her word against his.

I wonder if Putnam looked at the effects of racial integration on trust. We know that Americans who grow up in racially mixed areas tend to be less trusting than Americans who grow up in non-diverse areas, but is there any difference between Americans who go to mixed schools and Americans who go to mostly segregated schools but still live in mixed neighborhoods?

4 Responses to Ethnic Diversity Reduces Trust

  1. gordo says:

    Without seeing the actual study, it’s hard to know whether we’re talking about a general level of distrust, or just distrust of people from outside our own ethnic group. I went on the assumption that it’s the latter.

    If that’s the case, then I would think that there would be a difference when they kids live in mixed neighborhoods but attend segregated schools. In that situation, the kids would never be forced to meaningfully interact with one another, so there would be little opportunity to build trust.

  2. Alon Levy says:

    The report says that ethnic diversity reduces even intra-ethnic trust. This is why I suspect a mediating variable: stereotypically, ethnic diversity is supposed to turn ethnicity into an in-group bound, which will actually increase intra-ethnic trust.

  3. DJA says:

    The study, as reported, seems fairly solid, although there are a few annoying problems. For one, Putnam is quoted as calling Los Angeles the most diverse place on the planet, which isn’t really true (the most diverse county in the US is Queens, New York).

    Queens is also the only place in America where median African-American income exceeds median white income. And racial tension in Queens is demonstrably lower than racial tension in, say, Staten Island.

  4. otto says:

    -“For two, it’s possible that atomistic mistrust and diversity are correlated via a third variable, for example urban culture, which is more individualistic and less trusting than the culture of small towns where everyone knows everyone, and also more ethnically diverse.”

    Indeed. Via “by withdrawing into private space, often in front of a television” I was reminded of “No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior” by Joshua Meyrowitz. Good work, if you haven’t already read it.

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