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Volume XXXI - Number 1

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PANEL ON DEBATING PUTNAM?

Douglas Caulkins
President, SCCR
Donald L. Wilson Professor of Enterprise and Leadership
Anthropology Department
Grinnell College
Grinnell, Iowa 50112

This summer the social science community received a surprise from political scientist Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone” and guru of social capital as the face-to-face interaction generating trust, ostensibly needed for democratic political systems. Putnam published inconvenient evidence that ethnic diversity in the U.S. undermines and reduces social capital. His abstract notes that:

New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down.’ Trust (even of one's own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer. (Putnam 2007)

Within my own discipline of anthropology, many listservs are abuzz with criticisms of Putnam's findings. Some consider the timing of the article unfortunate since it seems to play into the hands of those who would misuse the findings to justify a xenophobic federal restriction of immigration. Others suggest that it tends to legitimize the delay of efforts to integrate and develop ethnic neighborhoods in America's cities. Virtually all agree that the findings are a challenge to the value of diversity held by scholars in all of the social sciences.

To be fair, Putnam shares those values and does his best to explain that the negative impact of ethnic diversity on social capital is likely to occur in the short run only:

In the long run, however, successful immigrant societies have overcome such fragmentation by creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities. Illustrations of becoming comfortable with diversity are drawn from the US military, religious institutions, and earlier waves of American immigration. (Putnam 2007)

As is indicated by his last sentence, his argument about the long-term consequences is deductive or argument by analogy. You can read the entire article at http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs /10.1111/j.1467-9477.2007.00176.x

Many of us would like to see this debate enriched with case studies of ethnic diversity and social capital, not only in the U.S. in other nations and communities. Are there cross-cultural studies that illuminate the problem? Under what circumstances do ethnically diverse communities or regions develop the “bridging” social capital needed to counteract the “hunkering down” phenomenon?

I would like to invite members and friends of the Society for Cross-Cultural Research to join this dialogue and contribute to a panel on “Debating Putnam: Does Diversity Undermine Social Capital?” If you would like to contribute a paper, please email me at caulkins@grinnell.edu

Reference:

Robert D. Putnam (2007)
E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture. Scandinavian Political Studies 30 (2), 137–174. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9477.2007.00176.x .