‘Bowling Alone’ author warns against isolation

Robert Putnam, Harvard professor of public policy and celebrated author of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, spoke on Thursday evening about the value of close-knit communities and the challenges of increased diversity. In a lecture titled, “E Pluribus Unum: The Challenges of Building Community in a Diverse, Hunkered America,” Putnam reported what he called an unpleasant finding from his research: social solidarity and diversity seem to be negatively correlated. He finished by expressing his hopes for its reversal.

Putnam, a popular professor at Harvard University, captured America’s attention with Bowling Alone and followed up with Better Together: Restoring the American Community. He has consulted with leaders from around the world on community issues.

The lecture began with a brief lesson in social theory. Putnam explained that in addition to physical capital, like tools and machines, and human capital, like education and technical proficiency, people need social capital in order to get a job done well.

“Social networks have value,” Putnam said. As neighbors and community members mix and mingle at church picnics, school barbeques and sledding parties, networks and communities establish norms of trust and reciprocity that lend to chains of mutual help.

For instance, in a community with ample social capital, as Putnam said, one person helps another who in turn helps a third person or the first in return, thus creating a cascade of support. Moreover, not only is fostering community shrewd and strategic, it is also natural and easy since the community members “all see each other at choir practice on Thursday,” Putnam joked.

Next, Putnam asked, “What’s the effect of ethnic diversity and immigration on social capital?” Although diversity is “wonderful” in many ways, he said, “The effect of immigration and diversity in the short run turns out to be distressingly negative.”

Putnam turned to empirical data that he has collected over the years, and in particular, to a social capital community benchmark survey. Through the survey, people from small towns and big cities across America shared information about their friends, their networks and their levels of trust in the members of their communities.

The study related their responses to the levels of racial homogeneity in their communities. It found that more diverse communities tended to have less confidence in government leaders, as well as less voting, volunteering and giving to charity and more television watching – in other words, less social capital.

“Diversity in our neighborhood tends to bring out the turtle in all of us,” Putnam said. “It causes us to hunker down, pull into ourselves and therefore pull away from the community. It keeps us from building social capital.”

Putnam commented that he was “appalled by the findings,” but after controlling for a variety of confounding factors, he could find no other plausible explanations. “It is true,” he said. “In the presence of ethnic diversity, we all tend to hunker.”

Instead of implying that we need to make our communities more homogenous, however, Putnam argued that we need to make race a less important part of identity.

He found hope in the fact that “ethnicity and therefore diversity are social constructions.” The lines we draw today between blacks, whites, Latinos and Asians can vanish just as other lines have vanished: a marriage between an Irish woman and Italian man was called a mixed marriage early in the 20th century, but those ethnic divisions are now far in the past.

Identities, therefore, can be constructed without reference to race. Putnam pointed to the U.S. Army and evangelical Protestant mega-churches as settings in which other facets of identity push race into the background. He noted that, in these places, racial diversity has increased along with social capital.

As Putnam finished his talk, he left the audience with an assignment like a true professor: create a more encompassing sense of “we” without race as a core identity.