Does diversity create social distrust?

*Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam has completed an important study of more than 30,000 North Americans and concluded that – especially if you live in ethnically diverse cities such as Toronto, Vancouver or Los Angeles – it’s likely you are “hunkering down.”

That’s the colloquial phrase that Putnam, who has been an adviser to everyone from Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to the U.S. State Department and the World Bank, uses to describe the lack of trust he discovered among most North Americans in diverse urban settings.


Putnam’s survey of 41 American cities and towns found people in ethnically diverse regions tend to be polite – but also disengaged and wary.

While Putnam believes there may be long-term benefits for some from immigration (including enhanced scientific and intellectual innovation), he’s become convinced the short-term effect on most cities is a drop in “social capital.”

People in diverse urban regions tend to seek shelter in their own little worlds. “Diversity, at least in the short run, seems to bring out the turtle in all of us. … The more ethnically diverse the people we live around, the less we trust them.“

Ah, the Bowling Alone guy.

No, it reduces outright hatred and persecution into mere distrust. It’s better for people to live in mildly distrustful diverse communities, instead of of non-diverse communities filled with outright hatred of outsiders and the persecution, assault and murder of people who don’t fit. Better a peaceful divided community than a unified lynch mob.

That is after all what the less-diverse “good old days” were like after all. They were unified all right; unified in their hatred, their persecution and exploitation of the outsider.

Unless people to some extent form distinct and different communities, you don’t have diversity - you have homogeneity. So what he’s describing, to a large extent, is not the consequence of diversity; it’s the condition for it.

I think Putnam is almost certainly right, but I’m not sure comparing social trust and diversity in different American cities is a good way to prove it. It could be that California has less social trust than Iowa for reasons entirely unrelated to its racial and ethnic diversity.

I happen to live in an extremely diverse large city, Houston, TX and I see little evidence for what is claimed in the OP. Are there tensions at times ? Yes. Is everything hunky dory? No. As a whole we do pretty well here and mix freely.

You should see my local watering hole, it looks like a Benneton ad gone wrong.


I highlighted the key words. Hunkering down might be the initial reaction to diversity, but when everyone realizes that “they” aren’t so bad after all, they come out of their shells and true homogeneity begins. The children of immigrants especially have a vested interest in becoming part of North American society if they want to have a social life. In Canada, you regularly see young kids of foreign origin oogling over Justin Bieber or cheering Canadian sports teams along with their white friends.

This study smacks of making a mountain out of a molehill. If the effect is temporary, what’s the big fuss?

IS it temporary? Under all circumstances or just some?

I think a lot depends on the degree and TYPE of diversity we’re talking about.

For instance, I live in a neighborhood and my son goes to a school that liberals and hipsters generally mock as “lily white.” And in truth, about 70% of the people in the neighborhood are white. That still leaves a LOT of people from MANY different ethnicities.

Do kids at my son’s school interact with kids of other races? Absolutely. Since there isn’t a LARGE contingent of blacks, Latinos, Indians, Chinese kids, Vietnamese kids or Koreans, the kids of those ethnic groups don’t have the luxury of self-segregating. They tend to seek out the white kids who share their interests. Ergo, Mexican, black and Asian kids who like sports tend to hang with the white jocks; Mexican, black and Asian nerds hang with the white nerds; Mexican, black and Asian artsy kids hang out with the white artsy kids, and so on. There isn’t an equal mix, but kids don’t tend to divide by race at lunchtime or at recess.

On the other hand, in schools I’ve seen that are split roughly 50-50 between two different ethnic groups, there’s almost no intermingling. If half the kids are white and half are black, there will be nothing but all-black and all-white tables in the cafeteria. If the school is half white and half-Mexican, there wil be, de facto, an all-white bus and an all-brown bus during field trips.

It’s naive to assume interracial friendships will occur spontaneously if we just stick different groups in the same locations.

He’s probably right to some extent. If you are in a community where everyone is exactly like you, then you can openly be yourself with out fear of derision, and trust that others will behave according to how you expect. If you live in a diverse community you have to be more careful and guarded until you figure out what people expect of you and what you can expect of them.

But the alternative is that each community lives isolated by itself and never grows or discovers anything new and lives in fear of the other. A child moving from elementary school to middle school is going to find himself a lot more insecure and uncomfortable in his new environment. That doesn’t mean that all kids should stay in elementary school for the rest of their lives.

It’s still much better than what we had in the pre-diversity days, things like lynchings, “colored” water fountains and sunset towns.

I think it might feel like diversity creates social distrust, to people who are in the demographic majority. But what’s actually happening is that distrust is being redistributed while it is also being reduced. The people who were blind to injustice become less so and their feeling of distrust increases, but the unlucky people who were the victims of injustice feel a bigger reduction in distrust.

Peaceful Divided Community”:dubious:

It’s interaction which leads to hate. If there is no interaction, there is no hate. Whether on a personal or a community level. Do you think many Mexicans dislike Masai’s? When I went to Belfast, I was treated in a friendly manner by both sides, which they never did with each other.Do you think diversity prevented hatred there?

Belfast now is a lot different than Belfast 30 years ago (though I don’t know when you went). Overtime, diverse communities adapt peacefully, for the most part.

Also, because of the connectedness of today’s world, diversity is inevitable. Communities pretty much have to get used to it, because it’s not going away.


6 years ago. Its different due to enforced segregation

It also takes an enormous amount of effort to keep diversity from happening.

There’s a reason people gravitate towards cities. Cities are where educational and employment opportunities are. Everyone values these things. So if you’ve got a good city, chances are you’re going to have a mix of different people. The only way to keep this from happening is to make the place so undesirable that no one wants to move there.

I’ll accept that diversity has a cost. So does clean water (“What do you mean, we can’t store our coal ash on the river anymore! Why, we’ll just take our business somewhere else, buster!”) There’s a trade-off associated with every thing. This doesn’t mean nothing is worth having.

The ones that existed only in the minds of right wingers who idealize the 50s, you mean. It was brutality and terror that created and maintained those divided communities.

Nonsense, a lack of interaction increases the hate because it makes it far easier to demonize the “other”.

America’s urban areas have a far higher school drop-out rate than America’s suburban and rural areas. That would suggest that not everyone values education, and education (at least at the primary and secondary level) isn’t a major factor in people to gravitating toward cities.

Let’s assume your premise is true. What would you do? Send everyone “back where they came from”?

Whether or not you like or agree with Putnam’s hypothesis, let’s look at the (possible) concrete results of the social distrust he’s talking about.

First, imagine a homogenous community- doesn’t matter what ethnicity. Could be an all-white community, an all-Mexican community, an all-black community, an all-Jewish community, an all-Chinese community, whatever.

In such a community, there’s enough social cohesion that people can be called upon to work or volunteer to help their neighbors. If there’s an all-black neighborhood where the people are proud of the local elementary school, then there will be plenty of local volunteers to host the annual school fair. If there’s an all-Mexican neighborhood with a lot of social cohesion, there will be lots of volunteers and attendees at the annual neighborhood block party. In an all-white middle-class neighborhood, the annual Neighborhood CLeanup event will get a lot of volunteers.

But what if a neighborhood is 1/3 black, 1/3 white and 1/3 Mexican? There won’t be much interaction, there won’t be many volunteers for neighborhood civic projects, and everyone will cluster together in their own groups.

Where there’s one, clear, dominant culture (no matter which culture that may be), there’s eventually cohesion, because newcomers will figure “We have to assimilate” and they gradually will. But when there’s NO dominant culture, nobody sees any need to assimilate. Indeed, people will RESENT suggestions that they should assimilate.

If a few Chinese families move into a lily whte neighborhood, it’s very likely their kids will pick up all the typical traits of their white classmates. The boys will play Skylanders on their Wii, the girls will listen to Katy Perry, etc. .In a generation, other Chinese folks may call them “Twinkies” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). On the other hand, if these families move into a neighborhood that’s half white and half-Chinese, they WON’T assimilate- they’ll stick to their own kind, and never blend in.

If the people residing in these groups have absolutely nothing in common, I can see this happening, sure. But in reality there is plenty of opportunity for diffusion and interaction. The longer the community hangs on together, the more diffusion you’ll see. The problem is that people often don’t allow this to happen.

Imagine if in this neighborhood, all the children attended the same schools. Their parents will be almost forced to get to know each other, because kids in the same class naturally become friends/acquaintances. You get invited to enough birthday parties hosted by families who are “different” from you, and suddenly some of your misconceptions are shaken and corrected. It’s hard to talk about “those people” messing up things, when “those people” are your kid’s best friends. And those kids will grow up feeling comfortable around diversity. I know that for me, having grown up around white people, I get along better with white people who also received the full integrated educational experience. Racial awkwardedness tends to crop up when I’m dealing with someone from Bumfuck, Egypt whose only experience with black people is from watching The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

But neighborhood schools are being cast aside nowadays. Parents either want to send their kids to an uber-competitive magnet or charter school elsewhere in the district, or they go private. This happens especially in diverse neighborhoods; because the moment a student body moves away from the monied and white ideal, people bail out. Whether due to perception or reality, this is what happens, and then sadly it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy as poorer kids are bussed in to fill the empty seats. So what happens is that the neighborhood kids don’t ever mingle because they aren’t in the same classroom. They don’t go to each other’s birthday parties. They don’t play in the same sports teams. They aren’t friends. So then the parents have no reason to know each other each other. They are strangers to one another.

When you live amongst strangers, of course it will be natural for you to be distrustful.

It COULD happen that way. Or, as I’ve observed often, you may end up with “gifted” classes that are all-white, Special Ed classes that are all black, and bilingual classes that are all Mexican.