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Communities with higher levels of ethnic diversity possess lower levels of social capital, according to a recent study conducted by Robert Putnam, a professor of public policy at the Kennedy School. The 2007 study, which drew its findings from 30,000 individuals from across the country, found that as ethnic diversity increases in a community, individuals are less likely to trust their neighbors, less likely to participate in community activities, and more likely to “hunker down.”
This behavior, said Putnam, who also directs the Saguaro Seminar, was evident even with individuals of the same ethnic background. The study found that individuals living in ethnically diverse neighborhoods are more likely to participate in protest demonstrations and spend more time watching television. Putnam discussed his findings Wednesday at a seminar sponsored by the Taubman Center for State and Local Government.
One unfortunate result of the study, says Putnam, is that the findings have been used by some to reinforce fears of living among people from different ethnic backgrounds and as an argument against immigration.
Describing himself as a strong advocate for diversity, Putnam points out that over the long run ethnic diversity has many demonstrable advantages to a society, including cultural, economic, and fiscal. For example, he noted, immigrants have accounted for three to four times as many U.S. Nobel Laureates and National Academy of Science members.
In the next several decades, Putnam predicts, as immigration and the population increase, societies will become even more diverse. The challenge, he said, is “how to maximize the benefits of diversity and minimize the challenges linked with low social solidarity.”
Putnam first published his findings in “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century” last June. In 2000, he received worldwide recognition for his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, about the decrease in civic engagement during the last several decades and the benefits of “social capital” or social networks to both individuals and communities.