A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Problem with Diversity for Diversity's Sake

What do you think of this?

From Michael Jones at The Boston Globe:
It has become increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam -- famous for "Bowling Alone," his 2000 book on declining civic engagement -- has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

"The extent of the effect is shocking," says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.

The study comes at a time when the future of the American melting pot is the focus of intense political debate, from immigration to race-based admissions to schools, and it poses challenges to advocates on all sides of the issues. The study is already being cited by some conservatives as proof of the harm large-scale immigration causes to the nation's social fabric. But with demographic trends already pushing the nation inexorably toward greater diversity, the real question may yet lie ahead: how to handle the unsettling social changes that Putnam's research predicts.

"We can't ignore the findings," says Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. "The big question we have to ask ourselves is, what do we do about it; what are the next steps?"

The study is part of a fascinating new portrait of diversity emerging from recent scholarship. Diversity, it shows, makes us uncomfortable -- but discomfort, it turns out, isn't always a bad thing. Unease with differences helps explain why teams of engineers from different cultures may be ideally suited to solve a vexing problem. Culture clashes can produce a dynamic give-and-take, generating a solution that may have eluded a group of people with more similar backgrounds and approaches. At the same time, though, Putnam's work adds to a growing body of research indicating that more diverse populations seem to extend themselves less on behalf of collective needs and goals.

His findings on the downsides of diversity have also posed a challenge for Putnam, a liberal academic whose own values put him squarely in the pro-diversity camp. Suddenly finding himself the bearer of bad news, Putnam has struggled with how to present his work. He gathered the initial raw data in 2000 and issued a press release the following year outlining the results. He then spent several years testing other possible explanations.

When he finally published a detailed scholarly analysis in June in the journal Scandinavian Political Studies, he faced criticism for straying from data into advocacy. His paper argues strongly that the negative effects of diversity can be remedied, and says history suggests that ethnic diversity may eventually fade as a sharp line of social demarcation.

"Having aligned himself with the central planners intent on sustaining such social engineering, Putnam concludes the facts with a stern pep talk," wrote conservative commentator Ilana Mercer, in a recent Orange County Register op-ed titled "Greater diversity equals more misery."
Putnam has long staked out ground as both a researcher and a civic player, someone willing to describe social problems and then have a hand in addressing them. He says social science should be "simultaneously rigorous and relevant," meeting high research standards while also "speaking to concerns of our fellow citizens." But on a topic as charged as ethnicity and race, Putnam worries that many people hear only what they want to.

"It would be unfortunate if a politically correct progressivism were to deny the reality of the challenge to social solidarity posed by diversity," he writes in the new report. "It would be equally unfortunate if an ahistorical and ethnocentric conservatism were to deny that addressing that challenge is both feasible and desirable."
The entire article is a must read, but blogger Michael Kruse is right that what recent studies demonstrate is that "that diversity for diversity's sake is destructive of community. But diversity among people committed to a common vision or goal is very healthy for a community."

This article causes me to ponder the lack of diversity, particularly racial and ethnic diversity among individual church congregations. It has become a truism that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in America. I realize that there are likely several reasons for this from differing styles of worship to identification with particular church traditions, but if healthy diversity requires a commitment to a common vision or goal, could it be that the church of Jesus Christ finds itself not committed to the common cause of the gospel in the way that it should be-- hence the lack of diversity in its individual congregations? Could that also be the reason that we Christians often find ourselves speaking about diversity for diversity's sake and not diversity that serves a common cause?

That's what I am pondering? What about you?


Mark said...


Well said. I have served many Anglo UM congregations with "Race & Religion" committees that did very little in establishing diversity, but the Discipline said we had to have one....so we did. All the while, we paid lip service to racial harmony while studying it from afar. By contrast, I served a UM church in the mid-nineties that had no such committees...and it was the most racially diverse congregation I had ever served. We had a mix of Anglos, Africans, African-Americans, Koreans, Sri Lankans and Hispanics. The difference? I believe it was the fact that we were a Spirit-filled church with dynamic, Christ-centered worship...and it was the Spirit who drew us all together to worship Jesus, not a human-mandated task force.

PamBG said...

I realize that "oughts" can often get in the way of making progress, but I find it hard to believe that Jesus would bless the idea that if we're not prepared to work with people who are not like us then it's best to work for the good of our own. So I find myself in a connundrum.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Pam, I don't think the suggestion is that it's best only to work for the good of our own. Diversity around a common cause does not have to be self-focused.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Mark, the most vitally diverse churches I have know are clearly focused on something significant that draws them together.

WomanistNTProf said...

Allan, very interesting. I have to see more and know more about the survey. What constituted diversity? What kind of diversity were they talking about? What is diverse in some minds is not so in other peoples' thinking. I remember someone telling me they came from a diverse college and when I looked it up on the internet it was something like 5% African American -- in my mind no where near diverse. I can agree that segregation for segregation's sake is not good. I do NOT think the school segregation thing worked in the favor of African American children because, for example, if a teacher did not want you there, then you knew it and you were not going to get the same kind of affirmation or education even though you were in the same building. WE NEVER accomplished segregation of our schools anyway, in my opinion. I think we go beyond diversity for diversity sake just by wanting to be in community with people who are different than us. But for me the problem with many churches is when they DO NOT WANT to be in community with people who are different from themselves. I think we have mandates in the Bible that we are not afraid to push on people simply because "the Bible mandates it." We push our children to eat right because it is good for them. We enforce and push for a lot of things simply because we think there is something good about simply doing it. Yes, people have to want to live next door to each other and want to sit in the pew next to each other. And when they don't want to out of prejudice, ignorance or indifference, that's a problem. And few people will admit it and even realize it until they are faced with living next door to someone different. The other question I have about the study is how is one so sure that community involvement etc. or lack thereof has to do with diversity. I'm not sure I buy that. Poverty can do the same thing because I think I can make no difference or even a diverse community can have a sense of complacency because I think I have all I need.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Hi, Mitzi,

Thanks, for your thoughts. In the article Putnam states that the study did take into account many factors that his colleagues thought he might have missed. The article states, "People would say, 'I bet you forgot about X,'" Putnam says of the string of suggestions from colleagues. "There were 20 or 30 X's."

So it could be that the poverty issue was taken into account, but, as you say, unless we see the details of the study we cannot know for sure.