|by Flemming Funch|
James Wilson's article in Commentary magazine talks about Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam's essay recently published in Scandinavian Political Studies. In the essay, Putnam publicizes the findings of his research, conducted in rural districts, towns, and cities, whose conclusion establishes that diverse neighborhoods show less "social capital" because ethnically diverse residents seem to distrust each other.
Duh. One doesn't create community just by putting people next to each other. But if that's what one does, yes, it is more likely that the people who're most similar will develop relationships and social trust. Everything else being equal, the white middleclass working family with kids is likely to relate to their neighbors who also are white middleclass working families with kids, and they can babysit for each other, and come to each other's barbecues, and meet when they're picking the kids up from school in their minivans. And maybe they're less clear on how to relate to the unemployed black guy across the street who's sitting in front of his house all day.
Putnam has discovered that friendship, carpooling, participating in local projects is much lower in ethnically heterogeneous communities than in homogeneous ones. His research reveals that the exception to the tendency of diversity to inhibit "social trust" occurs in ethnically diverse military or religious settings as well as in social circles with intermarried couples. Wilson adds sports teams to the list of these exceptional places where ethnically different people click well.
Diverse groups of people are more likely to become bonded together, not just by proximity, but by either a common purpose or a shared history. If you were in the army together, or you work in the same company, the diversity is not so likely to get in the way.
And if social capital is a kind of capital, it would be reasonable to expect that differences generate potential value, and bigger differences can create more value. Meaning, we're worth more to each other, notbecause we're the same, but because something we do is complementary to what the others do. Even if you're similar people, a lot of the value in the social relation come from the areas where there's a difference. If nothing else, that your neighbors are home on a day when you want to go out, so they can babysit. But bigger differences can produce more value. If one of your neighbors is a auto mechanic, and you're a klutz, there's obviously some value in getting along well with him, even if he has a different "profile" from you, as he can repair your car. And if there's something else you can do that he can't, great.
So, the diversity IS the social capital to a large degree. Except for that it doesn't get activated unless the parties somehow get close enough together to form some links between them. Which is a little bit of a puzzle, of course.