Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


A Nation of Turtles

By Shawn Healy
Robert Putnam, in a recent article published in Scandinavian Political Studies titled "E PluribusUnum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century ," presents a troublesome conclusion in his ongoing work on social capital (defined as "social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness"). As the United States becomes ever more diverse and multicultural (much of this attributed to immigration), social solidarity and social capital are seemingly inhibited.

Putnam presents two age-old sociological theories to explain the possible outcomes of the transformation of social capital as a result of more diversity. The "contact hypothesis" suggests that interaction with diversity fosters tolerance and solidarity. The "conflict hypothesis," on the other hand, predicts the opposite: distrust among different groups and solidarity within one's own enclave. He rejects both through bivariate and multivariate models, the latter controlling for various potentially mitigating factors, and places forward the so-called "constrict theory." Here diversity leads to rejection of both in and out-group solidarity.

Among the evidence that Putnam finds in support of "constrict theory" in diverse locales:
*There is less confidence in local government and media.
*People are less apt to think that they can make a difference politically.
*Lower levels of voter registration.
*Less volunteering and charitable giving.
*Fewer friends, less happiness, and a perceived lower quality of life.
*More time watching TV.

Putnam concludes, "diversity does not produce bad race relations or ethnically-defined group hostility... Rather, inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin..." In short, those who live in diverse communities act like turtles, essentially hiding in our shells.

While Putnam seemingly controls for all extraneous variables in his study, for he truly detests the results, I feel as that he is missing some key distinctions between urban/suburban/rural living that lend themselves to similar conclusions that Putnam attributes to diversity. I have personally lived in all three environments (if a small town qualifies as rural), and wonder if these factors are more a product of urban life than the diversity characteristic of cities.

"Contact theory" seemingly does explain the tolerance that builds in a big city like Chicago. Think of Boys Town on the north side of the city, where a large gay community has built tremendous in-group solidarity while at the time fostering ever-growing acceptance from the larger community. I acknowledge that race and ethnicity are arguably even more complicated barriers to penetrate, but I do believe that those who live and work in a diverse community are more open-minded and connected to groups different from their own than those in more homogeneous settings. It is much more difficult to distrust, hate and hold stereotypes when you work, worship, and play with individuals who are members of "out-groups."

To expand upon the distinctions I make above concerning place of residence (urban/suburban/rural), city living does carry with it a certain level of anonymity impossible in small towns and most suburbs. Such anonymity is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes it's nice to traverse the sidewalks alone without running into a familiar face. At the same time, the sheer multitudes of people living in a square block in a metropolis like Chicago make it difficult to build the deep connections conducive to social capital. Moreover, powerlessness and alienation are logical byproducts of living in a location where one vote truly is less influential from a proportional standpoint.

My criticisms of Putnam are rather rudimentary and would need to withstand the empirical testing he conducted to reach the conclusions detailed above. I am a huge fan of his career work and share his long-term hope that we turn our melting pot/tossed salad society into the positive it truly is. We city slickers would be wise to look at ourselves in the mirror and to begin building the social capital wanting in our daily haunts.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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