A Nation of Turtles
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.