Recent research by the sociologist Robert Putnam may provide tentative backing for David Goodhart's arguments on diversityby Anthony Giddens / November 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
Three years ago, the editor of Prospect, David Goodhart, published an article arguing that the increasing diversity, individualism and mobility found in present-day societies may pose a threat to the welfare state. Ethnic diversity produced by immigration adds to this mix. Goodhart stirred up a hornet’s nest of criticism, even though he was by no means the first to raise the possibility, and indeed he raised it only as a possibility. The welfare state, he pointed out, is based upon sharing; yet sharing might be in conflict with diversity. People feel stronger obligations to others when these others are like themselves.
Goodhart argued that the reason the US has a minimal welfare state is its diversity, which is much more long-standing than in Europe. A large proportion of the people at the bottom in the US are ethnically different from the majority. In 2001, 70 per cent of the US population was made up of non-Hispanic whites, but they made up 46 per cent of those living in poverty. Americans think of the poor as members of a different group, whereas in Europe, until recently, they were thought of as part of the same overall community. Multiculturalism and the European welfare state are intrinsically at odds with one another. Goodhart’s thesis was rejected by many critics essentially on ideological grounds—it flouted political correctness by seeming to question multiculturalism.
Another major player has now come into the game, even if his main focus is not the welfare system: Robert Putnam, Harvard professor, best known for his work on social capital. He has recently published a study based upon a wide-ranging and detailed survey of ethnic diversity carried out in the US. Social capital can be understood as the informal networks of relatives, friends and associates that people depend upon for support in their everyday lives. Putnam found a direct relationship between the homogeneity of neighbourhoods, the level of trust and the existence of social capital. In neighbourhoods where most people are alike—such as predominantly white suburbs—people tend to trust one another more, and also be more involved in community activities, voluntary associations and so forth. In diverse areas, such as inner cities, trust and social capital diminish.
Most people wouldn’t be particularly surprised by such findings. Like, one could say, attracts like; people feel most comfortable with others who are similar to themselves. However, Putnam discovered something else quite unexpected.…