A downside to diversity?

There is both good news and bad news to report if you care about the value of diversity. First, the bad news: a study conducted by Harvard Professor Robert Putnum finds that diverse commjunities can lead to an increase in social distrust. As Daniel Henniger of the Wall Street Journal explains:

Robert Putnam, the Harvard don who in the controversial bestseller “Bowling Alone” announced the decline of communal-mindedness amid the rise of home-alone couch potatoes, has completed a mammoth study of the effects of ethnic diversity on communities. His researchers did 30,000 interviews in 41 U.S. communities. Short version: People in ethnically diverse settings don’t want to have much of anything to do with each other. “Social capital” erodes. Diversity has a downside.

Prof. Putnam isn’t exactly hiding these volatile conclusions, though he did introduce them in a journal called Scandinavian Political Studies. A great believer in the efficacy of what social scientists call “reciprocity,” he wasn’t happy with what he found but didn’t mince words describing the results:

“Inhabitants of diverse communities tend to withdraw from collective life, to distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more, but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.” The diversity nightmare gets worse: They have little confidence in the “local news media.” This after all we’ve done for them.

Colleagues and diversity advocates, disturbed at what was emerging from the study, suggested alternative explanations. Prof. Putnam and his team re-ran the data every which way from Sunday and the result was always the same: Diverse communities may be yeasty and even creative, but trust, altruism and community cooperation fall. He calls it “hunkering down.”

Read it all here.

So what is the good news? There is a study that has strong evidence that diversity leads to better decision making. As the Scientifc American reports:

In the study, Sommers asked 30 different mock juries, each composed of six adults, to watch a video summary, edited from Court TV coverage, of the trial proceedings of an actual sexual assault case in which a black male defendant allegedly assaulted, separately, two white females. Sommers went to extraordinary lengths to make these mock trials as much like a real trial as possible. The study was conducted in a courthouse. Participants were jury-eligible adults who were at the court for real jury duty. Their age ranged from 18 to 78. Only racial composition was varied systematically: half of the juries were white, and the other half were made up of four white and two black jurors.

. . .

In the end, the majority (55 percent) of the mock juries voted unanimously to acquit, just as the real jury had. But both verdicts and deliberation quality and content varied significantly depending on the juries’ racial make-up.

Mixed and all-white juries were equally likely to raise the subject of race when discussing the case — but differed sharply in how they reacted to the subject once it was raised. Every time racism was mentioned in an all-white jury, at least one juror objected that racism was not relevant (J5: “What about the fact that he was a Black man?” J6: “What does that have to do with it?”). That’s a 100 percent rate of objection to the idea that race was relevant. In the diverse juries, by contrast, only 22 percent of mentions of possible racism met with objections. Meanwhile, the diverse juries deliberated longer, cited more case-relevant facts during deliberation, made fewer factual mistakes, and were more likely to correct inaccurate statements than the all-white juries were.

So who among the jurors is creating the difference in dynamics between the homogenous and heterogeneous juries? One possibility is that the black jurors alone improved jury performance. Black jurors may have different life experiences that lead them to contribute unique information and perspectives to the deliberations. By this hypothesis, it is the sole burden of the black jurors to provide the benefits of diversity.

But Sommers’ data tell a very different story: He found that white jurors were actually responsible for a large proportion of the group differences, as they behaved differently in a racially mixed jury than in one all-white. White jurors in diverse groups mentioned more facts, made fewer factual errors, corrected more mistakes and raised the possibility of racism more often than did white jurors in homogeneous groups. Even before the deliberations began, white participants who expected to deliberate with black jurors privately espoused less harsh views of the (black) defendant than did white participants who expected to deliberate in an all-white group. Both the anticipation and the experience of serving on a diverse jury seemed to sharpen the white jurors’ sensitivity not just to race but to accuracy and due process.

. . .

In all, Sommers’ data show that diverse juries reason better, not just as groups but as individuals; everyone on the jury benefits, and justice, it appears, is better served. As Sommers concludes, these results make the benefits of diverse juries not just more concrete but readily attained. Minority jurors need feel no burden or need to “educate” white jurors or convey a unique minority perspective; diversity seems to do its own work. The results suggest that representative juries do not merely honor a civil right or a constitutional ideal but provide an effective tool for achieving more thorough and competent jury deliberations.

Read it all here. Read Sommers paper here.

So what conclusions can we draw from these two studies? First, the obvious fact that living and working in a diverse community can be a real challenge, and that we should not sugar-coat the difficulties. But, second, we must remember as well, that the struggle is worthwhile–if nothing else, we seem to make better decisions if we embrace diversity.

What do you think?

Category : The Lead

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5 Comments
  1. Dr. Putnam gave an interview to a writer over on Open Left in which he described some of the ways in which seemingly immutable defining lines between diverse communities have been erased in our recent experience — and what he knows about how that process can be helped along. In particular, he describes how some non-abrasive interactions seem to be normalized in some megachurches.

    I found this all much more interesting than what the WSJ chose to focus on — no surprise about that.

    Jan Adams

  2. Dr. Putnam:

    I agree. I don’t think the smarky Wall Street Journal article gives your paper justice. I thought Erica Goode’s articke in New York Times Magazine was a far better treatment of your article. I also appreciate the direct link to the paper itself. I used the Wall Street Journal article largely because I thought it caled out for a response about the full nature of diversity.

    What I appreciated about your work on this topic is that you are an advocate for diversity, but make sure we don’t sugar-coat the challenges and difficulties (and indeed, downsides) of diversity.

  3. Diversity work is hard – way beyond sharing food cultures. Thanks for this.

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