Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Thoughts on Putnam's Hunkering Thesis

James Q. Wilson's piece in Commentary brings up an interesting point regarding Robert Putnam's recent work on the relationship between diversity and social capital. In his useful essay, he refutes Putnam's recent argument in the June 2007 issue of Scandinavian Political Studies that diversity's beneficial traits in the military, religious and athletic institutions also apply to neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, however, the pertinence of the military, religious, or athletic model to life in neighborhoods is very slight. In those three institutions, authority and discipline can break down native hostilities or force them underground. Military leaders proclaim that bigotry will not be tolerated, and they mean it; preachers invoke the word of God to drive home the lesson that prejudice is a sin; sports teams (as with the old Brooklyn Dodgers) point out that anyone who does not want to play with a black or a Jew is free to seek employment elsewhere.

But what authority or discipline can anyone bring to neighborhoods? They are places where people choose to live, out of either opportunity or necessity. Walk the heterogeneous streets of Chicago or Los Angeles and you will learn about organized gangs and other social risks. Nor are these confined to poor areas: Venice, a small neighborhood in Los Angeles where several movie stars live and many homes sell for well over $1 million, is also a place where, in the Oakwood area, the Shoreline Crips and the V-13 gangs operate.
I agree with Wilson that neighborhoods provide a more vexing challenge that other organizations. But too often, this becomes the end point of the conversation on diversity and neighborhoods. It starts from the baseline assumption that human nature tends towards homophily (the tendency to stick to one's own) and no amount of social policy can change it. But we wouldn't accept this line of reasoning for a whole host of issues. It is my four year old's nature to want five scoops of ice cream instead of one, but we as a society expect her to be socialized out of that innate desire by the time she reaches adulthood.

Wilson has a point in his essay that the state's efforts to create an integrated society comes with unintended consequences. Social ruptures tend to follow explicit interventionby gove rnment to force groups from different racial, income and/or ethnic groups to share collective goods. The phenomenon of white flight in the 1970's was accelerated by court ordered desegregation. Individuals are resilient and entrepreneurial in their efforts to carve out the type of existence they want. For large majorities of people, what they want is to live with others like them.

This is not just racial. People pay for security. I live in the suburbs partly because I know that odds are my daughter will grow up free from fear, in a reasonably good school system, with clean air and water. The fact that others want for these goods is an issue of concern for me, even an
area of academic study, but when pressed, I can always fall back on the common refrain "I have to look out for my family."

But I don't accept the "either or" proposition that either places are safe and homogeneous or dangerous and diverse. At the risk of sounding like a bad parent, I would be willing to give some ground on safety and education for my child to get some diversity in return. Partly because of the growing literature on diversity that extols its virtues in a number of settings (the military, the workplace, the university, etc.)

Social capital scholars should be looking for communities that have both reasonably high levels of racial, ethnic and class based integration and positive social indicators (low dropouts, low crime rates, etc.). Even if true that hunkering is the default, we should not be content with describing the reality in this instance. We should be using the tools of social science to identify instances where hunkering is overcome. I laid out a methodological agenda for doing this at a paper I presented at the 2008 Western Political Science Association Conference this past year.

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