The Arts and Letters Daily provided a link to an interesting article yesterday, one picked up by Deborah over at In A Strange Land.

It’s a compelling article. The author discusses the work of a social scientist called Robert Putnam. Putnam has been studying the impact of ethnic diversity in American cities for a decade and has produced some interesting findings. Without having read the original article (and relying on the Boston Globe story), Putnam has demonstrated that trust and civic engagement is lowered in diverse communities.

What this result means is that people are less likely to mix with their neighbours, even ethnically similar neighbours, and less likely to participate in political, social or cultural life, when diversity is high.

A very big finding. One that potentially undermines the arguments posed in favour of multiculturalism. For example, if introducing people into communities has a negative effect on democratic interaction, then why encourage immigration from ethnically distinct sources?

As you can imagine, the conservatives are having a field day.

What’s interesting about Putnams results though is that he’s demonstrating that old ideas about civil society are defunct in the modern world. Much like conservatives who haven’t caught up with the realities of metropolitan life, the ideal of the perfect civil society has simply had its day. Whereas once we could aspire to perfect social and political interaction in gleaming cities without poverty, disease or hunger, modern advances in communication, transport and economics have put all those ideals out the window.

But, what Putnam has not demonstrated is that civil society is under pressure from diversity. Instead, what Putnam has effectively demonstrated that civil society is an outmoded utopian dream in the face of modern social realities. It isn’t the issue of diversity that needs to be addressed. Unless some massive change occurs, such as the end of easy international travel, diversity is here to stay.

What needs to be addressed is our outmoded social and political institutions. Institutions that rely on homogeneity and uniformity to operate effectively. As I indicated in another post, our institutions were designed and constructed in during the Industrial Revolution, and are becoming increasingly irrelevant to a wired, globally mobile population. Blaming diversity for an unresponsive and defunct socio-political system is pointless, new systems need to be devised to accommodate the needs of diverse societies.

Fortunately, as Putnam has discovered, diverse societies, workplaces, teams and communities are hard-wired for innovation and higher productivity. Maybe the answers are in the communities themselves.

PS. I did some snooping around, and here’s the original Putnam article. I’ll read it over and maybe make another post based on it, and your comments.