Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Can you put trust in diversity?

Dr Andrew Leigh is an economist at the Australian National University. In a recent article he explains the importance of interpersonal trust to the healthy functioning of a society:

Trust is important because it acts as a kind of social glue that enables business and communities to operate more effectively. In regions where people trust one another, institutions, markets and societies seem to work better. Trusting societies have more effective bureaucracies, schools that function more efficiently, less corruption and faster growth.

Trust, though, is undermined by ethno-linguistic diversity. This, at least, is what Dr Leigh found when he researched data from the Australian Community Survey. Dr Leigh found that:

Neighbourhood-level analysis also throws up a startling finding: trust is lower in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods ... The effect of diversity operates on immigrants and locals alike. In more linguistically diverse suburbs, both foreign-born and Australian-born residents are less inclined to trust those around them.

Dr Leigh believes that this pattern, in which diversity is associated with low levels of trust, holds true elsewhere:

The negative relationship between trust and ethnic diversity is not unique to Australia. Separate studies looking at the US, Britain, India, Kenya and Pakistan have shown that diversity is associated with lower levels of trust and less investment in shared resources. In the US, work by Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara has produced very similar results to my own: holding constant a raft of other factors, US cities that are more diverse tend to be less trusting. Other research has reached similar conclusions.

Dr Leigh's research corresponds closely to the well-publicised findings of Professor Robert Putnam of Harvard University. Professor Putnam's research shows that:

the more diverse a community is, the less likely its neighbours are to trust anyone ... "in the presence of diversity, we hunker down ... We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined."

So what does Dr Leigh conclude from all this? He makes it very clear throughout his article that he supports continuing large-scale immigration, despite the negative effect that diversity has on trust.

Significantly, he concludes his article with this quote from Professor Putnam:

Growing up in a small Ohio town in the 1950s, I knew the religion of just about every kid in my 600 person high school ... when my children attended high school in the 1980s, they didn't know the religion of practically anyone, it simply didn't matter ..."

In my lifetime, Americans have deconstructed religion as a basis for making decisions. Why can't we do the same thing with other types of diversity?

So here we get back to a basic problem liberal modernists like Professor Putnam and Dr Leigh face, namely of having to make things which matter, not matter. The "hope" of these men is that ethnicity might be somehow deconstructed and made unimportant to people, so that high levels of immigration, and therefore high levels of ethnic diversity, might be able to coexist with high levels of neighbourhood trust.

Ethnicity, though, is what places people within a larger tradition, and connects them closely to a particular culture and community. It's not really the kind of thing which is secondary and which can reasonably be sacrificed to the goals, or the decision making processes, favoured by economists.

What happens when diversity does become the reality? As might be expected, it can be experienced negatively, as something alienating. As an example of this, consider the recently reported reaction of Oliver James, a prominent British author and psychologist, to modern Sydney. He thought the city itself was "beautiful and spacious" but he nonetheless became "unsettled" as he was driven into town:

Oxford Street was like the "Tower of Babel, a confusing polyglot in its diversity". There were people from "all the ends of the Earth", creating a feeling of "identitylessness, so you feel like you could be from anywhere.

English journalist, Peter Whittle, wrote along similar lines about the transformation by immigration of the London suburb he had grown up in:

Sometimes now, in streets I've used since Sixties boyhood, I'm struck by the sense that I should no longer think of this place as providing my identifiable roots, and that I am simply one of many who happen to be living here, with no greater claim to it sentimentally or historically. Such anonymity might be what people are looking for when they choose to live in the teeming metropolitan centre, but in a suburb which has shaped much of your life it's a much harder feeling to negotiate.

This part of south-east London has never been affluent ... But it had something which amounted to a collective identity. Now, it appears to me fragmented, with different ethnic communities existing side-by-side, sometimes uneasily, and always with a sense of nothingness in the air.

What kind of social policy can adequately replace this kind of loss? I don't believe there is one which can even begin to compensate. A better aim would be to support the continued existence of traditional community life, rather than insisting on ever increasing levels of diversity.


  1. Great post, Mark. I wrote a post expanding on your observations:


  2. I have always supported ‘tolerance’ of different people & ideals. I think it bespeaks well on someone who can accept that the world has different colours that belong in different places. Liberalism would have us mix those colours – and the result (as we can observe each day) is a ‘grey’ society.

    Modern religion (read: Liberalism & Feminism) – all stress the illusion that we are ‘all the same’. That we should negate what we know & observe to be true, in favour of ‘feeling’ good in one big family. This female-centric view of “everyone-gets-a-medal” – is why our schools are producing illiterate children (by lowering standards so kids don’t ‘feel’ bad), and why marriages are failing (because men & women are ‘supposed’ to be equal.), and why neighborhoods are cold (because we foster the idea that different ethnicities/religions are the same).

    Well, it doesn’t work.

    Multi-cultural communities can tolerate each other, but they fail to assimilate completely because it means that they would all have to agree on ONE religious, social & spiritual moral to feel complete trust with one-another. Just like ethnic communities with one religious/social syntax do.

    Diversification cannot foster ‘trust’.
    Diversification (at best) is only tolerance & open-mindedness.

    By definition of the word - ‘diversification’ is a moving target.

    Trust comes from one ethic.
    Trust comes from ‘knowing’ that the other person shares the same ethics, morals & ideals as yourself. In all aspects of co-operation that matter – ‘trust’ means that the other person is ‘trusted’ to reflect your ethics completely. That they are a true ‘reflection’ of you. In multi-culturalism, how can this be so?

    Trust cannot be manufactured.
    Trust is born from a familial syntax.
    A syntax that liberalism/feminism is determined to destroy, while “still wanting it’s rewards”.


  3. Robert Putnam's quote about religion in his small town high school got me thinking.

    I grew up very much within the evangelical subculture, living both in Melbourne and country areas. The church in Melbourne we were part of, where my parents had met and married, was a significant part of this culture, and as a child I never realised it was strange that while my family were generally either anglicised or anglo-saxon, most of our friends at church were from chinese or asian backgrounds.

    Robert Putnam is proud that society has largely deconstructed religion as a social structure, what I benefited from as a child and still benefit from today was the construction of a social structure (based upon beliefs I still hold to be true).

    Our parents were from different ethnic backgrounds, and celebrated those backgrounds in their own way. However a common commitment to certain values, arrived at by each member personally, shared through close community, established a close bond of trust and understanding which has even been passed on to the next generation, who have the common experience of having grown up within such a happy community.

    Most interesting of all, given past discussions of immigration on this blog, is the effect of this community on the many members of that church who had arrived in this country as international students. The more involved they were in the church during their student days, the more likely they were to stay here afterwards. Their close links with "white" Australian culture through the Church facilitated rapid dispersion into the suburbs and into suburban churches. In the suburbs, with growing children, some of them become community leaders, active on school councils, branches of political parties, and other community groups.

    I should stop telling stories and return to my point. If, as Putnam should desire to put it, modernism is the process of deconstructing abstract social structures, then the obvious challenge is that before you tear down a structure, you should assess it's value. Conservatism cannot be a static force. From time to time, it too will have to engage in the act of deconstruction. But it should do so much more cautiously, with much more reverence for the value of existing structures, and with an eye not to merely leave a void where the old structure existed, but to replace it, if it must be replaced, with a better, stronger structure.

    I have been reading Burke lately, and he suggests a most useful strategy for a conservative in this regard. The strategy is that wherever a structure must be descontructed, the new structure, as new as it might be, must be based upon some historical precedent, so as to maintain the doctrine of conservatism but give it the flexibility to adapt to new circumstances.

  4. The habit "to make things which matter, not matter" is disturbing. Continuing this theme off on a tangent:

    Populate and Our Environment Will Perish
    By Paul Collins

    "Listening to John Howard and the state premiers discussing the drought, the Murray-Darling basin and water policy is increasingly difficult, especially if you've ever given the natural world more than a passing thought. The sight of any Australian government claiming 'green credentials' leaves me gobsmacked, especially given the liberties taken with our natural environment in the last decade.

    Actually, I think the premiers are worse than Howard, although his environmental credentials are hardly stellar. They talk endlessly about water shortages, citizens are harangued about saving the precious liquid, and quotas imposed and then, literally in the next sentence, the same premiers are talking about "the need to increase population," as though more people won't need more water.

    Take Victoria's Steve Bracks: in one breath he talks about water shortages and dam levels being dangerously low, and in the next says Melbourne needs a million more people by 2025. Or Jon Stanhope of the ACT: he preaches jeremiads on Canberra's dire water shortage, and then announces four new Canberra suburbs full of Mac-mansions ...

    One of the unmentionable (and nowadays politically incorrect) questions in Australia is how many people the continent can sustain while retaining some respect for the integrity of the landscape. Political parties, including the Greens, scamper for cover the moment population policy is mentioned. But Australia is not infinite; there is a limit to our productive capacity, and we may well have already exceeded it ..."

    I don't get it.

  5. Our parents were from different ethnic backgrounds, and celebrated those backgrounds in their own way. However a common commitment to certain values, arrived at by each member personally, shared through close community, established a close bond of trust and understanding which has even been passed on to the next generation, who have the common experience of having grown up within such a happy community.

    Joel, where is this community and what are the actual demographics? It is quite different to the distrustful, fractured, multiethnic community that both statistics and ‘white flight’ patterns show to be the norm.

    Ethnic nepotism – in business, social networks etc - almost always overrides a ‘commitment to values’ whenever an ethnic group reaches a certain size in a community, so I’m interested to hear of an actual case where the ‘values’ thing has worked out to the majority’s liking.

  6. I think that some context is required here.

    When Dr Putnam was a kid in the 60's, was the world the same place that it is now in terms of travel, understanding of different cultures etc? No, of course not.

    International travel wasn't common. Talking to people (via video conferencing, telecommuting or whatever) either didn't exist or wasn't common. It was a different world, with different ways of doing things, and so of course, a different perspective.

    So of course Dr Putnam is going to say something like "in the presence of diversity, we hunker down ... We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined." He is simply reacting (or describing the reaction) to something which is probably fairly extraordinary for him and his generation.

    However, as we, the world, become more and more transient, and commuting (of the various kinds) becomes more prevalent, the world will continue to shrink, and we will become more and more exposed to the world and the pieces that are "different" between us.

    However that will primarily exist within the age groups that tend to be more transient. Those who were in school in the 60s are probably less likely to be travelling around, and regularly communicating with people in other cultures (for work purposes, for instance), whereas those who've grown up in later periods will probably drag themselves and their families around a lot more.

    My expereince is that those kids who are dragged around to different cities and countries will learn that there really isn't anything to be afraid of when you're dealing with someone in another country or from a different culture (unless they are a loon, and in that case, they are a loon no matter where they're from) :P

    And in reality, being able to speak multiple languages is immensely beneficial. Not to mention that it's far more interesting talking to people who've lived in other cultures.

    And this change will continue as the next generation grows up. Already kids are talking to others all around the world via chat programs etc. This will inherently break down communication barriers and enable a greater level of trust.

    While I'm not arguing against either Drs Leigh or Putnam, I am suggesting that it's a point in time assessment which will change as time progresses.

    Personally, I would like to see the abolition of the concept of "a country". With movement and communication being so common and easy these days, I don't really see the point of them anymore... Plus they put up artificial barriers which shouldn't really exist - after all, we really are all the same species...

  7. "Already kids are talking to others all around the world via chat programs etc. This will inherently break down communication barriers and enable a greater level of trust."

    You assume lack of trust stems from "communication barriers" but the reality is some groups are less trustworthy. The reason American whites distrust American blacks, for example, is not because they speak different languages, it's because blacks commit crimes at such high rates.

  8. Brett, his research isn’t about personal opinion or age prejudice. He is making a scientific comparison between diverse and homogenous communities, and reluctantly concludes that the former tend to have higher crime levels, decaying infrastructure and low levels of personal well being in comparison to the latter.

    It also has absolutely nothing to do with a new generation with an opportunity to travel. There is a world of difference between visiting a place and demographically changing a place. A person who likes to see the world doesn’t want the whole world living in their hometown. If they did, one has to ask why young travelling westerners aren’t permanently immigrating to non-western nations en masse.

    So why is the worldwide immigration flow completely one way? Has it something to do with the kind of community based, societal infrastructure that westerners build; that same social infrastructure that is now being torn apart by the diversity that Dr Putnam points out; by that (unidirectional)transient world you think, against all evidence, is actually progressive?

    Remember that we are talking about the state of living spaces here, not travel, not virtual communities or communications.

    One can talk in a utopian fashion about removing national boundaries all day long, but that wouldn’t change a thing. Within national boundaries people self-segregate along ethnic lines, and when they are forced not to they tend to be unhappy.

    The will to do this is about as far from artificial as you can get. Remove the concept of the ‘country’, with a managerial class who make mass immigration possible, and ethnic tribalism will increase even more. Left to the natural devices of the people, nations like the USA would turn into 10 or more countries.

    Western governments have been actively encouraging fluid borders for a long time now. It isn’t something that anyone is being held back from - quite the reverse. The modern liberal nation state ‘artificially’ makes people movement possible in a way that would never occur if communities had actual sovereignty over their living spaces.

    The international dream you speak of has been tried numerous times throughout modern history. It is also the root cause of the most brutal genocides in modern history.

    Human nature, including the evolved ethnic attachments that are currently out of fashion in the West, does extremely brutal things when threatened by utopians who mock it.

  9. Shane,

    The church was Swanston Street Church of Christ (opposite State Library, on the same block as Melbourne Central).

    The community formed by people from SSCOC was not a geographic community, but a social one. The church happened to be a big magnet for students, and as the international student boom began in the 1970s, it began ministering to both Australian and International Students.

    People from the church became missionaries, doctors, pastors, dentists, pharmacists, engineers and small business owners. The church has a high churn rate, as graduates move away for work or move to suburban churches for convenience. This churn combined with a reasonably high rate of intermarriage between Australian and International students has had the effect though of creating a social network which facilitated the dispersion of people who arrived here as international students into mainstream suburban Australia.

    SSCOC is not your typical suburban church, but it is also not an anomaly. Many similar churches exist which have constructed bridges by which new arrivals are integrated into the local culture. For instance, the strong presence of the Catholic church in educational institutions in Vietnam gave the Catholic church the capacity to play such a role in both Australia and America in integrating the more educated Vietnamese refugees.

  10. Thanks, Joel. I misread your original comment. I thought you meant 'community' as in people actually living together in a multiethnic area.

    But I don't see how your example works against the theory we're discussing here: that intentionally pursuing 'diversity' almost always results in degraded and distrustful living spaces or communities.

    No one is saying that a church can't form a multiethnic lobby group or that on a micro level humans of different ethnicities can't get along.

    But it doesn't make sense to take that, then extrapolate that it's in fact desirable to make an area 30% of one ethnicity, 30% of another, and 40% of yet another.

    Not when we have so much evidence that it's a recipe for disaster, regardless of how many different ways it's been tried.

    I'm still yet to hear of one multiethnic success story out of the countless attempts all over the Western world. Yet I've heard of so many horrific stories, from murder to rape to riot, from Australasia to Europe to the North America.

    What can possibly be this almighty moral good to counter the misery and social strife that this has caused? Cheap labour? Better food choice? Increased racial hatred? The white, diversity avoiding, upper middle class feeling good about themselves?

    To what end and for what purpose?

  11. Shane,

    The point of the story wasn't about the value of multi-ethnic communities, and I realise now that the reference to the ethnicity of the church might have confused you.

    The point was that if being "progressive" is about deconstructing social institutions, then maybe traditionalists need to define ourselves as being in favour of intentionally CONSTRUCTING social institutions, and of maintaining those ones which work.

    The church was merely an example of the value that comes from constructing a well-functioning social institution.

  12. Gents,

    I'd like to respond, however my reply is around 2000 words long, so rather than take up your blog, the reply can be found here.

  13. @ Darren:
    The works of Garrett Hardin, who wrote the seminal essay on the tragedy of the commons,
    are archived at the links below: Hardin had quite a
    few (negative) things to say about 'carrying capacity' and mass immigration.

    Garrett Hardin Society:



    I found a good starting point (for me) was reading
    the essay:
    "Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor",
    but your mileage may vary.

    I am now in the process of reading all his (excellent) articles.


  14. Regardless of the validity of the arguments one way or the other, the study seems to microcosmic and non-specific to be of any value in swaying this argument either way. Classic cause and effect question: ethnically diverse communities may have been found to trust each other less (inasmuch as trust can be called a scientific concept), but does that mean that the ethnic diversity is the cause of the mistrust? Or is there a third factor at play that influences both the ethnic diversity and the trust level.

    The first thing that comes to mind is the socio-economic status of the community. I would expect that people living in a community of lower socio-economic status would be less likely to trust their neighbours, regardless of their ethnicity. Then again, is ethnic diversity a factor in the creation of the community's socio-economic status? I guess my point is that it's unrealistic to expect a single statistic to such as the one quoted to prove a complex point on an issue such as this.

    The remainder of the quotes in the original post consist of opinions and emotive arguments, and are thus irrelevant to any attempt at logical debate. Of course, I'm assuming that logical debate is what's being attempted here, which may not be the case.

  15. The first thing that comes to mind is the socio-economic status of the community. I would expect that people living in a community of lower socio-economic status would be less likely to trust their neighbours, regardless of their ethnicity.

    That’s been covered here before - in an Australian study, at least. Ethnically homogenous, lower socio-economic areas actually have the highest levels of trust in the country.

    On top of the mapping of internal migration – or ‘white flight’ - there have been so many studies on this issue, most conducted by people with a prejudice towards diversity, that if one can’t accept the results, no amount of research will suffice.

    There are two tangible benefits to large scale ethnic diversity – one from an international business perspective and the other cuisine. They are the two things that researchers constantly come up with. But there are other things that matter to people.

    It is a hard thing to accept intellectually because we’ve been taught that ethnicity shouldn’t matter to people. But it does. People have a tendency to endorse diversity because it is a nice thing to say, yet most make life choices that contradict their lip service.

    The sky isn't going to fall if we admit the obvious.