Friday, July 06, 2007

Professor Putnam's challenge

Professor Putnam of Harvard University has found that ethnic diversity harms "social capital": that it leads to a loss of trust, friendship and happiness.

He has, nonetheless, argued in favour of ethnic diversity, claiming that it benefits the economy and creativity.

So Professor Putnam's challenge is to find a way that you can have diversity, but without the damage to social capital.

It's interesting to read how he proposes to meet this challenge, because it highlights the difficulties and contradictions involved in such a project.

In short, this is the Professor's argument:

a) Identity is constructed, therefore it can be made the way we want it to be.

b) Ethnic identity can survive at a personal level and this will maintain diversity.

c) We should strive to create a common social identity in which ethnicity doesn't matter, in part by mixing everyone together.

d) This new communal identity will be, like earlier forms of identity, strong enough to forge positive ties and allegiances between people.

I think the professor is wrong in each of these claims.

Identity as a construct

According to Professor Putnam:

Identity itself is socially constructed and can be socially de-constructed and re-constructed. (p.159)

... identities are socially constructed and malleable. (p.160)

This can't be right as ethnic identity is based on factors which can't be socially constructed. Ethnicity often includes, for instance, a shared ancestry as marked in some way by racial similarity; it also often involves a shared history over many generations.

It's important to point this out, as any attempt to "construct" a communal identity when there are no natural forms of ethnic connection isn't likely to create close ties of allegiance - thus undermining part (d) of the professor's argument.

In considering how "malleable" identity is, consider the case of the UK. It's true that a broader British identity was fashioned out of separate English, Scottish and Welsh ethnic identities. This was made possible by points of similarity and common interest between these three groups. When, though, it came to incorporating Catholic Ireland into a British entity, the "malleability" failed: the differences in history and religion proved too great. Furthermore, there are signs even today that the original English, Scottish and Welsh ethnic identities are still felt by many people in the UK as being more significant than the British one.

Identity is more than a mere social construct and therefore cannot be remade to suit any purpose.

The survival of ethnicity

This is perhaps the weakest link in the professor's argument. We are asked to believe that our ethnic loyalty will remain as important as it ever was when:

i) it is to exist as a personal identity only, rather than as a communal entity


ii) at a social level ethnicity won't matter; there will be mutual assimilation between natives and immigrants; racial and ethnic identities will be "deconstructed"; we will "transcend ancestry" with permeable, syncretic, hyphenated identities; and live in a melting pot society characterised by "ethno-racial change".

The following quotes are examples of how Professor Putnam puts things together:

It is my hypothesis that a society will more easily reap the benefits of immigration, and overcome the challenges, if immigration policy focuses on the reconstruction of ethnic identities, reducing their social salience without eliminating their personal importance. In particular, it seems important to encourage permeable, syncretic, 'hyphenated' identities; identities that enable previously separate ethnic groups to see themselves, in part, as members of a shared group with a shared identity. (p.161)

... the challenge is best met not by making 'them' like 'us', but rather by creating a new, more capacious sense of 'we', a reconstruction of diversity that does not bleach out ethnic specificities, but creates overarching identities that ensure that those specificities do not trigger the allergic, 'hunker down' reaction. (pp. 163-164)

This strikes me as an attempt to fit things together ideologically, rather than a genuine effort to think about things realistically.

How can our ethnicity be sustained at a purely personal level? An ethnic culture is formed when a group of people sharing certain characteristics live together and interact together over time. It's not something which can survive in isolation from such a public, communal setting.

And how can our ethnic loyalties remain strong when, at the public level, the emphasis is on their deconstruction: on ethnic change, mutual assimilation and intermixing.

A new us?

Let's say that the professor gets his wish and America continues to aim for mass immigration and an ever greater ethnic diversity. Let's say too that there is no exclusive sense of national identity.

Can there be, in these circumstance, a deeply felt sense of common allegiance and shared identity? Will there be no loss of loyalty to the national entity?

Professor Putnam himself betrays the likely outcome. He approvingly quotes Charles Hirschman's observations on what an American identity means:

American identity is rooted not in nationhood but rather in the welcoming of strangers. (p.162)

There is already for the professor nothing objectionable in basing an overarching identity on openness toward the 'other' rather than on nationhood.

There is further evidence in Professor Putnam's research report that identities based on diversity aren't likely to sustain group allegiances; this evidence appears when he considers the issue of religious affiliation.

Church identity

Professor Putnam believes he has found an example of how his theory works in practice. He recalls that in the 1950s church affiliation was so important socially that it was typical to know which church your classmates belonged to (e.g. Methodist, Catholic).

However, by the 1980s church affiliation was no longer important to social interaction. People intermarried across church lines and no longer held their church membership as 'an important badge of social identity'. Professor Putnam writes:

In that sense, Americans have more or less deconstructed religion as a salient line of social division over the last half century, even though religion itself remains personally important. In fact, our own survey evidence suggests that for most Americans their religious identity is actually more important to them that their ethnic identity, but the salience of religious differences as lines of social identity has sharply diminished. As our religious identities have become more permeable, we have gained much religiously bridging social capital, while not forsaking our own religious loyalties. To be sure, deconstructing divisive racial and ethnic identities will not be so quick and simple, but an extraordinary achievement of human civilization is our ability to redraw social lines in ways that transcend ancestry. (pp.160-161)

It all seems unlikely, doesn't it? Professor Putnam wants us to believe that our religious identities have become more "permeable" but that we nonetheless haven't lost our religious loyalties.

In fact, the decline of church affiliation has led to a major bleeding of membership in the mainstream churches and to a loss of religious belief and observance generally in society.

For example, between 1967 and 2002, the Episcopal Church in America (the equivalent of the Australian Anglicans) lost 829,000 members. Only 15% of young American Catholics now go to mass weekly. In Australia, recently released census information reveals that "Australians are abandoning traditional Christian denominations", with the Anglicans having lost 175,000 members. The number of Australians professing no religious belief has risen by about 800,000 in five years.

Isn't this a logical development? If I no longer identify closely with a church community and culture, but instead carry my religious belief at an individual level only, isn't it more likely that my level of observance will decline and that some individuals will be cut adrift from religious belief entirely?

The problem with Professor Putnam's article is a fundamental one. He wants identity to matter at a personal level, but not at a social level where it is to be patiently deconstructed as a grand moral aim.

In other words, the professor insists both that identity has to matter (so that individuals retain their diverse ethnicity), and that it has to be made not to matter (so that there is no loss to social capital via the "hunkering down" effect).

Furthermore, it's at the very social level at which identity is to be rendered insignificant that there is supposed to be generated a strong allegiance to a 'we'. The act of making people's identities permeable, hybridised and non-social is supposed to leave people with ... a higher, unifying identity!

It's more likely that the professor's proposals would lead to a loss of traditional identity and to a more atomised society with much weaker forms of social solidarity and commitment. The losses to "social capital" would continue.


  1. There's something that should be said from the outset about these people:

    Putnam et alii, aren't really intellectuals at all, and their place in academia is an aberration in Western intellectual evolution.

    This is because they start from a desired result, and try to find evidence to support it. In lieu of such evidence, they sink their failure in finding a valid justification for their propositions in pseudo-intellectualised gumpf - hence these reports, and many more which will surely follow.

    They live in a fantasy world, and complain about the oppressive nature of reality which prevents them from making their dreams come true; like stupid little children. Sadly, they have spent several decades teaching young people in schools and universities, no wonder the West is rife with so many social problems.

    These people are nothing short of scientific fraudsters, and should be treated as such.

  2. Another excellent dissection of the Enlightenment fantasy.

  3. Putnam discovers that on the way to the universal homogenous civilization based on rational morality, in which all ethnic and historical identities will evanesce, except for perhaps some continuation of ethnic cuisine at home, there is a loss of social capital. How does he try to solve this in the face of the permanent human tendency to form particular identities, communities which are always defined by practices of inclusion and exclusion? He posits that the new homogenous culture will engage loyalties the same way specific identities have in the past. This is the preposterous Rawlsian philosophical anthropology. Human beings cannot be reduced to mere rights bearing ciphers, free of all defining commitments. These commitments, far from being mere optional lifestyle choices or social constructions, are fates. We are born into families, ethnic and language groups, nations and so forth and can never completely escape them, or come to feel that they are nothing, or that we have just as much in common with individuals of very different character and background. The human ciphers envisioned by Putnam, if they could exist, would have no reason whatsoever to feel they had anything in common with one another.

  4. Thucydides, thanks for the eloquent comment. I don't think I can improve on it - I can only hope that, over time, such thoughts become more common amongst the Western political class.

    Kilroy, I agree with you, despite the fact that Professor Putnam has actually been more accepting of reality than many other academics (by publishing research showing the negative effects of diversity). In the end, he still sacrifices a realistic view in an effort to remain ideologically correct.

    Jaz, thanks!

  5. Thanks for the compliment, Mark. I believe the reason Putnam has put forth this wishful thinking that somehow community will be found among a mass of undifferentiated persons stripped of all their constitutive attachments and identifications is that he fears becoming a pariah in his academic culture of the left if he shows the harm of multiculturalism without offering hope that these consequences can be overcome. After all, look what happened to Larry Summers, the president of his university, Harvard, who was ousted merely for suggesting that the possibility that there are natural differences between the sexes in regard to mathematical ability should be studied.

    Re Kilroy's comment, I am reminded that Ludwig Wittgenstein once labeled the process of reasoning directed at reaching previously determined results as "bourgeois philosophy."

  6. This is an excellent dissection of Putnam's ludicrous prescription for "fixing" the ill effects caused by "diversity." His agenda would take a totalitarian superstructure to carry out -- if anyone could actually craft any kind of policy from his incoherent and self-contradictory ideas.

    The United States publishes statistics on things like poverty, education levels, etc., by state. It will probably not surprise anyone on this blog that the New England states -- which still haven't been "enriched" by diversity -- have the lowest levels of poverty, the highest levels of education, the greatest levels of income equality, and the lowest levels of crime.

    What exactly is there about the shameful state of affairs in New Hampshire, for example (poverty rate: lowest in the Union, crime rate ditto, "diversity" index: 97 percent white Christian)that needs to be "fixed" by an influx of "diversity?" I wish Putnam would answer that question but he doesn't reply to his emails.

    It should be noted that Putnam himself lives in Cambridge MA which is 70 percent white and one of the most affluent suburbs in the US. We probably don't need to ask if he sent his children to "diverse" state-supported schools instead of "non-diverse" private ones.

  7. His agenda would take a totalitarian superstructure to carry out

    Susan, I didn't focus on this aspect of Putnam's "solution", but you're right. It would require a remarkable level of intrusiveness to carry out.

    Thanks for the well-argued comment.

  8. Thank you for your comments. Are you by chance the same Mark Richardson who testified in the Catch the Fire case? I followed that case avidly for a couple of years.

  9. American identity is rooted not in nationhood but rather in the welcoming of strangers.

    This has never been true and each established group has hated pretty much every group of mass newcomers, starting with the Indians. America spends hundreds of billions per year trying to make diversity work, trillions per decade. It requires a huge amount of money and massive force or threat of force to keep it clanking along. When the money and the will to use the whip are no longer there the good professor's hypothesis will be put to the test.

    Redefining American identity as "welcoming of strangers" is something that has happened in the last 30 years or so, it's liberal fantasy. It is, in fact, the new communal identity the professor is looking for. How's it working out so far, perfessor? Religious belief hasn't died down, it has simply been transfered to the new state religion - Political Correctness - particularly among the elites. Throughout the Western world the elite are making policy decisions based on the nutty religious beliefs of their Jim Jones cult, nutty beliefs like you can have a nation based on the welcoming of strangers, for example.