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.
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.