Monday, June 18, 2007


Immigration a Danger to Society says Putnam

I've always been fascinated by social research which succeeds in opening up the box and seeing how it genuinely works. Robert Putnam is such a researcher- as his ground breaking Bowling Alone study of US society was called and which warned of a reduction of 'social capital'-those voluntary bodies and other connections which bind society together- as people withdrew from the 'public sphere' into more private and isolated places. Now he's done something similar to the impact of immigration upon US society.

Madeleine Bunting in today's Guardian summarizes his main conclusions which suggest, dangerously for race relations, that the influence is a malign one:

a) connections between communities-'bridging capital'- are damaged;
b) connections within social groups-'bonding capital' are also damaged;
c) people tend to withdraw and 'hunker down', severing connections within their communities.
d) a corollary of this is a loss of confidence in local institutions and personnel, fewer friends and more telly watching.

Putnam fears his research might be hi-jacked by the right as ammunition against liberal immigration policies. He accepts that immigration is both inevitable and desirable, not least economically. It seems obvious too that immigration is likely to increase world-wide as globalisation intensifies and climate change forces some to move to different climes. The argument which springs most readily to mind is that the USA itself is an example of how immigration from all over the world can be blended into nationhood(early immigrants pictured). If this happened once, why not again?

The answer seems to be that once immigrants pass though a couple of generations, integration begins to develop and move forward, often founded on the basis of a strongly developed ethnic community with strong ties to 'home' overseas. So the damage is short term until a sense of national solidarity emerges. The worry is that this necessary hiatus represents a time of great danger when the fabric of society is strained, possibly to breaking point; it could be that neither side of the immigration divide are prepared to wait for the healing balm of time.

Good for you! There's quite a bit about social capital in my mix.
"the more ethnically diverse the neighbourhood, the less likely you are to trust your local shopkeeper, regardless of his or her ethnicity"

hmmm, is Putnam trying to suggest that there is a direct causal relationship here?

Also I'm never quite sure what Putnam means by the "confidence" element of social capital (trust in institutions like the media, government, churches, etc). It strikes me that 1950s Britain would have fared very well in one of Putnam's studies.

There's a flip-side to "confidence" that Putnam ignores - the healthily democratic distrust of authority. This might mean that social hierarchies are much less clearly defined, and consequently that people respond to surveys saying that they don't trust institutions, the establishment, etc. But Putnam's social-capital thesis is question-begging: it emphasises the "bad" parts of modern society (lazy bums watching TV) and ignores the "good" (posh bums making TV).
The last parenthesis should of course read "fewer posh bums making TV".
Here's an interesting point that's rarely made. (See comments section on the article you linked to.)

"Having high legal and other barriers to immigration (Britain, US) unbalances immigration in favour of the desperate. Few skilled people are willing to either spend years fighting bureaucracy or to become outlaws in order to move countries."
Fair point, maybe, but the better educated are surely better equipped to pursue such bureaucratic battles than the 'desperate' whom I'd guess would have fewer resources in the main.
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