Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Diversity Paradox: The Turtle Effect & Creativity at Work

"People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to 'hunker down' -- that is, to pull in like a turtle," writes Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. Putnam, already famous for his 2000 book, Bowling Alone, on declining civic engagement, has now measured the impact of ethnic diversity on civic health.

Putnam interviewed nearly 30,000 people across the United States. In his analysis he controlled for every conceivable factor independent of ethnic diversity that could depress 'social capital,' like community size, income range, mobility, and crime rate. But the correlation remained strong: higher diversity means lower social capital.

Jonas, in his Globe article, describes Putnam's findings:

--the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

These measures of civic health are known as "social capital," what the World Bank calls "the glue that holds societies together and without which there can be no economic growth or human wellbeing."

This decline in social capital in diverse communities was not the result Putnam expected, nor one that he, or we, can ignore. Increasing diversity is certainly inevitable. Our communities can't afford to have civic engagement continue to decline.

Jonas also reports that a parallel line of research suggests that ethnic diversity can be a big asset in driving productivity and innovation. Scott Page at the University of Michigan found that the different perspectives generated in ethnically diverse work teams bring a creative tension. That tension can vault the team forward to cutting edge solutions.

We need to find ways to tap that productivity and innovation to enrich our 'social capital.'

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