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Harvard Sociologist Says His Research Was ‘Twisted’

Robert D. Putnam (© 2012 Bowling Alone)

Robert D. Putnam’s research is being used to make the case that diversity is bad—and he’s not happy about it.

The Harvard sociologist, best known for his book Bowling Alone, filed a supporting brief in the lawsuit over race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas at Austin, which is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In the brief, Putnam objects to how his research is characterized in another brief, by Abigail Thernstrom, an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Stephan Thernstrom, a Harvard historian, among others (the two Thernstroms, in case you were wondering, are married).

In the Thernstrom brief, a 2007 paper by Putnam, titled “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century,” is cited as evidence that diversity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

In that paper, Putnam finds that in more diverse neighborhoods, people trust one another less, are less altruistic, and have fewer friends. They keep to themselves, “hunker down,” in his words. Not only do people in diverse neighborhoods trust those who are ethnically different less; they also tend to be less trusting of people who are similar to them. They don’t spend as much time volunteering in their communities, and instead “huddle unhappily in front of the television.”

They hunker and huddle.

The Thernstrom brief summarizes those findings by Putnam, but doesn’t note Putnam’s multiple cautions against concluding that this means diversity is mostly bad. In the short term, he writes, there are clearly challenges, but over the long haul, he argues that diversity has a range of benefits for a society, and that the fragmentation and distrust can be overcome. It’s not an easy process, but in the end it’s “well worth the effort.” Putnam cites the integration of institutions like the U.S. Army as proof that diversity can work.

Putnam’s brief contends that the 2007 paper has been “twisted” to make a case against race-conscious admissions, asserting that, on the contrary, his “extensive research and experience confirm the substantial benefits of diversity, including racial and ethnic diversity, to our society.”

It’s worth noting that, for the 2007 paper, Putnam was studying neighborhoods, not college campuses. In the paper’s conclusion, he asks whether “diversity in the workplace or in church or in school have the same effects as the neighborhood diversity I have examined in this article.” It’s at least possible that more diversity on college campuses could foster stronger social connections once those students migrate from the dormitories to the suburbs.

(Thanks to my colleague Peter Schmidt for pointing out the brief. Read some of his coverage of the lawsuit here and here.)

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