Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam provoked a cottage industry of commentary and debate on the question of “social capital” when he published his book, Bowling Alone, a few years ago. Now he’s at it again with an intriguing study concerning the effects of diversity on civic life.
The controversial finding is that the more diverse a community is, the lower its index of social connectedness (measured by volunteer rates, for example). The implications of the finding are significant for all sorts of issues, from immigration to education.
It’s a provocative finding for promoters of Christian social thought, as well. The Christian social vision is dependent on the existence of strong communities made up of close personal bonds. On the one hand, we want to believe that the Christian imperative to love one’s neighbor as oneself trumps any tendency to withdraw from “the other”—anyone who is different in some way. On the other hand, grace is not magic; it builds on nature. Is the natural tendency to associate with those like ourselves a harmful trait that must be eradicated, or is it simply an inherent piece of human nature that must be taken into account?