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Bowling Alone at the Supreme Court

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What happens when your findings get away from you?

In 2007, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, most famously the author of the book Bowling Alone, released findings from a huge survey of some 26,200 people in 41 different American communities in a paper called "E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century." For Putnam, a great believer in pluralism but also in the value of civic engagement, the survey's results were awkward to deliver: "The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined," Putnam summarized. "It’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us." The most diverse communities in his survey, he found, were places where people keep to themselves, don't trust institutions, and generally "hunker down."

Conservatives who regard concern for diversity as a liberal shibboleth had a field day with Putnam's research when it came out. And now a couple of them have taken Putnam's findings all the way to the highest court in the land, leading to an interesting faceoff between the Harvard scholar and his admirers, as reported by Tom Bartlett over at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

As the Supreme Court gears up to hear a case on the constitutionality of race-conscious college admissions, the scholars Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom, two of the country's foremost critics of affirmative action, have filed a legal brief using Putnam's findings to make the case that there is not a "compelling state interest" in maintaining diversity in higher education. They hold Putnam's survey up as proof against the hypothesis that "mere contact with individuals of other races enhances the educational experience for all students."

But Putnam himself has joined the fray as well--arguing the other side. In a separate brief, Putnam argues that the Thernstroms have misread -- even "twisted" -- his work. He grants that, in the short term, his findings show that diversity taxes social cohesion and leads to anomie; but historical evidence suggests that over the long term, given the opportunity to interact meaningfully with people of other socio-racial groups, people in diverse communities eventually form "a more encompassing identity" and greater solidarity.

Putnam's bigger point: "Increased diversity in this country is inevitable;" and anything we can proactively do to hasten the arrival of that "more encompassing identity" -- e.g. ensuring diversity on college campuses -- is to the good.

Firing back, the Thernstroms argue that Putnam doth protest too much:

Exactly what is it that we have “twisted”? What Putnam has in mind is that we did not mention that his long paper reporting on the study went on to opine that the future may be quite different, and that in the long run the benefits of race-conscious public policies may outweigh the manifest costs. We did not address this claim because it is nothing more than an expression of Robert Putnam’s personal convictions.

Anyway, the substantive question that folks over at the Chronicle are left with is this: Can Putnam's findings about diverse neighborhoods be applied to diverse college campuses?