by Andy Gregg, Chief Executive, Race on the Agenda.
It has become a commonplace idea that the more ethnic diversity there is in a society the more conflict and ill-feeling there is. Difference and diversity are seen as negative and dangerous rather than as positive and engaging. Actually this assumption is highly questionable, but of course the Sun, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express expend thousands of column inches a day to try to reinforce this assumption. Along with politicians they have ensured that the dominant prejudice of the age is the fear of the “Other”. This prejudice can then be used to swing votes and win referendums. It is one thing to promote racism, xenophobia, prejudice and cynicism as these newspapers do everyday. It is quite another (and a far more dangerous) thing to do to then justify this prejudice as being natural and inevitable - part of “commonsense”
Ironically this is what a number of liberal social scientists have sought to do in the last thirty years. The social scientist Robert Putnam’s views on this have literally become the predominant way of thinking in current sociology and politics. His views on social capital and social cohesion are now accepted almost without question and are now part of the” furniture”. They have become the dominant “paradigm” in social “science”. In fact his views, and much of the social science that has followed from them, is both highly ideological and highly questionable. Professor Paul Collier in his recent book Exodus is just the latest “scientist” to presume that increasing degrees of diversity must automatically threaten “mutual regard” between different ethnic groups. Recent research shows that Putnam’s paradigm (that more diversity in a given society automatically results in less trust and solidarity) is highly dubious and dangerous ideological nonsense. Putnam’s theories start from the notion that ordinary people “confronted by” different ethnic groups (the “Other”) automatically display fear and unease and then in Putnam’s words “hunker down”. Actually Putnam’s argument for this position is quite poor - unsurprisingly as he hardly even attempts to produce any evidence for it. He simply starts by taking it as a given fact without analysing whether it is actually the case.
Recent research in a variety of areas, (but particularly around “contact” theory in social psychology) leads to the opposite conclusion. Miles Hewstone shows that contact with different ethnic groups tends to increase rather than decrease levels of trust. Even more strongly than that, he shows that even without individual positive personal contact with members of other ethnic groups, if you live in an area where others in your ethnic group report positive contacts then this will affect your levels of trust positively. In 2013 some social scientists at the University of Manchester launched a report showing that Britain’s most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods have higher levels of social cohesion and greater levels of tolerance of each other’s differences. This chimes with what we know, which is that it is areas where black and ethnic minority people have not yet settled, rather than those where they already live, that experience higher levels of fear and intolerance. The report found that ethnic minority people are less likely to report racial discrimination in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods compared to less diverse ones. The research shows that rather than diversity, it is localities with high levels of deprivation which are associated with poor physical and mental health, low social cohesion and increased race discrimination. They assert that race discrimination then leads to poorer mental health, high blood pressure, increased smoking, and lower self-esteem. Ethnic diversity is beneficial, because it is associated with less racism and discrimination, more social cohesion, and stronger social support networks. Professor James Nazroo who directed the research , said: “Our research .... is all about setting the record straight on those diverse neighbourhoods which are so widely stigmatised. So often we read in our newspapers and hear from our politicians that immigration and ethnic diversity adversely affect a neighbourhood. But careful research shows this to be wrong. In fact, the level of deprivation, not diversity, is the key factor that determines these quality of life factors for people in neighbourhoods. So our research demonstrates the disadvantages of living in deprived areas, but the positives of living in ethnically diverse areas.” A recent research study in Germany confirms this. The study shows that the German states with the highest percentages of non-Germans also exhibit the greatest levels of social cohesion. "Apparently many Germans still perceive immigration as a threat," says the report’s author. "We should view diversity as an opportunity instead." Dr Laia Becares from the University of Manchester said: “Increased diversity is beneficial for all ethnic groups so we say the policy agenda should develop strategies for inclusiveness rather than marginalising minority identities, religions and cultures.”
Of course it is no surprise that the Daily Mail, the Express and the Sun want us to identify the diversity of an area as the problem rather than its level of deprivation. They have a political and ideological interest in getting us to confuse the cause with the effect and to blame the victim, the outsider, the “other” rather than the system that perpetuates such inequality and deprivation. Politicians ought to know better, and when they start blaming the victims rather than identifying the real causes – structural inequality and racism – we have every right to treat them with the contempt that they deserve.