Examining neighborhood diversity and cohesion in England

A study published in European Sociology Review examines the effect of ethnic diversity on community cohesion:

A 17 year study of over 10,000 people found Britons felt less attached to their neighbourhood when communities become more multi-cultural.

Yet those who moved out to areas where they were surrounded by their own kind were happier, the Manchester University research found.

But the same was not true for Britons moving into already mixed places as relocating there had no harmful effect on how people viewed their surroundings or levels of happiness.

More explanation from the article abstract:

This article provides strong evidence that the effect of community diversity is likely causal, but that prior preferences for/against out-group neighbours may condition diversity’s impact. It also demonstrates that multiple causal processes are in operation at the individual-level, occurring among both stayers and movers, which collectively contribute to the emergence of average cross-sectional differences in attitudes between communities.

It sounds like the attitudes of those moving and staying are important. I would guess that younger residents – more used to diversity – are more open to diverse neighborhoods compared to their elders. Could the effect of moving – which was more positive either way – be related to residents feeling like they have options as opposed to having to stay where they are at? It is one thing to choose a neighborhood that fits your preferences as opposed to feeling like your community is changing without you being able to do anything about it.

This reminds me of Putnam’s study about neighborhood diversity:

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that 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.

Given the historic salience of race and ethnicity – centuries both within England and the United States – finding consistently positive feelings about increasing neighborhood diversity may just take more time.

View from foreign observers: American voting system heavily reliant on trust

Foreign observers watching the voting process in the United States suggested it is a system that involves a lot of trust:

“It’s an incredible system,” said Nuri K. Elabbar, who traveled to the United States along with election officials from more than 60 countries to observe today’s presidential elections as part of a program run by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Your humble Cable guy visited polling places with some of the international officials this morning. Most of them agreed that in their countries, such an open voting system simply would not work.

“It’s very difficult to transfer this system as it is to any other country. This system is built according to trust and this trust needs a lot of procedures and a lot of education for other countries to adopt it,” Elabbar said.

The most often noted difference between American elections among the visitors was that in most U.S. states, voters need no identification. Voters can also vote by mail, sometimes online, and there’s often no way to know if one person has voted several times under different names, unlike in some Arab countries, where voters ink their fingers when casting their ballots.

The international visitors also noted that there’s no police at U.S. polling stations. In foreign countries, police at polling places are viewed as signs of security; in the United States they are sometimes seen as intimidating.

It can be helpful to get outside perspectives on what takes place in the United States. Two thoughts based on these observations:

1. How long will this trust last? There was a lot of chatter online yesterday about voting irregularities. Do the two parties and Americans in general trust each other to handle voting? This reminds me of the oft-quoted de Toqueville who wrote in Democracy in America that Americans were more prone to join civic and political groups. The United States was born in the Enlightenment era where old ways of governing, church and tradition (meaning: monarchies), were overthrown and citizens turned to each other and a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” (Lincoln in the Gettsyburg Address). Of course, we can contrast this with Robert Putnam’s work in Bowling Alone which suggested Americans have retreated from the civic and social realm in recent decades. Plus, confidence in American institutions has declined in recent decades.

2. Trying to implement an American-style voting and government system in countries that don’t have the same history and culture is a difficult and lengthy task. In other words, this sort of system and trust doesn’t just develop overnight or in a few years. Voting systems are culturally informed. This should help shape our foreign policy.

Gerson suggests we can’t solve social problems through individualism; we need to correct dysfuncational institutions

Michael Gerson argues we can’t address America’s social problems through individualism but rather we need to help strengthen dysfunctional institutions:

While the Romney video was making news, I was reading some recent research by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam. He recounts an interview with a woman given the fictional name of Mary Sue, who lives in a declining industrial town in Ohio. Mary Sue’s parents divorced when she was young. Her mother became a stripper and left for days at a time. Her stepmother beat her and confined her to a single room. Mary Sue told the interviewer that, for a time, her only friend had been a yellow mouse who shared the apartment.

Mary Sue went in and out of juvenile detention. One boyfriend burned her arms with cigarettes. Her current partner has two children by two other women.

Is such a story really explainable as a failure of personal responsibility? That seems both simplistic and callous. Putnam describes these social conditions as “depressingly typical” in America’s working class. He measures a number of growing gaps between poorer and more affluent Americans — gaps of parental time and investment, of religious and community involvement, of academic achievement — that widen a class divide and predict a “social mobility crash” for millions of Americans.

This crisis has a number of causes, including the collapse of working-class families, the flight of blue-collar jobs and the decay of working-class neighborhoods, which used to offer stronger networks of mentors outside the home. Perverse incentives in some government programs may have contributed to these changes, but this does not mean that shifting incentives can easily undo the damage. Removing a knife from a patient does not automatically return him to health. Whatever the economic and cultural causes, the current problem is dysfunctional institutions, which routinely betray children and young adults. Restoring a semblance of equal opportunity — promoting family commitment, educational attainment and economic advancement — will take tremendous effort and creative policy.

Gerson goes on to argue for a kind of conservatism that looks to improve civil society rather than retreat into a libertarian world.

A few thoughts:

1. Gerson brings up an important idea: simply removing unhelpful government programs doesn’t necessarily solve the larger social problem. In fact, there may be two issues at stake: a misguided program as well as the social problem. But simply doing nothing doesn’t necessarily rectify the problem either. For example, making certain kinds of discrimination illegal in the 1960s was a big step in the right direction. But, this didn’t immediately equalize the life chances for different groups, particularly those who had endured decades of legal discrimination. There is still work to be done on this front so simply acting like the new law or program has completely solved the problem is false.

2. Note that Gerson is not necessarily calling here for government to tackle all of these issues. Also, he brings up issues that tend to worry conservatives like the decline of the traditional family.

3. Is this what moderate Republicanism looks like?

Quick Review: American Grace

I recently wrote about a small section of American Grace but I have had a chance to complete the full book. Here are my thoughts about this broad-ranging book about religion in America:

1. On one hand, I like the broad overview. There is a lot of data and analysis here about American religion. If someone had to pick up one book about the topic, this wouldn’t be a bad one to choose. I also liked some of the historical insights, including the idea that what we see now in American religion is a fallout of action in the 1960s and two counteractions that followed.

2. On the other hand, I’m not sure this book provides much new information. There is a lot of research contained in this book but much of it is already out there. The authors try to produce new insights from their own survey but I this is an issue in itself: after reading the full book, it was somewhat unclear why the authors undertook two waves of the Faith Matters Survey. The questions led to some new insights (like feelings toward the construction of a large religious building nearby) but much of it seemed duplicated and the short period between the waves didn’t help.

3. There is a lot of talk about data analysis and interpretation in this book. While it is aimed for a more general audience, the authors are careful in their explanations. For example, they are careful to explain what exactly a correlation means, it indicates a relationship between variables but causation is unclear, over and over again. Elsewhere, the authors explain exactly why they asked the questions they did and discuss the quality of this data. Some of these little descriptions would be useful in basic statistics or research classes. On the whole, they do a nice job in explaining how they interpret the data though I wonder how this might play with a general public that might just want the takeaway points. Perhaps this is why one reviewer thought this text was so readable!

4. Perhaps as a counterpoint to the discussions of data, the book includes a number of vignettes regarding religious congregations. These could be quite lengthy and I’m not sure that they added much to the book. They don’t pack the same punch as the representative characters of a book like Habits of the Heart and sometimes seem like filler.

5. The book ends with the conclusion that Americans can be both religiously diverse and devoted because of the many relationships between people of different faiths and denominations. On the whole, the authors suggest most people are in the middle regarding religion, not too confident in the idea that their religion is the only way but unwilling to say that having no religion is the way to go. I would like to have read more about how this plays out within religious congregations: how do religious leaders then talk doctrine or has everyone simply shifted to a more accomodating approach? Additionally, why doesn’t this lead down the path of secularization? From a societal perspective, religious pluralism may be desirable but is it also desirable for smaller groups?

On the whole, this book is a good place to start if one is looking for an overview of American religion. But, if one is looking for more detailed research and discussion regarding a particular topic, one would be better served going to those conducting research within these specific areas.

Sociologists’ claim: interactions with others is how religion leads to greater life satisfaction

A new study in the American Sociological Review looks at why religious people have higher levels of life satisfaction. The conclusion: it is about the networks that form among people who attend services.

Here is a short description of the study:

Many studies have uncovered a link between religion and life satisfaction, but all of the research faced a “chicken-and-egg problem,” Lim said. Does religion make people happy, or do happy people become religious? And if religion is the cause of life satisfaction, what is responsible — spirituality, social contacts, or some other aspect of religion?

Lim and his colleague, Harvard researcher Robert Putnam, tackled both questions with their study. In 2006, they contacted a nationally representative sample of 3,108 American adults via phone and asked them questions about their religious activities, beliefs and social networks. In 2007, they called the same group back and got 1,915 of them to answer the same batch of questions again.

The surveys showed that across all creeds, religious people were more satisfied than non-religious people…

But the satisfaction couldn’t be attributed to factors like individual prayer, strength of belief, or subjective feelings of God’s love or presence. Instead, satisfaction was tied to the number of close friends people said they had in their religious congregation. People with more than 10 friends in their congregation were almost twice as satisfied with life as people with no friends in their congregation.

A few thoughts based on the description of this study:

1. This would seem to support arguments within faith traditions, such as evangelicalism, about the need for religious community.

2. The study suggests these friendships form around “a sense of belonging to a moral faith community.” This sounds like Durkheim and his ideas about people coming together and forming a collective.

3. This sounds like a worthwhile study because it helps explain the causal mechanism between greater life satisfaction and religion: it is about friendships. But, this doesn’t say much about how these friendships lead to greater life satisfaction. Is it because there is someone to share one’s burdens with? Is it because these friends provide spiritual guidance?

4. Are there substitutes for this kind of boost to life satisfaction? That is, are there functionally equivalent things people could do to get the same benefits that religious people get from friendships with people who share their faith?

5. The findings were primarily about the large American religious groups: “Catholics and mainline and evangelical Protestants.” Would these findings hold for other groups in America? Would they hold in other countries?

Reviewing “American Grace”: it is readable!

The book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us was released this past week. In addition to being co-authored by Robert Putnam (author of well-known Bowling Alone), the study has been hailed by several sources as a (and perhaps the) comprehensive look at religion in American society.

But a feature of a positive review written by a historian in the San Francisco Chronicle struck me as intriguing:

Among the great virtues of this volume is its combination of two features that are all too rarely found in close proximity. One is a commitment to the most rigorous standards of contemporary social science, bolstered by statistical sophistication. Do you like multiple regression analysis? You’ll find lots of it here. The other feature is a commitment to get their message across to educated readers who are put off by the excessive jargon and abstraction of most sociological studies. Only such a combination could make a 673-page tome worth the attention “American Grace” deserves.

Reading between the lines, here is what is being said: sociologists are not often able to combine statistical evidence (regression analysis of survey results is the gold standard for studies like this that claim to be comprehensive looks at American society) and winsome writing. Essentially, the book is “readable.”

A few thoughts come to mind:

1. What exactly about it makes it “readable” or “understandable”?

2. When reading a book using regression analysis, how much should the “typical educated reader” know about this kind of analysis? This might say more about general statistical knowledge, even among the educated, than it does about the book.

3. This is a valid concern for a book that hopes to be read by many people – writers should always consider their audience. However, it still strikes me as a lower-level priority: isn’t the argument of the book much more important than how it was written? The style of writing can detract from the argument but what we should grapple with are Putnam and Campbell’s conclusions.

A disconnect between being open to other religions vs. welcoming them

Robert Putnam and several other researchers discovered that there is a large gap between what Americans say about religious freedom and what they are actually willing to live near:

Three quarters of Americans said they would support a large Buddhist temple in their community, but only 15 percent would explicitly welcome one. Americans, in other words, supported the idea of a temple but weren’t so crazy about the bricks-and-mortar aspect of things.

Recent survey findings in the wake of the Ground Zero controversy reveal similar findings:

Polling last week from Quinnipiac University revealed exactly the same paradox. Seventy percent of Americans support the rights of Muslims to build the mosque, but 63 percent believe it would be inappropriate to actually build it.

It sounds like there is an ideal that Americans hold about freedom of religion: many different groups are welcome. But this ideal is difficult to put into action.