The Downside of Diversity

By: hawkgrrrl
May 22, 2012

We believe in diversity.  Accepting others is virtuous.  God is no respecter of persons.  After all, diversity creates more equality for everyone, and communities with a varied background certainly have advantages over homogenous provincial groups with unquestioned assumptions.

Maybe not.

From a 2007 article about the pitfalls of increased diversity through social progressivism:

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam . . . 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.

Why is this?

Obviously diversity is good for us individually:  being exposed to other ways of thinking can make us more creative and innovative, it can help us prevent errors that groups of like-minded individuals are prone to encounter, and it can also make us more empathetic.  Those are benefits to individuals who seek out diverse perspectives.  But what does it do to communities?

Studies show that the more diverse a community is (meaning the more variation in how people look, talk, think, and act – lifestyle, customs, clothing, and traditions), the less social capital there is.  Social capital refers to the emotional investment people have in their community.  From Wikipedia:

Social capital is the expected collective or economic benefits derived from the preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups. . . unlike traditional forms of capital, social capital is not depleted by use, but in fact depleted by non-use (“use it or lose it”). . . social capital “refers to the collective value of all ‘social networks‘ and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other.”[1] According to Putnam and his followers, social capital is a key component to building and maintaining democracy. Putnam says that social capital is declining in the United States. This is seen in lower levels of trust in government and lower levels of civic participation. Putnam also says that television and urban sprawl have had a significant role in making America far less ‘connected’. Putnam believes that social capital can be measured by the amount of trust and “reciprocity” in a community or between individuals

Social capital is the glue that holds a community together, using means like gossip, praise, reciprocity, and vigilance to protect and promote the health of the community; it can also be used by individuals in the form of clout, influence, access to information and power, and (again) reciprocity – mutually beneficial arrangements with other individuals.  When a community is highly diverse, trust levels reduce and people engage in a behavior called “turtling.”  They withdraw into their own familiar circle like a turtle withdraws into its shell.

Immigration and Assimilation

Does this mean that your grandparents are right to fear the infiltration of immigrants (if indeed they do)?  Not necessarily.  Communities can integrate people from diverse backgrounds so long as those people can assimilate into the culture rather than clustering into too-small subcultures of like individuals.  This is one reason why a common language is valuable in creating social capital.  We When we refer to the United States as the Great American Melting Pot (at least that’s what School House Rock called it), we mean that people come in from a variety of backgrounds and cultures, but they all become flag-waving Walmart-shopping citizens pursuing the American dream, one giant case of toilet paper at a time.

Successful communities are the ones that turn resources into people.  This is primarily done one of two ways:

  • Integrating outsiders.  Traditionally, this is done through immigration, conquest, or colonization.  For example, the British Empire, while a fairly small nation of only 60 million citizens, has tremendous social capital all over the world through previous colonization.  Even when those countries felt more conquered than colonized, a common language, cultural familiarity, and some shared values through prior prolonged contact make it easier for Brits (and all English speakers) to navigate places like Australia, the United States, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, and India, just to name a few.
  • Having babies.  Where geography is not limited (e.g. living on the isle of Great Britain), increasing citizenship through the birth of future productive, contributing members is a hallmark of success.  Countries that do not manage their resources effectively through social capital that benefits both individuals and communities often run into resource shortages that cause them to restrict the number of children (either through mandates or a natural byproduct of scarcity).

Big Tent Mormonism

When we advocate for big tent Mormonism, for the most universal approach possible to the church, there is a lot of heart behind that idea.  We don’t want anyone to feel harmed or excluded.  It’s so important that people be treated well within the church, that all feel welcome and are invited to come unto Christ.  But once someone chooses to join the church, there is something to be said for creating communities with “stickiness” – a reason to keep coming back, a sense of belonging and community.  People won’t continue to come unto Christ through the church if they feel that there is no community of believers to support them; they could just sleep in on Sundays and enjoy a nature walk instead.  There is a fine line between diversity and lack of community.  And I’ve come to the conclusion that the community is the crown jewels, despite the appealing notion that there should be a home study alternative.  Having said that, some of those crown jewels are diamonds in the rough at best.

Everything we do as Mormons revolves around creating social ties.  Consider the following efforts to bond members (through their homogeneity) to the organization:

  • Missionary work bonds us to our fellow missionaries (or war buddies), and through similarity of experience, to all returned missionaries.
  • Service within our wards, usually through the Priesthood and Relief Society organizations as well as youth programs, results in bonding among ward members.  When members band together to help someone move in or to bring meals to a family in need, the result is more bonding within the ward.  Likewise, cleaning the church with other families in the ward adds to the bonds people feel to the community.
  • Ward boundaries help create bonding through similar socio-economic traits within the geographic borders.
  • Having a lay clergy causes members to rely on each other even more.  Giving talks in church, serving at the sacrament table, and filling callings to teach each other – all of these build bonding social capital.

“I’m a Mormon” and the Other Kind of Social Capital

The “I’m a Mormon” campaign is an interesting exercise in bridging social capital:

Bonding refers to the value assigned to social networks between homogeneous groups of people and Bridging refers to that of social networks between socially heterogeneous groups.

The campaign does two things to bridge:  1) it creates more familiarity and acceptance of a wider range of Mormons – ones who look different, act differently, or have different backgrounds, and 2) it makes Mormonism socially attractive to a wider range of people who might want to join the community.  Some within the church have criticized the campaign as a PR stunt designed to show the church as being more diverse than it really is.  Some would like their own wards to be as diverse as the campaign is (which would be difficult in Mormon-dense areas since boundaries are geographical).

These are complaints about bonding social capital.  When there is too much emphasis on bonding, those on the fringes lose out or feel less accepted.  A campaign like this can help those on the fringe or potential converts feel more welcome because the campaign is an exercise in bridging social capital.  People who are deeply invested in the status quo community can feel threatened by bridging social capital.  When there is too much emphasis on bridging, insiders can feel that they have lost some social capital in the effort to attract people who are different.  This fear is based on an assumption of scarcity (that social capital is a pool that can be depleted), when in reality, social capital grows on use (use it or lose it).  Both bridging and bonding will create more abundant social capital unless free riders (those who don’t contribute or reciprocate or follow the community rules) are granted unwarranted access to social capital.  Those who fear loss of status may be free riders in a way too.  They may “take their cookies and go home” or recoil (turtle) in response to outsiders.

The parable of the prodigal son is an illustration of this.  The prodigal returns as a free rider.  He hasn’t contributed to the family.  He took his inheritance and spent it.  For him to receive a welcome is viewed as a threat by the faithful son who would like him to be spurned and cast out so that he doesn’t lose his standing and his social capital.  But the father in the story understands that social capital won’t be depleted by using it.  By being welcoming, the prodigal may contribute again.  The community will have more resources, possibly.  And even if the prodigal doesn’t directly benefit the community, the community will come together in a celebration and other bonds will be reinforced.

Consider your own experiences in Mormonism:

  • Is your ward more diverse or less diverse than the surrounding community?  Do you have more in common with people inside the church or in the surrounding community?  Does that increase or decrease the bond you feel?
  • How much diversity is in your ward?  Does the diversity make it easier or harder for people to connect?
  • How much does your ward welcome outsiders?  Is there a good mix of bonding and bridging or too much emphasis in one direction or the other?
  • How appealing is the church on the whole to those from other faiths, other cultures, or other countries?


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18 Responses to The Downside of Diversity

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 22, 2012 at 6:46 AM

    This is an excellent thought essay. More discussion of this sort of thing would help people better understand how their community works.


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  2. Paul on May 22, 2012 at 7:36 AM

    From the OP: “•Ward boundaries help create bonding through similar socio-economic traits within the geographic borders.”

    This may be true in Mormon-dense areas, but typically the wards I live in have a much broader swath of social and economic diversity than my own neighborhood just because of their geographic size.

    I have seen folks (including myself) respond positively and less positively to diversity in wards I’ve attended.

    I remember in one ward years ago a sister told a recently baptized African American man that “his kind” were not required. He never came back, though he was pleasant enough with the bishopric when we visited him in his home.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen members scoop up fellow members with complete openness and without regard for race or economic circumstance. Whether that willing relationship holds, however, seems as dependent upon both parties’ willingness to work at the relationship; simply being in church together is not enough to sustain it.

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  3. Mike S on May 22, 2012 at 8:39 AM

    I likely live in one of the most homogeneous wards in the Church. Our boundaries are 5 blocks by 8 blocks. All of the houses were built within a 4-5 year time period, all look alike (ugh), and have the same basic floorplan / size / number of garages. Everyone makes around the same amount of money. We don’t have students. We don’t have apartments.

    There are advantages to it. In the various programs, things just get done. No one worries too much about money and we just do activities without much regard for the budget, as most people don’t turn in receipts anyway. We have anywhere from 10-15 missionaries out at any given time. We have huge youth programs – 60-70 YM when I was YM president, and similar numbers of YW. An astounding 75% of boys who start the scouting program get their Eagle. I don’t notice any cliques or competition or anything like that.

    I wrote a post previously about Ten Things I Like About My Ward. Is it because of our “lack of diversity”? Perhaps. I’ve never thought about it that way, but it may well be. Very interesting post.

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  4. Bob on May 22, 2012 at 8:47 AM

    “How appealing is the church on the whole to those from other faiths, other cultures, or other countries”? The Utah Church stated out made up mainly of other faiths, cultures, and of other counries. I believe only about 12,000 came from Nauvoo(?)
    I think the communities were many layered. They were both planned,(Zion like), and ‘organic’( poping up unplanned or by (happenstance). You likly were in two groups: The Church= Zion like, and a ‘Clan’= more organic, less planned.

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  5. Bonnie on May 22, 2012 at 9:29 AM

    There are so many things I LOVE about this post! (leaning forward, eyes wider, talking faster, gesturing animatedly)

    Bridging social capital is the primary work of welfare because it reduces costs of entry (to use entrepreneurship terms.) If we understand that the “economy” of social capital is strengthened by increasing the number of contributors, welfare makes perfect sense, and free riders eventually are absorbed into the community to everyone’s benefit. Yea welfare! No poor among us!

    Bonding social capital is what Americans are notoriously bad at, because when we do it, we usually do it on the negative side (we are TOUGH, we are STRONG, we kick your BUTT, did you hear about the Joneses, I need their boat, etc.) The good side (community groups of all kinds and a culture of inclusion COMBINED with a common identity) is so very powerful. I love what Gordon B. Hinckley said about it over and over during his apostleship and presidency: we embrace our diversity and yet never let it divide us in our unity of the faith. It is our common identity and it surpasses all ethnic, socio-economic, educational, or life experience identities.

    I’ve got a post going on fellowship and the benefits, but maybe I’ll just link to yours for now! Awesome!

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  6. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 22, 2012 at 10:19 AM

    The other key point is that tolerance is no where near as powerful as acceptance in community building. Huge differences in outcomes. We need to truly love and embrace each other.

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  7. Bonnie on May 22, 2012 at 10:21 AM

    I wish I could like that comment 100 times Stephen.

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  8. jks on May 22, 2012 at 10:48 AM

    I don’t like uniformity, but diversity can be really difficult. Many times when people are being PC they don’t really want to accept all of what comes with diversity.
    I like that my kids have exposure to diversity, but sometimes it would be nice if my kids were surrounded by people with my exact same values (spiritual, behaviorial, educational, etc.). I feel uncomfortable with people choosing schools that are all white, all college bound, all affluent for instance, but sending your child to school with kids who are going to be high school dropouts means they will think that is normal and they will be affected by it.
    Being in a ward with diversity means we have a chance to help people who haven’t had the same advantages, but it means that my husband spent the father kid campout with two extra fatherless boys with ADHD and was a little stressed out and my kids didn’t have as great a weekend having fun with their dad as they would have otherwise.
    Sending my children to school with diversity means that although some cultures have some things I admire (certain immigrant populations push their children hard in education) but it also means my daughter wants to learn another language, emmigrate to another country and marry someone from another country (or maybe just race) and I am not completely sure how to help her learn the positives and negatives of a completely foreign culture.
    Right now I am watching shows from another country on Netflix. It is fascinating to see the cultural differences, and some of the traits are very admirable, but some make me extremely uncomfortable (sexism displaying in a different way, for instance).
    I moved around a lot and I think it means I am more open minded, but also realistic. I also realize that I am a product of my own culture and it is natural to prefer my own culture. It is also natural to feel more comfortable socially with people who I have things in common with. It is also difficult to communicate when language is a barrier, as well as when there are large differences in income and education or life goals.
    Anyway, I live in a 65% white area. Diversity is something I think about every day and my children deal with at church and at school. I realize that racism and classism takes effort for society to overcome, and I am willing to put in that effort, but I also feel like it comes at a cost because we have to be willing to embrace things from other cultures and when it comes to my middle class values and my Mormon upbringing it is difficult to embrace diversity. My husband was raised in a racially tense and he is comfortable stereotyping people. I was raised in mostly white areas and I realize that my parents went out of their way to help us love others and not be racist…..but, in reality it meant I wanted other people to act white. The longer I consider diversity I realize that we can’t just want others to join our culture, we have to be ready to embrace theirs and sometimes it is just too hard. I try to picture myself in a room full of black women my age and I do not have the experience to fit in. I have many Asian neighbors and I am disappointed that the mothers have language barriers and cultural differences which means they are not interested in coming to the bus stop and getting to know other moms because that is not their way. I want them to step into my culture and join my culture. Good parents in my culture come and meet other parents of kids their kids go to school with. I sometimes wish for a street full of people my age and my culture with children and I imagine it would be completely different than the street I live on with fewer kids and very little interaction.
    I was the shyest kid in the world, but now I can push myself to talk to anybody. But when I see someone in the neighborhood and I put myself out there, I am so often faced with a different culture and rejection because they aren’t interested in the same experience as I am.
    I do have one notable exception. My new friend from Korea. I met her in the neighborhood in August after her family moved down the street. I helped her in every way I could about getting her kids in school and all the things she wouldn’t know about school and helping her children who didn’t speak English. Having moved a lot when I was younger, I knew the kinds of things that I could tell her that would make a difference for her kids. I think perhaps she is extroverted enough that she makes efforts to befriend me too, and she actually smiles when she sees me, which is nice!

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  9. CEF on May 22, 2012 at 12:02 PM

    I think there are good reasons that the leaders from both England and Germany said, “cultural diversity is not working.”

    It may sound good, but there are reasons countries have borders and have always tried to protect their culture.

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  10. MD on May 22, 2012 at 12:18 PM

    Our stake was reorganized a few years ago and some ward boundaries resulted in two very needy wards. My current ward has severe economic divide and the middle to well-off definitely outnumber the lower class. This division is most notable during playgroup as only the more affluent members attend (even though we rarely go anywhere that isn’t free). I have been thinking about this issue recently and why these sisters don’t feel welcome.

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  11. Bob on May 22, 2012 at 3:01 PM

    You can not protect a Culture. As soon as it has any contact with another Culture, they will both change. They may claim to is still be pure, but they never will be.

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  12. Bradley on May 22, 2012 at 5:07 PM

    I live in Mesa AZ, a colony of half a million hermits. It’s a strange culture where everyone is into their own thing. The wards here project Mormonism onto that so we have a kind of faux social cohesion.

    The early saints were at least united by persecution. Where are the angry mobs when you really need them?

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  13. Bonnie on May 22, 2012 at 6:14 PM

    MD – I lived in a ward that had three distinct socio-economic strata all within blocks (transitional condos, older 40s-era homes, and new upscale homes). The divide in the ward was obvious, probably exacerbated by the fact that the upper group had a “neighborhood” group that met for lunches and a book club that had a relatively exclusive membership. I’m not suggesting that your ward has those problems, but my observation is that people with plenteous financial resources are decidedly uncomfortable around those with fewer resources and will never ask anything of them. The power of the community is the equality of the need and giving, and when the resources are visibly financial, how can the lower strata feel needed? Have you considered putting together groups in which some of these members are in charge or teach or have you asked favors of them? Do you communicate to them a sense of needing them? Sometimes I don’t think we’re aware of how alienating our self-sufficiency is.

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  14. Bonnie on May 22, 2012 at 6:22 PM

    jks – what an honest reply. It’s true, with all our openmindedness we have to accept some really challenging things. It’s worth it, though, losing ourselves to find ourselves.

    Bradley – SO TRUE. I live in a lower-economic-strata ward that’s pretty homogeneous. When I moved here a friend said, “Oh, that’s a ward with many tender needs.” It’s true, and I love it. Such loyalty. Such true affection. Lots of people say, “We think about moving, but then we’d have to leave the ward, so we’ll stay here til we die.” It’s the bonding of the various mobs; stake visitors always comment on our friendliness and unified spirit. I don’t think it’s having the same money that makes that – but having the same money makes it much easier to connect. That’s a sad thing.

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  15. hawkgrrrl on May 22, 2012 at 6:43 PM

    We often invite other families over for Sunday dinner and we are often looking for a family that is a good “fit” for us – kids of similar ages and temperaments, parents have a similar sense of humor, nobody judges our diet coke addiction, etc. I find that the commonalities really do matter. While I can enjoy an afternoon with people who are vastly different, and I can find in them things to admire, it doesn’t mean we will do it again.

    I find that the things that matter most to us aren’t ethnicity or age or number of kids, but approach to life, values and sense of humor. We find many people both in and out of the church that line up well with us on those fronts.

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  16. prometheus on May 22, 2012 at 8:50 PM

    “Sometimes I don’t think we’re aware of how alienating our self-sufficiency is.”

    Dead-on, Bonnie. I am not sure but that self-sufficiency is something of an antithesis to the gospel. I know that is a bold statement, but honestly, if I don’t need anyone else in my life, what incentive is there to open myself up and be vulnerable? What opportunity do others ever have to serve me? How much harder is it to approach a Redeemer whom I desperately need, if I struggle with being in a state of need?

    On top of that, it is clear that the body of Christ is composed of many parts, each deserving of glory. If I declare myself self-reliant, or self-sufficient, I am in essence either declaring myself equal to it, or apart from it.

    It seems to me that interdependence is what is demanded of Zion. We each lift the other, and so all are supported. There is no one who stands alone and apart.

    I stand convicted as a hypocrite in this, and I struggle because I am an introverts introvert. I am quite content to spend days in my own company and I need a lot of alone time to maintain my sanity. I don’t participate in much of anything outside of work (for a variety of reasons), I barely know what my neighbors look like and I sometimes even avoid my own family.

    I am still trying to figure out / reconcile introversion with community – being present enough to have social capital and to be in the fabric, as it were, while not being overwhelmed by people and conversation.

    Great post – really highlights some of the challenges we need to overcome if we intend to really build Zion.

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  17. MD on May 23, 2012 at 7:13 AM

    #13 I do know this is an issue with one particular sister who really wants an active calling. The primary president was moving her around primary but there were many, many concerns/issues that she was finally released.

    We used to have a book club that was attended across all economic divides but the prior bishop told the RS to disband it and after the official disbanding most of the sisters were too uncomfortable to continue the group.

    I honestly would not know how to make these women feel more needed. Some of them are very involved in each other’s lives. There are some issues (mental health, morbid obesity) that might be factoring in as well.

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  18. anonlds on May 24, 2012 at 4:21 AM

    Communities must have boundaries or there is no community. Their are rules and social norms that exclude people. The community is largely defined by who is included and who is excluded. Communities exist to support the values of the community.

    Tolerance should be one of the values in a healthy religious community.

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