Is diversity good or bad for community cohesion?

Notting Hill Carnival entertainers Entertainers at this year's Notting Hill Carnival

When I met the legendary American social scientist Robert Putnam a decade ago he took me aside and revealed, almost conspiratorially, that birds of a feather flock together.

The academic, who famously chronicled the decline of US social capital in his book Bowling Alone, was trying to explain research that in the short term at least, showed a negative correlation between diversity and community cohesion.

"In ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to 'hunker down'," Putnam's study concluded. "Trust (even of one's own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer."

But now comes new academic research looking at London which turns this idea on its head.

Social cohesion in the capital, it concludes, is "significantly higher in more ethnically diverse neighbourhoods", once deprivation has been taken into account.

This is a startling assertion. The accepted wisdom among academics and policy makers, as the paper reminds readers, is that "ethnically diverse communities are characterized by distrust, low levels of social cohesion and disputes regarding the equitable provision of public goods".

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London, despite its ethnic diversity, is among the least segregated parts of England”

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But diversity may not be the cause of social tension. "In fact, in the highly diverse neighbourhoods that characterise modern London, the opposite appears to be the case," the research finds.

Diversity emerges as a positive predictor of social cohesion, the paper asserts, a finding that runs counter to the large majority of published studies.

We need to unravel what is going on. As immigrants try to gain a toehold in their new land, they tend to live in poorer communities. We know that poverty is negatively associated with social cohesion.

It is also well understood that communities that are highly segregated tend to have much lower levels of trust. Think Beirut for example.

In order to understand the part diversity plays in the community life of a neighbourhood, you need to extract deprivation and segregation from the equation. And the research team did just that in what they suggest may be the most ethnically diverse conurbation on earth.

Mapping diversity and segregation
Diversity map of London Diversity map of London - diversity represented by darker areas
Segregation map of London Segregation map of London - segregated (dark) areas are few and far between...
Segregation map of England ... and a segregation map of England

"If living in an ethnically diverse neighbourhood causes people to distrust and avoid one another, then we should be certain to find evidence of the phenomenon in London," the researchers muse.

Using very detailed population data, what emerges is that London, despite its ethnic diversity, is among the least segregated parts of England. The one red slash across the yellow wash of the map looks to be where some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the East end rub up against the wealth of docklands and the city.

What the new research calculates is that ethnic diversity helps improve community life, "once adequate account is taken of the spatial distribution of immigrant groups within neighbourhoods and the degree of social and economic deprivation experienced by residents".

It turns out that the positive effect of diversity is strongest among younger people and weakest among the oldest people - actually becoming negative for people over 85. Segregation works the other way around - the impact of a more segregated community is most negative for young people while, for those over 65, segregation is a positive.

In many ways, the capital is a poor model for what happens in the rest of the UK. Professor Patrick Sturgis is director of the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods and the study's lead author. He accepts that London's unique immigrant and ethnic make-up "renders it sui generis" (one of a kind).

But what this paper suggests is that where you have non-segregated and relatively prosperous communities, diversity is likely to improve community life, not damage it.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I give in, the top looks like couple of chicks, one behind the other,I suppose that they could be standing on some more chicks.
    Do i need to go to the doctors?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Cultures should evolve over time not be replaced within a generation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    @14 mike
    Agreed. The UK is a mixture of many races who settled here over the centuries. Even the (anglo saxon) Angles and Saxons came here from Europe. Afro Caribbean,Jewish etc have all added to the melting pot, and indeed the language. But the secret, as in cooking, is to add the ingredients a bit at a time. If you don't, the whole thing boils over.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Diversity is ok if all parties are equally committed. That I s not the case in the UK. On balance I am not enthusiastic

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.


  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Th UK's culture has evolved over time, centuries, taking on board many traditions and ideas from other countries and assimilating them into our own...

    But this has happened over a long period of time, giving people time to get use to & accept them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Think not just Beirut, but the city that could almost have been twinned with it, my home town of Belfast. There is still a mutually agreed apartheid system here, with the sides segregated from birth. Different schools teaching different histories, different games, different housing estates. Only a diverse upbringing from birth will ever eradicate the mistrust.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I would challenge outright the notion that diversity (as in ethnic/cultural/religious/language diversity) is a 'good thing' as our politicians keep preaching. I maintain that it is divisive, dangerous & potentially unstabilising for a healthy cohesive society and destroys the unity needed for national pride and ambition. One reason why the UK seems to have achieved so little in the past 30 years?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    The thing about diversity and immigration is that, whilst it is usually healthy for a society in general, it takes 2-3 generations for the social groups to start to properly accept one another at a local level.

    London has been diverse for longer than some other parts of the UK, and so those social walls are not as difficult to break through as elsewhere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    most non-uk born who arrive in this country (even the illegals) are the enterprising/educated elites from their countries - no wonder they make more comfortable neighbours than the deprived/illiterate uk underclass

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I think it depends on the community.

    I've lived in an area with large sikh population who are literally the backbone of the community always first to put out the bunting for any special occaison, always looking for those less forunate than themselves.

    On the other hand I've lived in a 99% white city (Plymouth in the 90s) which had little or no sense of community at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Looking further afield, the two people I have met in my life who were most opposed to integrating into the local community were an Englishman in Welsh Wales and an anglophone Montrealer. The language they used about their neighbours, and about the Welsh Assembly and gouvernement du Québec respectively could have been actionable, but because I am anglophone they assumed I shared their views.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The author chooses to misinterpret the data to produce a PC result. What it really shows is that diverse populations can get on as long as one ethnic group doesn't dominate. I would give Burnt Oak as an example of an even spread of ethnic groups and relative peace, vs. Southall or Barking where some minorities dominate and threaten the majority leading to tension.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Wonderful, basically this report just reinforces the negatives which are more common in UK due to increasingly deprived areas

    Of course, if everyone is wealthy/prosperous then you have a nice rainbow reality

    But the reality is, is that so many areas are not prosperous & adding non prosperous ethnic immigrants into the mix does often result in increased negativity.

    But we knew that anyway

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Lets be honest, the real problem is the increased competition for jobs, housing, school places etc etc.

    The rest comes after that, ie the change in the outlook of the country, changes in smaller more insular communities that haven't changed in eons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Every single anti social behavior issue involving problem tenants in my block of flats is down to Stoke On Trent born locals who think they can do as they like. My Polish, Russian and African Neighbors have been model neighbors in comparison. They say hello, they don't smash things on the floor at all hours, have all night parties or vandalize things. My English neighbors do all of the above!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    It takes 2 to tango. Diversity can be great but not when interlopers refuse to live by the same rules as the vast majority, the outcome is to say the least difficult. Just look at the old mill towns of Yorkshire & Lancashire & the failure of oil and water to mix. In such situations are the source of resentment in natives finding themselves faced with alien culture forced on them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Depends how much you believe having different people in your area affects you.

    Having a few Polish deli's open up in my home town doesn't change my life in the slightest.

    Hearing a foreign language in the town centre doesn't affect my day.

    Many aren't on regular speaking terms with their English neighbours yet will moan about foreigners.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    People are a diverse bunch.

    Humans aren't all the same.

    We are all different, but we share some characteristics too.

    Can't we all just get along ?


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