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Tak Wing Chan

May 15th, 2024

The ‘Progessive Dilemma’ is illusory – social diversity does not undermine social cohesion in Britain

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Tak Wing Chan

May 15th, 2024

The ‘Progessive Dilemma’ is illusory – social diversity does not undermine social cohesion in Britain

0 comments | 5 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Is there is a trade-off between social diversity and social cohesion – the so-called “progressive dilemma”? In Britain, no such dilemma exists, writes Tak Wing Chan. The negative associations between social diversity and social cohesion disappear once neighbourhood deprivation is taken into account. In other words, it is material deprivation, not diversity, that undermines social cohesion.


Many political commentators think that there is a trade-off between social diversity and social cohesion. If you have more of one, you will have less of the other. And you can’t have a cohesive society if it becomes too diverse.

A key advocate of that view is David Goodhart. In a 2004 essay entitled Too Diverse?, Goodhart argues that “sharing and solidarity can conflict with diversity. This is an especially acute dilemma for progressives who want plenty of both solidarity … and diversity.” Twenty years on, Goodhart writes that “I would now remove the question mark from Too Diverse? I think we are becoming too diverse to achieve some things most of us want.” Goodhart’s view has come to be called the “progressive dilemma”.

“Sharing and solidarity can conflict with diversity”, David Goodhart argues

In a new paper published in the British Journal of Sociology, Juta Kawalerowicz (Stockholm University) and I use data from Understanding Society, a large-scale and nationally representative survey, to show that there really isn’t a progressive dilemma in Britain. There is indeed a negative association between social diversity – how mixed neighbourhoods are in terms of race, ethnicity and religion – and many measures of social cohesion. But crucially, these associations disappear when neighbourhood deprivation is taken into account. It is material deprivation, not diversity, that undermines social cohesion.

Research and viewpoints used in support of the progressive dilemma

The progressive dilemma has some academic support. Alberto Alesina and his colleagues, for example, have shown that in the US, investment in public goods, participation in social activities, and inter-personal trust are all lower in racially and ethnically diverse communities.  Robert Putnam, drawing on survey data from the US, argues that “in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down’. Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.”

As immigration is likely to contribute to greater ethnic and racial diversity, these results have seeped into the often-heated debate about migration and multiculturalism in Western societies. Indeed, the idea of a trade-off between social diversity and social cohesion has become part of the received wisdom in political punditry.

For example, Eatwell and Goodwin, citing Putnam, argue that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods “citizens will, at least in the short term, become less trusting of others, less willing to co-operate, build fewer bridges with other people and withdraw from the wider world … immigration can produce a decline in mutual regard and trust.” Eric Kaufmann, citing Alesina, writes that “more diversity equals less solidarity. As the West becomes more diverse, support for the welfare state and trust in government will erode.” Paul Collier refers to a “trade-off between the benefits of greater variety and the costs of reduced mutual regard.” He suggests that “moderate migration is liable to confer overall social benefits, whereas sustained rapid migration would risk substantial costs.”

In an opinion piece for The Times, Melanie Phillips writes about the persistently high level of immigration to the UK. Although there are fewer EU migrants in the UK post-Brexit, many more are coming from the rest of the world. For Phillips, this is regrettable because “many … feel they no longer recognise the area or even the street in which they live … if shared historical or cultural values and practices start to disappear, the links that bind everyone begin to snap, people stop looking out for each other and community cohesion becomes impossible.”

When Robert Jenrick was the UK’s immigration minister, he invoked many of these themes in a speech about asylum seekers arriving in small boats. Citing Kaufmann and Collier, Jenrick argued that “[t]here is an extensive body of research that demonstrates the damaging effects on social trust and cohesion from uncontrolled migration … those crossing [the English Channel in small boats] tend to have completely different lifestyles and values to those in the UK – and tend to settle in already hyper-diverse areas, undermining the cultural cohesiveness that binds diverse groups together and makes our multi-ethnic democracy successful.”

In reality, however, the empirical evidence for the progressive dilemma is actually very mixed.

For example, James Laurence and Anthony Heath, drawing on their analysis of the 2005 Home Office Citizenship Survey, conclude that it is “deprivation that undermines cohesion, not diversity”. In a review paper of 90 studies that examine the association between ethnic diversity and social cohesion, van der Meer and Tolsma report that 26 of these studies support it, 25 contradict it, and 39 report mixed results.

Putting the progressive dilemma to the test

The conflicting results in this literature are at least in part due to several methodological choices: how neighbourhoods are defined, how diversity and cohesion are measured, and so on. As there is no consensus among researchers on these issues, our strategy is to use multiple measures of both social cohesion and social diversity, as well as two definitions of neighbourhoods. These variables all have their own strengths and weaknesses. But together they provide a more comprehensive assessment of the supposed trade-off between social diversity and social cohesion.

Drawing on data from Understanding Society, we show that people living in more diverse areas, however measured, do indeed tend to report lower levels of generalised trust, and to hold more negative views about their neighbours and neighbourhood. In addition, non-whites in the more diverse neighbourhoods are less likely to report inter-ethnic friendship. But once we control for the level of material deprivation, these negative associations disappear. As regards volunteering and charitable giving, these are not found to be associated with diversity to begin with. Controlling for local deprivation, we actually see higher levels of volunteering and charitable giving among people living in more diverse neighbourhoods.

It is material deprivation, not diversity, that threatens to stretch and tear the social fabric.

Overall, there is no evidence to support the “progressive dilemma” in Britain once measures of deprivation are taken into account. If diverse neighbourhoods appear to be less cohesive, it is because they tend to be more deprived. It is material deprivation, not diversity, that threatens to stretch and tear the social fabric.

 


 

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s). They do not represent the position of LSE Inequalities, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Image credits: Cameron Casey via Pexels and blvdone via Shutterstock.

About the author

Tak Wing Chan

Tak Wing Chan is a Professor of Quantitative Social Science at UCL Social Research Institute. Apart from continuing research on diversity and cohesion with Juta Kawalerowicz, he is writing a short book on social class and is organising a ESRC-funded panel survey on the Hong Kong BN(O) migrants in the UK.

Posted In: Culture | Politics of Inequality | Race | UK inequalities

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