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« Houston Man Is The Kissing Sailor | Main | Kissing Without Consent or A Picture May Not Tell The Whole Story »

August 06, 2007


Re India: Though the country is diverse, the local variation in culture is small. I don't see how the theory applies there.

Re US: What does diversity mean? Areas where people with dark skins abound? Is Atlanta highly diverse whereas Portland is not? I think poor people in general have less time for civic duties. Did the study correct for economic status?

The Boston Globe article is a journalist's report on Robert Putnam's research. For topics like this, moving closer to the source is not a bad idea. Here is a lecture by Putnam with the following abstract:

Ethnic diversity is increasing in most advanced countries, driven mostly by sharp increases in immigration. In the long run immigration and diversity are likely to have important cultural, economic, fiscal, and developmental benefits. In the short run, however, immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social solidarity and social capital. New evidence from the US suggests 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. In the long run, however, successful immigrant societies have overcome such fragmentation by creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities. Illustrations of becoming comfortable with diversity are drawn from the US military, religious institutions, and earlier waves of American immigration.

Clever title, by the way. :)

Biswajit: Your opening statement on India is utterly incoherent.

Patience, folks. From reading these Globe passages, I get the sense that diversity, once achieved numerically (x percent of X people, y percent of Y, etc.), describes a state only compounded, not otherwise significantly changed, by more diversity. So if the initial flutterings of diversity make us "uncomfortable," greater diversity can only exacerbate our fears. This notion conveniently plays into the fear-mongering and essentialism of those who pursue "investment" in their own communities by everybody else. But we don't achieve diversity and then take a bow, as if we've just sounded the closing measures of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. The process isn't so confidently scored for us.

Namit wrote:

"Your opening statement on India is utterly incoherent." I wrote "Though the country is diverse, the local variation in culture is small". Since the sentence seems clear to me, I must be assuming some understanding of the term "local" that other people don't have. Clearly, my work with nonlocal theories is seeping into the rest of my life :)

As an example, think of a rainbow. There is a diversity of colors in the rainbow. Yet when you try to find the borders between colors there's no sharp transition. That means that, locally, the diversity is small even though the rainbow contains the whole range of colors visible to the human eye.

If you look at India, the variation in culture within a village is small and there is a smooth transition between villages. The same is true between states. However, once you get to a point far enough away from a particular point, the cumulative differences can become large.

I would claim that even large cities in India are not culturally diverse.

For topics like this, moving closer to the source is not a bad idea.

Namit: I am lazy blogger - I go by the sensational and the obvious. I depend on my diligent and more conscientious readers to do the serious digging.:-)

Except, Putnam's clarification doesn't shed too much more light on the phenomenon and nor does it answer the acute question at hand. In the long run seems to be the operative word in his thought. Which as I see it, points to assimilation; that our anxieties are allayed once the "salad bowl" becomes the "melting pot." Until then, we operate on the "us vs them" scale of thinking.

You can slice this baloney any which way you like and make a compelling (if somewhat superficial) case for all scenarios. I live in a hugely diverse city. I also hear the words "third world culture" being thrown around a lot in regards to the way the city functions - often by those who themselves came from third world countries. The suspicion is that every population group is focused on its own narrow ethnic / cultural interests and there is no sense of ownership for the community at large. The suspicion is not entirely unfounded. But what is interesting is that the indifference to community duties or the lack of civic strength cannot be explained away entirely due to this "Tower of Babel" or the aggressive "salad bowl" culture of the city.

Many working class neighborhoods in Houston are ethnically seggregated. We have distinctly African American, Vietnames and Latino neighborhoods, as also some low income white areas. But most affluent neighborhoods are very diverse. Guess where the civic amenities function well? It always comes down to how much is at stake for the citizens and what community they are invested in.

Similarly in my childhood and early teens, New Delhi was a city almost solely populated by small businessmen and government bureaucrats drawn from literally every part of India. So, there was a lot of diversity - more so than any other Indian city, including the fashionable and cosmopolitan Bombay. New Delhi at that time did not have many super-rich or too many large scale businesses. So, despite the ethnic diversity, the city was actually quite homogeneous in terms of the economic and educational status of its inhabitants. But people were quite aloof and suspicious along cultural lines. Although our parents' generation associated with a diverse population at work, after 6pm, everyone retreated to the comfortable cocoon of their respective regional, linguistic affiliations. (I on the other hand, had school and college friends from every single Indian state, as also from Tibet, Bhutan and Sikkim [which at that time was not in India] and we socialized without any self-consciousness.) Yet the civic amenities worked well (this was way before the days of power cuts and water rationing.) My cousins from Calcutta, "the city of poetry, wit and music," never tired of reminding me what a cultural Sahara Delhi was. Yet, it amused me to see them become tongue tied before anyone who looked or sounded different, which most of my friends did. They also were extremely envious of the clean streets and surroundings of Delhi. So what was it that made New Delhi the envy of all other metropolitan areas of India? Its ethnic diversity or class homogeneity?

I think I understand what Biswajit was alluding to. India as a country is diverse for sure. But different regions remain more or less homogenous. Punjabis in Punjab, Bengalis in W. Bengal, Gujaratis and Gujarat etc. form the major ethnic / linguistic blocks in their respective states. As such, local cultures, except in large cities, are parochial and regional in nature. Bollywood movies may be the single best representative of a unified "Indian" culture. But I may be wrong. I will let Biswajit clarify.

Oops, Biswajit and I crossed wires in posting. But I note that I read him correctly.

Thanks for explaining Biswajit. Let me clarify why I still disagree with your point (and now Ruchira's point) about Indian diversity.

India does have less diversity of race and national origin. But there are many other dimensions of diversity that can create groups. Even a given ethnic/linguistic region (Bengal, Gujarat, etc.) is far from homogenous (reverse your rainbow analogy -- it only seems homogenous from afar; like California might seem to Gujaratis). Other sources of local diversity -- in religion, class, caste, political choices, traditions (nomadic/pastoral tribal to New Age), education, economic station, etc. are much more pronounced (for better or worse). These create a riotous cultural diversity (sometimes literally :), no different in effect from anything else you recognize as local cultural diversity.

Though Putnam's research focuses on diversity in its American flavor, there is no reason why his general thesis can't apply to India too. It certainly is an interesting thought experiment. And yes, there are indeed many ways of slicing the baloney, as you note, Ruchira. The interesting thing is that even after centuries the Indian salad bowl hasn't turned into a melting pot (though the diversity is diminishing under economic Globalization), even regionally. And civic sense shows few signs of improving.

So, if India's long record of civic strength (or the lack of it) and diversity based on micro - identities is anything to go by, Putnam's thesis might hold water.

But I think, what is more important than ethnic homogeneity, is a group narrative that is acceptable to all members of society. Unfortunately, this usually surfaces in a negative sense - during war and as xenophobia, uber-nationalism and suspicion of the "other." Just like religion, we haven't found a "kinder, gentler" alternative.

And do different ethnic / national groups have different levels of cohesivenes based on identity? When I lived in Germany, one expression I occasionally heard the Germans use, irritated me. When a project or a process was A-okay and under control, some Germans would say (only half jokingly, I believed), "Alles in den deutschen Händen," meaning "Don't worry, everything is in German hands." I have seen the same kind of confidence and pride, albeit expressed a bit more politely, in Japan. In India, on the other hand, when it came to civic and political matters, we heard, "Made in India," "Indian Standard Time," "Only in India," etc., all meant to convey resignation, derision and a lack of trust in the authorities in charge. Group identity in India, as has been pointed out by all of us who are familiar with it, is much more fractured along linguistic, religious, caste and other barriers and therefore more complicated.

When I lived in Omaha, the Indian American community there was small in the early years. There was an umbrella organization which represented the community in political advocacy as well as in cultural matters. By the time I left in 1998, the community had grown and things were separating along more narrow identities. There was even an ugly incident involving some members protesting the election of a Muslim Indian as the president of the organization. In the Houston area where the Indian American population is sizeable, things are quite different. There is no single active Indian American Association that I am aware of. Indians across ethnic groups gather for some big name concerts, Diwali and India Day festivities and mostly for Bollywood extravaganzas. Smaller ethnic associations, (Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Sikh etc.) are much more active and socialization too happens pretty much along those lines. So, whither ethnic cohesiveness based on nationality - even where all are new comers in a new country?

When I was younger and more adventurous, poor civic services and lack of efficiency in public officials did not bother me too much. Now that I am older, my patience is in short supply and I hope for predictability and dependability in my transactions. Well oiled efficiency is no longer necessarily an indicator of a joyless soul, just as callous incompetence is not very amusing. But then I think back on Germany and remind myself, "How much joie de vivre must one sacrifice to make sure that trains run on time?" Surely there is a golden compromise somewhere.

some conservatives (jonah goldberg) have argued for immigration because it discourages socialism. ;-) i think putnam's ideas are a warning, but we need to be careful about looking at things in a black & white fashion. my own suspicion is that diversity is most problematic when multiple parameters are correlated. e.g., in parts of europe being brown, being muslim, being poor, being an immigrant, are all correlated very tightly. being white, being christian, being a native, are all correlated very tightly. i don't think you have to be an economist to connect the dots as to why diversity would result in tension in those scenarios.

Biswajit, it wasn't nice of me to dismiss your note as "utterly incoherent". Apologies. Blame it on the late hour yesterday. :-)

Ruchira, in your description of life in Houston and Delhi, you often refer to "civic amenities" and in the last post to "civic services" and their efficiency. I believe Putnam's study revolves around civic engagement. Well run civic amenities only require paying enough to anonymous others without involvement or community feelings, and they can be made quite efficient. Also I find it a stretch to agree to your statement that the Delhi of your youth "was actually quite homogeneous in terms of the economic and educational status of its inhabitants". It was perhaps true of middle-class folks in certain neighborhoods, but who did their cleaning and cooking and driving and a million other unglamorous jobs? In the early 70s, about half of Delhi's population lived below the poverty line. And even today, close to 20% of the people of Delhi are just plain illiterate.

Your Omaha example tells me that Indian national identity is dominant in smaller groups of immigrants but when the group grows, it gets more fragmented. In Houston now, I bet there are not just Gujarati Hindu but even a Gujarati bania association. :-)

This comment is in answer to Namit's last question / comment. May not be of much interest to others - has little to do with diversity in America.

First off, everything I say here is from my own experience - people I saw and interacted with. This is not a definitive sociological study borne out by statistics and data. But there was enough of a pattern in my observations spanning many years and many people from "diverse" backgrounds that I feel there was indeed an overall trend.

I wasn't pretending that there were no poor people, the ones you name, in New Delhi when I was young. I just didn't take them into account in this context because civic amenities were for the most part not available to them and I doubt that many of them were "engaged" in civic matters.

When I say service and amenities, I did not mean only those which become accessible by paying the monthly bill to the municipality. I also meant those which are created by community efforts. Hence civic amenities = civic engagement in many cases.

The New Delhi middle class (lower & upper, included) was mainly made up of government bureaucrats - cogs in the wheel of first the British government and later of independent India. Unimaginative though they may have been in the pursuit of vocation, they were not uninformed. Reading the daily paper, listening to the news on radio were regular practices in almost every household I was familiar with. And they held political opinions. Cynicism had not quite set in, in those early post independence years.

Among the trivial benefits I remember of living in that era were the numerous activities for the young that were organized with neighborhood adult supervision. Youth clubs for music, sports, oratory, poetry and childrens' theater groups (like the now defunct CLT - Childrens' Little Theater) were the pride of the city and avenues for the young to engage in activities for free or for very small fees.

The most significant legacy (now fading or faded) of community efforts were the semi-private parochial schools that sprang up in Delhi beginning some years before India's independence and continuing well into the 1960s and perhaps even the seventies.

The Central govt. employees were drawn from all the states of the Union. Most yearned for their children to be exposed to a solid, middle class educational culture that the parents themselves had experienced in various Indian states. Teaching the mother tongue to their progeny was of vital concern to some. Another objective was to accommodate students regardless of financial ability, based solely on educational and parochial goals. Neither the dismal government schools nor the expensive anglicized convents afforded this opportunity. Most such schools began in a couple of rooms or even in tents on land acquired by the community and on a shoe string budget, with teachers willing to teach for a pittance. Several grew into premier institutions, aided entirely by private donations at first and later, government funding as they became accredited and were incorporated into the Delhi School Board. At that time, although public funding supported most of the educational costs, the philosophical control remained in community hands. Ambitious projects like building expansions and addition of extra-curricular activities were supported by a tireless and "engaged" community, whose members worked on school boards, raised funds by charity functions and lobbying state governments. Some of the schools were based on linguistic / regional considerations, like the schools run by the Delhi Tamil/ Telugu / Bengali / Gujarati Educational associations. Others were based on religious affiliations such as the Khalsa / Arya Samaj schools. Students were admitted irrespective of their economic backgrounds and admission was open to all, provided you were okay with their curriculum. For example, anyone could attend a Tamil or a Gujarati school as long as they were willing to learn Tamil and Gujarati as a subject. The rest of the curriculum in science, social studies and English followed the common syllabus prescribed by the Delhi board of education. Early education was usually imparted in vernacular languages, later switching to English, usually after the fifth grade. There were other similar schools which were not based on regional culture but on educational philosophy - education with community service, women's education etc. Because those schools attracted students from every regional/ religious backgrounds, they were attractive to parents who didn't want their children exposed to just one regional culture. Many of these schools are now in decline although some like Sardar Patel School (founded by the Gujarati association) continue to thrive.

I may be wrong but I understand that the culture of founding educational institutions based on a philosophy is now pretty much a thing of the past. Most new schools that spring up, do so with a business plan in hand and a keen eye on the bank balance. Early education is increasingly becoming seggregated by the economic standing of families. Poor student can no longer aspire to attend the excellent schools earlier made available to them, thanks to community efforts, when the ability to pay was not the primary consideration.

Here is an article in anticipation of the upcoming 60th anniversary of India's independence. There will be many more to come, I am sure and it is a safe bet that India's "diversity" will figure prominently in the discussions.

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