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Putnam agonistes…

Although I rarely have time to read them both in any depth, my access to the New York Times and Boston Globe each morning does, on certain days, provide some stimulating reading. This was the case yesterday.

The Sunday New York Times is always a challenge given its usual bulk and density, but I have a habit of going for the Book Review and Magazine immediately after the front page. Yesterday’s cover story in the Magazine was about Carpentersville, Illinois and its “immigration” politics — noting new here, but a solid and informative case study of a phenomenon that folks are only vaguely aware off unless they are committed Lou Dobbs fans.

The Sunday Globe’s Ideas section (a combination of the Time’s Week in Review and Book Review, and often an interesting read) featured a story by Michael Jonas about Robert Putnam‘s (also see here and here) latest work which has generated considerable reaction — and it happens to be about the implications of “diversity” (of course, form the outset read that as “immigration”) for Putnam’s cherished notion of “social capital“. It seems that over the years that he has been obsessively researching the causes and consequences of social capital, the diversity factor has consistently played to the negative side fo the correlation.

As the Jonas narrative has it, these findings so bothered Putnam that he has spent years attempting to the confirm (actually, falsify) or qualify his findings — or to put it in a better light lest he become the focus of derision among his “liberal” colleagues (the “Moynihan” effect, as it might be labelled, referring to the controversial report the then Harvard professor issued for the Department of Labor; see here and here). Putnam had previously suffered backlash effects from other aspects of his social capital studies on the implications of TV and women in the workforce — but what seems to have bothered him more about the diversity findings in that he would not merely be stirring academic reaction but also find himself the hero of the Lou Dobbs folks (who are always hungry for some real facts).

He finally articulated his findings in a 2006 lecture given in Sweden where he had received an award for his work on social capital, and this was published in the June issue of Scandinavian Political Studies. His approach was to be straight forward about his empirical findings, but to put them into a short-term, long-term context. It is worth the read, as is most of Putnam’s work.

If nothing else, Putnam has certainly found that middle ground he was searching for — but it is probably more like purgatory than heaven. His findings have become the grist for the Dobbs crew a the Manhattan Institute and elsewhere, while his analysis has been dismissed by the same folks as well as created fissures in the academic civic engagement community that will quickly turn into chasms of dispute.

The issue in the academic community (as opposed to the ideologically-burdened think tank world that gets the most press) will be about diversity and multiculturalism more than immigration, but the fundamental questions and answers will be quite similar. My own perspective will become clearer in coming posts since I happen to be working on a related writing project, but in the meantime I think Putnam and others ought to step back a bit and reconsider their commitment to an ideal of civic life that they have superimposed on their work. A couple of posts back I made mention of an alternative perspective — agonistic pluralism — derived from Arendt and advocated by Mouffe. Seen from that perspective, diversity takes on a different (and more positive) role in civic life and is actually central to the tasks of civic education — and for that matter, for education in general.

My advice to Putnam is to take a walk across campus (or Cambridge) to visit with another two Putnams — Hilary and Ruth Anna (he of Harvard, she of Wellesley; both emeritus) who in the early 1990s (access required) re-examined the relevance of John Dewey‘s educational theories as a response to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society.

Seen from the perspective of either agonistic pluralism or Deweyan “pragmatism”, Robert Putnam’s problems are rooted in his normative attachment to social capital. Interestingly, he is led to a respect for the dynamics and “creative destructiveness” of diversity “in the long term” but seems to have only reluctantly and recently regarded the short and middle term conditions (of reduced social capital in the form of “hunkering down”) as functional opportunities to promote and enhance civic life. He needs to be more Deweyan in his outlook….

UPDATE: Putnam and others discussed his latest work on WBUR’s On Point….

August 6th, 2007 Posted by | agonistic pluralism, Boton Globe, civic education, civic engagement, diversity, immigration, John Dewey, New York Times, Robert Putnam, social capital, WBUR | one comment