Diversity versus solidarity: an introduction to the debate

It often feels that not a day goes by without migration appearing in the news, or being the topic of debate on television or radio. For those of us fascinated by these debates it can be exhausting, especially when the same questions come up time and time again. One such dilemma is the supposed dichotomy between diversity and solidarity. In a recent episode of BBC 4’s Start the Week, Economist Paul Collier explained that “there is a right amount of diversity” and that if you have too much diversity trust, cooperation and generosity will all start to erode. It is not a new argument, but is it true? Can we have solidarity in a society with a high level of ethnic diversity?

The theory behind the debate

In the 1990s, political scientist Robert Putnam developed a highly influential theory about the ways in which diversity conflicts with social solidarity. His theory revolves around the idea of social capital which he defines as “features of social organisations such as networks, norms and trust that facilitate action and cooperation for mutual benefit” (p.2)[i]. Using the USA as his example, Putnam argues, like Paul Collier, that a high level of ethnic diversity leads to low social capital in society because ethnically diverse people have different interests and values and do not build social ties and networks with people outside their ethnic group. The result of low social capital is that people are less able to work together and share resources to achieve what Putnam refers to as “mutual benefit”[ii]. Thus, a diverse society is not only fragmented but non-progressive.

Bowling alonePutnam makes an interesting distinction in his argument between ‘bridging’ and ‘bonding’ social capital[iii]. Bridging capital exists between different communities and is seen to build trust and reciprocity between groups. It is this form of social capital that, according to Putnam, enables people to live and work together effectively and exist as a community. Meanwhile, bonding social capital operates within ethnically homogenous communities.

Robert Putnam’s view that ethnic diversity results in social fractures has become the dominant model for thinking about diversity and cohesion in the UK, at least in political and policy circles. For David Goodhart the tension between solidarity and diversity is one of the “central dilemmas” for developed societies and a constant reminder that “serious politics is about “trade-offs” (p.30). In his famous essay Too Diverse Goodhart argues that we feel more comfortable with people who have similar histories and values to us and are also more willing to share with them, and to make sacrifices for them. People pay taxes, contribute to society and are generally cooperative because they believe that the recipients are people like them, facing the kinds of problems they could face. This is why, in his view, it becomes harder to legitimate a welfare state when diversity increases and people no longer consider themselves similar to others in society. A welfare society relies on limited diversity.

The shift to community cohesion in the UK

The concern that in a more diverse society people will live apart and will focus more on their ethnic communities than on their obligations to wider society was aggravated in 2001 by race riots in some of England’s northern towns and cities. A report into the riots described a situation of segregation and concluded that communities were operating “on the basis of a series of parallel lives”: even where ethnic communities lived among one another they did not mix. For British society and its leaders, this finding, and later the 7/7 bombings committed by British born citizens, represented the unravelling threads of society, inadequate integration of certain parts of the community and provided proof that multiculturalism had failed. Society had simply become too diverse.

In the wake of the riots, Home Secretary David Blunkett, fearing separatism of the Asian community, urged migrants and ethnic minorities to accept British norms and develop “a sense of belonging” in Britain. Blunkett’s statement is typical of the ‘community cohesion’ agenda that grew out of the Cantle Report’s claim, following Putnam, that solidarity relies on shared values. Since 2001 successive policy documents have claimed that the key to managing diversity in Britain is cohesion.

Within the cohesion agenda there is a clear emphasis on values and in particular on strengthening a sense of British citizenship and nationhood. The following extracts from the 2002 paper Secure Borders, Safe Haven demonstrates this return to values, again with reference to the 2001 riots:

The reports into last summer’s disturbances in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley painted a vivid picture of fractured and divided communities, lacking a sense of common values or shared civic identity to unite around. (p. 10)

To ensure social integration and cohesion in the UK, we need to develop a stronger understanding of what citizenship really means […] In an increasingly diverse world, it is vital that we strengthen both our sense of community belonging and the civic and political dimensions of British citizenship. (p. 10)

The return to values assumes that developing a British identity is the pathway to successful integration and is symptomatic of a wider “return to assimilation”, based on the idea that “enough is enough”. The introduction of citizenship and language tests is just one example of the trend towards assimilation and the stress placed on national identity in government policy.

Within the model of community cohesion, bridging social capital is seen as the ideal type while bonding capital is much less desirable – despite having a crucial role in supporting poorer and more marginal groups[iv]. Implicit in this hierarchy is a belief that migrants who retain an ethnic culture from elsewhere lack allegiance to Britain, and do not share “our” values. This works to demonise as un-British a whole host of migrants and British-born minorities and is based on a constructed idea of distinctive national values.

Jumping to conclusions

The UK Government has frequently declared that Britain’s ethnic communities are inadequately integrated and that society has reached a crisis point where emphasis must be replaced on a ‘sense of citizenship’ and ‘shared values’. The assumption behind the argument is that migrants and people from ethnic minority groups have fundamentally different values from ‘us’ so that the bridging social capital cannot be created and ‘genuine bonds’ cannot exist. It is a massive assumption. Furthermore, the bridging ties that Putnam so desires are not always possible because of existing inequalities and discrimination in society, a fact drastically underplayed in community cohesion discourses.

Difference is entirely subjective, yet it is also undoubtedly affected by the wider context of social, media and political discourse. In the current climate it is too easy to assume that immigrants are ‘different’. It is less easy to remember that this difference is constructed in our minds, in the media and institutionalised in law and policy. The idea that people will only share values in an ethnically homogenous society is simply wrong, but the debate over the ‘right’ level of diversity will undoubtedly continue, and this post has barely scratched the surface of that debate. One thing, however, remains clear: for every difference between us there is always a similarity. The significance given to differences is wholly dependent on the time and context. That should not be forgotten.

Further reading

Cantle, T. http://tedcantle.co.uk/

Clarke, A. (January 2013) Dissecting the relationship between integration and ‘Britishness’ on TheMigrationist.net

Goodhart, D. (February 2004) Too Diverse in Prospect Magazine

Grillo, R. (2005) Backlash Against Diversity? Identity and Cultural Politics In European Cities. COMPAS Working Paper No. 14, WP-05-14

Putnam, R. (1993) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks: New York

[i] Note that Putnam version of social capital is different to the Bourdieusian concept of social capital as resources that a group/individual possesses as a result of their network and relationships (see Gauntlett’s work for a full distinction).

[ii] Putnam believed in the transformative potential of social capital to produce civic engagement, volunteerism and communal health. He viewed it as an attribute of the collective characterised by norms of trust and reciprocity that facilitates cooperation within society, rather than a possession of the individual.

[iii] See Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community p. 22

[iv] While Putnam views it as less important for the functioning of society, bonding capital is often crucial in supporting marginal communities to consolidate their resources in order to progress in society.


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  2. […] the public good plays a central role in strengthening the social capital of a place. According to Putnam, social capital is the idea that social networks have value. “A society characterized by […]


  3. […] principle of ‘community cohesion’ assumes that by fostering the everyday interaction of ‘different’ groups we can reach an […]


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