Social cohesion, diversity, and poverty

Whatever your views, there’s always a temptation to ruffle a few feathers among your peers. Among left-wingers in the UK, David Goodhart did just that in 2004: he argued that two cherished left-wing ideals were in conflict. In simple terms, ‘the Goodhardt hypothesis’ is that diversity undercuts support for the welfare state – partly because we become less willing to support taxes that go to people who are ‘not like us’, and partly because of the competition for scarce resources and opportunities among the most disadvantaged (social housing, welfare payments, low-skill jobs).

At heart this is about the relationship between diversity and trust. The idea that ‘multiculturalism’ undermines this trust between citizens has been a common theme in recent years – David Cameron was talking about the failure of multiculturalism earlier in 2011. (US readers may be more familiar with Bob Putnam’s ‘hunkering down’ version of the same argument). But two recent papers are in surprising agreement that the problem is not what we think, at least in the UK.

The two studies are Twigg et al 2010 and Sturgis et al 2010, both of which find a small negative effect of diversity on trust, which pales in comparison to the much larger effect of deprivation – which offers partial support to the Goodhart/Putnam thesis, but also room for critics to counter-attack. What caught my eye, though, were the ways that diversity, poverty and trust interacted – a pattern that can be seen in two charts.

Firstly, we have the figure from Twigg et al below. I’m not going to go into Theil scores etc; the necessary information is quite simple, although you have to remember which way round everything points. The horizontal axis is ‘deprivation score’ – more deprived areas are on the right of the figure. The vertical axis is the probability of perceiving low levels of social support. And as the lines go from top to bottom, they get more diverse.

What this shows is that diversity only harms trust in non-deprived areas. In deprived areas, there is no effect of diversity.

Interestingly, Sturgis et al find exactly the same thing – but their intriguing figure is one that takes this a stage further. The figure below looks at trust by deprivation and diversity, but also comparing people that know lots of people in their neighbourhood vs. people that know no people.

This shows that in deprived areas, diversity has no effect on trust among people that know lots of people in their neighbourhood. The largest effects are in non-deprived areas, for people that know no-one in their neighbourhood.

What’s interesting about all of this – other than the wonderful complex messiness of the real world – is that it contradicts the assumption among many British policymakers. Many people in the Labour Party have been arguing that they lost the last election because they were out of touch with the anti-immigrant feeling among working-class voters; these were people who were competing for housing, competing for jobs, and who didn’t reap the rewards of Britain’s multicultural society.

This may well be true – the New East End‘s partially flawed but compelling account of East London shows this competition in unflinching form. But the studies here show that it simply isn’t true to assume that trust is sytematically lower in poor, diverse areas than poor, non-diverse ones. The effects of ‘multiculturalism’ that are revealed by research are more complex than the one-sided portrayals that often abound in public debate.

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where (after a long break) I am again blogging about inequality-related policy & research. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on the role of social science, disability, inequality, deservingness, and the future of the benefits system, and I co-lead the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project (on the benefits system during Covid-19). You can find out more about me at
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7 Responses to Social cohesion, diversity, and poverty

  1. Vicki Bolton says:

    Sturgis et al (2010) have another interesting paper on trust (Intelligence 38, 45-54) which demonstrates a link between childhood intelligence and expressed trust in middle age. The idea is that intelligent people are better judges of character and situations; they take calculated risks and get ‘better’ outcomes than less intelligent people. A stack of ‘better’ outcomes increases their feelings of generalized trust. Sturgis’ results on diversity fit part of that hypothesis, at least – if you know lots of people in your neighbourhood, you are likely to have a stack of ‘better’ outcomes from social interaction behind you than if you know no-one. Now all we need is an analysis of whether people who pass the 11+ have more contact with neighbours than those who fail and whether bright people prefer diverse or homogenous neighbourhoods…!

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      That paper is incredibly interesting – thanks for flagging it! It sparked off two thoughts:

      1. Diederik wrote on the blog about the link between intelligence, social change and inequality; this was really thought-provoking, and (combined with your comment) reminds us that we really do need to theorise intelligence better.

      2. The idea that there is a feedback between successful social interactions and trust is plausible – but how far does the Sturgis et al paper in Intelligence control for aspects of the adult environment as an explanation between childhood intelligence and adult trust? I’d expect smarter kids to end up in better jobs, with better health, in better areas etc.

      Either way, this does suggest that interventions that change the fabric of communities to improve social interactions don’t just help in the short-term, but may produce knock-on effects that raise trust substantially (cf. all the literature on complexity and dynamic systems). ‘The role of planning regulation and urban design in creating a more equal, trusting society’ would be an interesting future post…

      • Vicki Bolton says:

        In the Intelligence paper, Sturgis et al control for social class, level of education, self-rated health, marital status, TV watching, whether the respondent has been a victim of crime, how often the respondent attends clubs, whether the respondent is interested in politics, whether the respondent is satisfied with their life… So the paper does address some of the issues you raise. It does seem difficult/implausible to control for everything!

        I’d certainly be interested to read a post about urban planning. I did an internship with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (OR-3) a few years back and this was one of his ongoing themes: how can we expect people to behave like neighbours when their neighbourhoods positively discourage it (no sidewalks, urban sprawl encouraging long commute times, children going to schools across town etc. etc.)?

  2. Charlotte Cavaille says:

    Thanks Ben super interesting. If I remember the Putnam correctly the Twigg paper confirms his results: the more diversity the less social cohesion but size of the effect compared to other variables is pretty small. Not sure Putnam had any interaction terms though can’t remember.

    One thing about the graph you posted for the Twigg paper: wouldn’t mind seeing confidence intervals => how many rich communities have a high Theil score?
    Also having issues wrapping my head around the following: does that mean that, as diversity increases, the negative relationship between deprivation and social capital decreases. At high levels of diversity, the level of deprivation does not matter as much (the top line is nearly flat). How to think about that, is it a good thing (-> even if you increase socio-econ status of the neighborhood, you will still get nearly same proba of low social capital? But again, how many rich/diverse neighborhoods???) .
    Funny how framing changes the story:
    – version 1: diversity doesn’t make it worse, if poor neighborhood then low social capital whatever the actual level of diversity
    – version 2: wealth doesn’t matter that much, if diverse neighborhood then proba of law social capital is between a minimum of 5.2 (rich) and a max of 6 (poor)…

    Am I thinking about this right? my brain is currently fried….

  3. Charlotte Cavaille says:

    OK, just finished the Sturgis et al. So regarding the deprivation/ethnic diversity interaction this is what they find: ” While our analysis did identify an interaction between the ethnic diversity and economic deprivation of neighbourhoods, the coefficient was in the opposite direction to what conflict theory, taken at face value, would lead us to anticipate. Ethnic diversity had no effect on strategic trust in the most deprived areas but did have a significant, although still weak, effect in more economically affluent neighbourhoods. ” (not the although still weak). Thus the amount of cash in a neighborhood doesn’t matter that much (hence my questions about confidence interval for the other paper). What matters is how much people know each other: you get rid of Putnam and he comes back in through the back door!!! I am happy to not know my neighbors, please don’t force me to be “part of the community” !

  4. Ben Baumberg says:

    Yes, I wasn’t trying to disagree with Bob Putnam on social capital – knowing people is really important for trusting them (and trusting people is important for getting to know them too).

    I completely agree about different framings too; depending on your politics, you can use this to argue various things. (In some ways this is the mark of a good piece of empirical research). To me, this seemed like a good way of undercutting some of the claims around poor people and diversity, but perhaps that’s what I was looking to see in it.

    As an aside: on a personal level, I find that being disorganised really helps to get to know your neighbours – the more you run out of things and need to ask your neighbours for them, the better your relationship (unless they start getting annoyed). I guess that this is my version of the ‘need-your-neighbour’ aspect of the deprivation-trust link.

  5. Pingback: News in Review – Week ending March 25, 2011

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