“Greater diversity is one of the revolutions of our own time.
It will no more be reversed than industrialization.”
In 2000, Robert Putnam published “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.” The work culminates a five year study on the effect of immigration and ethnic diversity upon community bonds in America. Surveying 26,200 people in 40 communities, the results of the investigation are unsettling, if not surprising.
The greater a community’s level of ethnic diversity, the more social withdrawal and isolation Putnam found. There were lower levels of trust, neighborliness, civic engagement (eg. electoral participation), political optimism, volunteer activity, charitable contributions, and even close friendships. As Putnam puts it, “people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’—that is, to pull in like a turtle.”
These results were consistent across various social boundaries: in urban, rural, wealthy, poor, safe, or crime-ridden communities—for both young and old Americans. The title—“Bowling Alone”—refers to the rapid disappearance of bowling leagues in the U.S. since the 1950s. As ethnic diversity increased, Americans began to abandon public spaces. The data shows that one thing does increase with multi-ethnic concentration, however: people sitting on their asses and watching TV.
As it happens, I went bowling a few nights ago. My companions were a lesbian couple and the lead singer of a local indie band. The couple are very good friends of mine, while the singer was pretty much a stranger. Though somewhat floppy-armed and unathletic, this dude could bowl. It was just strike after strike, punctuated by spares. I attributed this to his bowling name, “Mr. Flipper”—an obscure sexual reference. The girls opted to go by their own names, but I wouldn’t stand for it. If I was the JoeBot and he was Mr. Flipper, then they would be Pin-Smasher and Space Cowgirl.
Space Cowgirl was stacking an impressive score as well. It turns out that she was a bowling league tournament champion as a kid—a dying breed, according to Putnam.
After a few rounds, I was dubbed Gutter Boy. I’m a terrible bowler—hence my hatred of the sport. To me, bowling serves only two purposes: forging social bonds and excusing alcohol consumption in front of children. Though I still harbor deep resentment toward Mr. Flipper for continually upstaging me on the lanes, after a few high fives and a few more beers we had become pals. In the end, Lane 6 presented itself as a fine example of social cohesion: two lipstick lesbians and two wankers without dates trying not to perv on them.
Space Cowgirl slams another strike. I scan the crowd for more appropriate targets for my perving eye. What I notice—in the absence of any super-hot bowling goddesses with a sweet-tooth for roadies—is a virtual Democratic Convention of social diversity. There are black lanes, hispanic lanes, hipster lanes, and redneck lanes. There’s this dark cat wearing an “Italian and Proud” tshirt. Two mothers, one black and the other Latina, are bowling next to us with their kids. A white kid bowls with his Latina girlfriend further down. There’s even a cultural fusion lane with two gargantuan white girls jiggling enthusiastically whenever a hip-hop track plays on the jukebox.
In fact, the jukebox is the most poignant illustration of our working class racial mosaic. One minute we hear a series of white trash country hits, then comes ghetto-fabulous rap—even a reggeaton track or two, maybe Daddy Yankee or Tito El Bambino. One of the hipsters must have a pocketful of quarters, because Radiohead and The Doors start showing up in the mix.
This multicultural soundscape is the closest thing to an inter-lane conversation though. Apart from the mothers, the interracial couple, and the jiggling girls across the way, everyone pretty much sticks to their own. Perhaps we aren’t holed up in segregated compounds, fondling machine guns—but for the most part, the sons-of-slaves and the sons-of-slave-owners’-indentured-servants are not bowling on the same lanes tonight. We’re not even friends on MySpace.
The balls are black, the pins are white, the lanes are brown. That’s just how it is… until the blacklights kick on and it’s time for Cosmic Bowling! In this parallel universe we are unified by retina-scarring ultraviolet rays. Lady Gaga plays on as novelty-store radiation melds us into One.
This is a prophetic metaphor for American society. Though our generation is often divided by outward appearances, perhaps our children will be colorblind—since the eyeballs growing out of their finger-like tentacles will perceive electromagnetic wavelengths far beyond our paltry visual spectrum.
“Big social change defines the modern world—industrial revolution, women’s revolution, internet revolution[…] They are always controversial because they have good and bad consequences – they always create winners and losers.
“The question is how to minimise the very real costs. The problem is that the transition costs come early—the benefits take longer.”
Many people interpret “Bowling Alone” as an assurance that America is doomed to disintegrate, suffering perpetual crime and alienation. Some even foresee bursts of mass racial violence. Hey man, we all have our doubts.
Yet Putnam remains optimistic. Since his American research only covers the short- to medium-term effects of ethnic diversity, the long-term consequences are yet to be seen. Whether we eye each other from distant shores or commence building bridges is entirely up to us.
“Diversity is a social construction that can be deconstructed and reconstructed,” Putnam says, “you can erase a line and draw a new line—we do it all the time.”
Since ethnic diversity is here to stay, we might as well bowl together—keeping faith that our children will one day entangle their tentacles and face the future as One. (And by One, of course, I mean loosely connected by DNA-combining, protoplasmic goo.)
Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.