Over the last half century we’ve witnessed a sorting phenomenon in American life. As noted in a earlier post, gathering of like-minded people tends to intensify and make more extreme the views of individuals. Sorting intensifies group norms and values which draws in more like-minded people who give stronger reinforcement to norms and values.
If sorting has been the problem, then surely mixing would be the solution? We mix people together, they become acquainted with each other, they learn to appreciate differences, and then they all get along better. This has been the driving force behind so much of the diversity movement. Does it work?
In The Big Sort, Bill Bishop points to social psychology experiments that show that simply bringing differing groups (not even necessarily opposing groups) together creates competition and opposition. Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, concludes from a study of 31,000 people in 41 communities that diversity has social capital erodes with diversity and people tend to have less to do with each other. (See here , and here, and also here.) Simply mixing folks together doesn’t get it done.
Summarizing psychologist Gordon Allport’s (writing in the 1950s)necessary conditions for bringing opposing groups together constructively, Bishop writes:
This was also the key finding of Putnam, that there had to be a common mission or point of unity that integrated people together for diversity be productive. When such unity existed, diversity became an advantage.
Another key point Bishop makes points to the work of an anthropologist named Max Gluckman, also writing in the 1950s, who believed that, “Societies were successful and longstanding so long as they could devise mechanisms that kept simple conflicts from becoming cataclysmic.” (295) This usually happened by developing patterns of relating that made ndividuals friends in one context and enemies (or at least opponents) in the next. “Societies that controlled disputes ‘are so organized into a series of groups and relationships, that people who are friends on one basis are enemies on another,’ Gluckman wrote.” (296-297)
So does Bishop see signs of community developing that overcomes the sorting effect? He seems to believe that emerging churches are one venue. For purpose of illustration, he identifies Bluer, an Emergent congregation in Minneapolis, as one place where people are getting beyond the narrow identities that have divided red and blue communities. I’m not in agreement with Bishop here.
Emergent congregations, from what I can observe, are overwhelmingly white, middle class, twenty to thirty somethings, and with a decided bent toward intellectual and artistic pursuits. That doesn’t make them good or bad, but I don’t think it makes them emblematic of a new post-partisan world. It makes them another niche into which folks have sorted themselves.
Interestingly enough, one of the examples that Putnam gave of an integrating institution are some (and “some” is the operative word) evangelical megachurches. In his study, he found large congregations with several nationalities and ethnic groups represented, with people of varying economic status, united by a common vision of being the church. The point isn’t whether the vision is correct but rather the integrative power a common vision has.
In short, Bishop seems to realize that there needs to be some common value or vision that unites us and that there must be public venues where we partner with each based on these values and visions. I don’t find many solutions offered but I also don’t think that was the purpose of his book. He is holding up a mirror to who we are now.
Some final thoughts on the book tomorrow.