Sunday, 30 September 2012

TV and ethnicity: contrasting fates of two of Putnam's theses

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam hunts for the causes of declining American social capital and civic engagement. He fingers two suspects: TV and ethnic diversity. Television is supposed to keep us away from our neighbours and ethnic diversity is supposed to make us trust them less.

Both of these supposed links have been scrutinized, but ethnic diversity seems to have spawned a much bigger literature. Here are some rough numbers to back that up:

Search              Google scholar hits   Cites to top hit
Television + 
  "social capital"               43,300                403
Ethnicity +
  "social capital"               88,500              6,714
Ethnic +
  "social capital"              101,000              6,714 

  [within BA cites]               5,750                190
  [within BA cites]               6,310                491   
  [within BA cites]               9,260                150   

Television + trust              555,000                194
Ethnicity + trust               312,000                 72
Ethnic + trust                  887,000                 59

Apart from the "trust" searches, television seems to have fewer articles. I also tried using "TV" or "race", with similar results. More qualitative data - with more insight but maybe more bias - is that I can name many well-known articles in economics on ethnicity, trust and participation, but far fewer on TV and the same. Plus, there is unmistakably much, much more public controversy about ethnicity and multiculturalism than there is about TV. (Just read the comments pages of any UK news website... though not if you want to keep your faith in humankind.)

If this is true, why is it? I suspect that ethnicity is just naturally more controversial. The topic raises our primal hackles against "the other"*; and then, at least for some people, brings out the better angels of our nature to defend diversity and tolerance. 

Perhaps this is a shame. After all, ethnic diversity impinges on most of our lives rather little. It is something we observe while walking down city streets. TV is inside our homes, for four hours a day on average. Has the controversial topic obscured the truly important one?

* I find this phrase pretentious, vague and overused, but it does seem hard to avoid here.