The Hunker Down

When you are exposed to people of different cultural heritage and ethnicity than yourself, how do you respond?

Two theories were widely held: the contact theory suggested that the more interaction you have with cultural/ethnic diversity, the more sympathetic you become to those unlike yourself and, therefore, the less obsessive you are about your own cultural identity. (In-group solidarity diminishes, out-group solidarity grows).

On the other hand, the conflict theory proposed that increased exposure to cultural/ethnic difference results in stronger identification with your home culture, resulting in retreat and suspicion of those who are not part of your ethno/cultural group. (In-group solidarity heightens, out-group solidarity disappears, ethnocentrism occurs).

However, the contact theory and the conflict theory were both challenged by the research of Robert Putnam. His investigation of immigration intensive communities suggested that what really happens is that both in-group and out-group solidarity suffers when we are surrounded by increased ethnic and cultural diversity. In other words: not only do we become more weary of people who are different than us, but we also pull away from people of our own ethno-cultural identity.1 Putnam drew a correlation between increased exposure to ethnic diversity and an increase in individual isolation — a “hunkering down” — wherein “Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.”2

This sounds like bad news for a society such as ours. We exist in a culture and depend on an economy based on immigration and cultural diversity. However, Putnam’s goal was not to discourage immigration and cultural understanding, but rather to identify the challenges to successfully achieving the cosmopolitan ideal of multi-ethnic integration and community. Despite the “hunker down” reaction we seem to naturally exert when confronted with cultural difference, he said that “In the long run, however, successful immigrant societies have overcome such fragmentation by creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities.”3

…my hunch is that at the end we shall see that the challenge is best met not by making ‘them’ like ‘us’, but rather by creating a new, more capacious sense of ‘we’, a reconstruction of diversity that does not bleach out ethnic specificities, but creates overarching identities that ensure that those specificities do not trigger the allergic, ‘hunker down’ reaction.4

Of utmost importance is how we imagine this new “capacious sense of ‘we’” — I suspect that the only way we can make this work is if we discover a way to re-channel our fear of difference in such as way as to both strengthen our in-group bonds and extend our out-group understanding — simultaneously, respectfully and gently.

  1. This is what Robert Putnam coined the “constrict theory”: Contact theory suggests that diversity erodes the in-group/out-group distinction and enhances out-group solidarity or bridging social capital, thus lowering ethnocentrism. Conflict theory suggests that diversity enhances the in-group/out-group distinction and strengthens in-group solidarity or bonding social capital, thus increasing ethnocentrism. …. we need to allow, logically at least, for the possibility that diversity might actually reduce both in-group and out-group solidarity – that is, both bonding and bridging social capital. We might label this possibility ‘constrict theory’ Robert D. Putnam, E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century (Scandinavian Political Studies, Vol. 30 – No. 2, 2007), 144 

  2. Ibid. p. 137 

  3. Ibid. p. 137 

  4. Ibid. pp. 163-4 

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Shelley, James. (2011). 'The Hunker Down' Originally published on October 27, 2011. Accessed on December 5, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink:
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