The More We Mix, the Better –

Extract from an article by Klaus Desmet, Altshuler Professor of Cities, Regions and Globalisation, Southern Methodist University, CEPR Research Fellow; Joseph Flavian Gomes, Assistant Professor, Navarra Center for International Development, University of Navarra and  Ignacio Ortuño-Ortin, Professor of Economics, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid

Diverse countries tend to have more conflict, lower development, and worse public goods, possibly due to antagonism between groups. Based on recent research mapping local linguistic diversity across the entire globe, this column argues that local interaction with people of other ethnolinguistic groups can mitigate the negative effect of overall diversity on a country’s outcomes in health, education and public goods. This finding lends support to policies that influence the local mixing of ethnolinguistic groups.

Ethnocentrism is ‘in’, and multiculturalism is ‘out’, in many Western democracies. The result of the 2016 presidential election in the US and the victory of Brexit in the UK partly reflect a growing unease among the electorate about living in societies that are increasingly diverse. Likewise, in continental Europe, the refugee situation in Germany is bound to become a central theme in the 2017 national elections. The National Front in France is also likely to benefit in the 2017 presidential election by relating home-grown terrorism to diversity.

Although diversity might be increasingly looked upon with suspicion, paradoxically it is often viewed more negatively in relatively homogenous places than in areas that are already highly diverse. In the Brexit referendum, the perception that there were too many immigrants was especially strong in areas with few foreign residents, and much less so in cosmopolitan London: 85% of UK districts with a lower-than-average share of foreign-born residents voted in favour of leaving the EU, compared to only 44% of the other districts (Lawton and Ackrill 2016). Past US presidential elections showed the same pattern. President Trump’s America-first rhetoric found little echo in the regions of the US with most undocumented immigrants.

These observations are consistent with contact theory. Although individuals may feel antagonism towards other groups in society, that prejudice is less strong if they interact with these groups in their daily lives (Allport 1954). At face value, this suggests that antagonism between groups in the UK would be minimised if every town mirrored the country’s overall diversity. It is not clear, however, that we can say this relationship is causal, or if it generalises to the whole world.

In fact, not everyone agrees with contact theory. The proponents of conflict theory argue the exact opposite: interaction with individuals of other groups is costly and generates greater antagonism. Empirical evidence is inconclusive on which theory prevails.

One reason we should care whether local interaction mitigates or reinforces antagonism is that diverse countries tend to have more conflict, lower development, and worse public goods, and this antagonism would be an explanation. In our recent work, we develop a global database of local language use to investigate how local interaction changes the impact of a country’s overall ethnolinguistic diversity on a country’s public goods outcomes in health, education and infrastructure (Desmet et al. 2016). If it were to mitigate the negative effect of overall diversity, we would interpret this as evidence in favour of contact theory.

SOURCE: Desmet, Klaus; Gomes, Joseph Flavian and Ortuño-Ortin, Ignacio. “The More We Mix, the Better.”, 17 March 2017

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