Friday, January 14, 2011

The Spirit Level vs Robert Putnam

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson's The Spirit Level repeatedly references the work of American political scientist Robert Putnam, who argued that ethnic and cultural diversity within a society leads to a series of major social problems. Pickett and Wilkinson, however, deal with his views of inequality ("income diversity", I suppose it could be called) rather than ethnic diversity.

So I emailed Professor Putnam and asked him if he agreed with their use of his work. He replied:

I have a mixed view about the Spirit Level. On the one hand, I believe that inequality is bad for society in many ways, just as that book argues. On the other hand, Pickett and Williamson’s work has been heavily (and I believe correctly) criticized as methodologically flawed. (For example, they don’t really show that the relationship between inequality and other bad things is causal, though they assume it is.) I hope that they (or others) will pursue that basic hypothesis in ways that are more scientifically persuasive.

So neither support nor condemnation for the work. This is similar to my own sense that much of their argument about inequality being harmful feels intuitively correct, but that their numbers and examples are often questionable.


  1. Very interesting. I believe this is the first time Putnam has commented on The Spirit Level. Wilkinson and Pickett quote from Bowling Alone but quite selectively and very much out of context. The fairly short quote they use on pp. 54-55 is abridged four times! Read the whole thing and it is clear that he is saying only that greater income equality is not incompatible with greater social cohesion. (Why would it be? Because, he says, people could complain that attacking elitist institutions like private schools or clubs could reduce cohesion because, elitist though they might be, they are part of the social fabric).

    This is the only time in his lengthy (and excellent) book that he mentions inequality, and he never lists inequality as one of the things that has reduced social capital in the US in the last fifty years.

  2. Thanks Chris, actually I searched for comments Prof Putnam had made about The Spirit Level, coming across your own objections about their use of his work on The Spirit Level Delusion blog, but not finding any first hand response. So I'm quite pleased to have gotten his reply!

    ...And I have not abridged it at all ;)


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