Andrew Leigh has a discussion paper out on linguistic/ethic diversity and trust. I’m commenting on the 7-page general summary and paper for lay audiences published in Dialogue – I haven’t seen the other paper he mentions.
I’m worried about a number of aspects of the paper and apparent suppositions of causality, in particular the idea that diversity causes mistrust. Some
- Linguistic diversity and ethnic diversity are not the same thing!
Both ethnic diversity and linguistic diversity are used in the paper. Thus Indigenous populations are presumably treated as a single group for this purpose, despite the presence of 100+ different Indigenous languages, Kriol and English. This would be an issue in regional centres (e.g. Dubbo), where the population is linguistically fairly homogenous (depending on how you treat dialectal diversity) but racially diverse. Given the small sample sizes, this could make a difference (although I don’t have the data to test this – maybe Andrew could depending on the richness of the original data set).
In particular, neighbourhoods where many languages are spoken tend to have lower levels of trust, suggesting that the main issue may whether people can communicate effectively with those living nearby.
Not necessarily, given that linguistic diversity patterns themselves are greatly diverse. For example, there is a very well documented pattern of language shift amongst immigrant communities, where the first generation tend to be non-English dominant, the second generation are bilingual, and the third are English-dominant or English-only. Linguistic diversity can be high without communication barriers, and frequently is so.
Furthermore, highly linguistically diverse communities have multiple origins:
- community-wide multilingualism (Milingimbi, historical Martha’s vineyard)
- large influx of recent immigrants from many places
- long-term immigration where bilingualism has remained stable (rare in Australia, as everywhere)
- regular immigration from different areas over different times (East London).
Such different patterns typically have rather different demographics, and different income distribution. The correlation with a raw measure of linguistic diversity is incidental.
Linguistic diversity is strongly correlated with age of establishment of community. As mentioned above, there’s a well-established pattern of language shift in immigrant communities. It’s typically a three-generation process, but in some communities it’s a two-generation process, and in others (e.g. Dutch immigrants to Australia and the US the shift is completed within a generation). Thus with the exception of Aboriginal communities, a high proportion of linguistic diversity is also strongly correlated with recent immigration. That’s surely going to have an effect on “trust” levels too.
There is a further problem with the question used to gauge “trust”, which was “generally speaking, you can’t be too careful when dealing with most Australians”. It’s hard to parse for people without fluency in English, so that could affect results for areas of high linguistic diversity.
Secondly, there are well-studied problems with this type of question when asked of minority versus majority groups. In a nutshell, majority group respondents interpret the question as applying to the majority, whereas minority respondents either interpret it as applying only to the majority or to their own group. That’s probably less of a problem here because of the “most Australians” part, but it is still another potential confounding factor. That is, the “object of trust” may not be equivalent for different groups.
Finally, I’d want to see something more about the notion of “trust”.