Monthly Archives: September 2009

Intelligence and social capital

Flickr photo by aylaujp

Flickr photo by aylaujp

Jason Richwine had a recent post on The American blog (“A Smart Solution to the Diversity Dilemma“) suggesting that the answer to the short-term tensions Robert Putnam has observed, between diversity and immigration and levels of civic engagement, has a solution: admit smarter immigrants.

First, a clarification…Jason Richwine is incorrect in asserting that Robert Putnam was unclear about whether to share these findings.  We shared an early take on this finding immediately after we conducted the 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey.

I disagree with Jason”s conclusion;  since education is generally a stronger predictor of levels of civic engagement than raw intelligence, we could still admit less educated immigrants who got educated over time in the U.S.  and have the immigrants still be highly civicly engaged.  Moreover, the lower civic engagement that Robert Putnam discussed in “E Pluribus Unum” was not a compositional effect (a consequence of having more immigrants who were less educated), but a consequence of the diversity within communities, so admitting more educated immigrants wouldn’t have offset that effect.  Nonetheless, his blog post did surface some interesting papers that I hadn’t seen before.  Richwine asserts: “Various survey data indicate that IQ is an important and independent predictor of voting, membership in various social organizations, daily newspaper reading, and tolerance of free speech rights.”

The backup for his assertion comes from:

1)  Seth Hauser, “Education, Ability, and Civic Engagement in the Contemporary United StatesSocial Science Research 29, 556–582 (2000).  Hauser found a modest independent affect of ability on voting and social participation, controlling for levels of education in GSS and Wisconsin Longitudinal Survey data: He found no such finding in ANES (American National Election Studies) data but this data has much weaker and less objective data on intelligence. Hauser concluded that in general the bivariate impact of ability on civic engagement comes from ability proxying for levels of education ultimately achieved.  He also found that education was a stronger predictor of levels of civic engagement than ability.  For “ability”,  GSS had a measure of vocabulary; and WLS used Henmon–Nelson Test of Mental Ability.

2) Stephen Miller, ” Intelligence, Irrationality, and Civic Returns: Can Education Improve Democracy?” (Econ Dept., George Mason Univ.).  Miller also used GSS data and also found that both education and intellectual ability in GSS predict voting, daily newspaper reading and tolerance of free speech.  Ability did not have any independent effect on group membership and only had an effect through levels of education achieved.

Had the effect of intelligence on social capital been much stronger than education (even controlling for education), it would suggest that there is less that one can do to alter one’s baseline level of civic engagement, and head us to more Calvinist notions of predestined civic engagement.  But since education is the bigger driver in Hauser’s findings, it suggests that we are keepers of our civic fate: although we may begin with differential likelihoods of getting engaged, these can be more than offset through additional education (which both provides us with useful skills for getting engaged — like organizing others, running a meeting, writing persuasive materials, making a speech etc. — and will make others more likely to ask us to get civicly engaged).