Monthly Archives: March 2009

Is a British Obama possible?

Obama '08 (photo by beebo wallace)
Obama ’08 (photo by beebo wallace)

Harvard and Manchester through the SCHMi collaboration released their findings about whether a British Obama is possible.  Broadly we found that substantial generational patterns of increased tolerance in both Britain and the U.S., whether related to attitudes towards a black boss or intermarriage or towards black politicians (in the US).  Robert Putnam (Harvard Professor and visiting professor at Univ. of Manchester) noted that: “Change is taking a similar form on both sides of the Atlantic: exactly as in the US, the generation of Britons uncomfortable with non-whites in positions of power or intimacy is gradually dying off, and being replaced by its more tolerant offspring….It is fair to add, however, that the smaller minority population in the UK, as well as the much shallower pool of black politicians and the more centralised political recruitment paths, still tends to work against black representation in Britain.”

There is an interesting article on these findings by Allegra Stratton “Britain ready for black prime minister” in today’s Guardian and in-depth piece called “Mixed Blessing” and an editorial “Geography of Race” by co-author of the forthcoming book Age of Obama, Tom Clark.

In addition, the BBC aired several pieces on the story (“Black prime minister likely to take decades” and Robert Putnam interview with the BBC).

One can find the underlying scholarly papers (on which the report draws) and a sample chapter of the book Age of Obama here.

Press release on this topic available here.


Social Change: a Harvard-Manchester Initiative (SCHMi) is a collaboration of Harvard University and the University of Manchester that seeks to understand the complex consequences of big societal changes, like the Industrial Revolution or the civil rights revolution, which require careful inter-disciplinary research to identify ways to maximize social benefits and minimize social costs. Much as the sharp declines in life expectancy in the train of the Industrial Revolution in the later 1800s spawned empirical research that uncovered the importance of clean water and sanitation and ultimately reversed the adverse health effects, so too SCHMi aims to spur careful research on large-scale social issues today and thus to foster social progress. Transatlantic comparison and transatlantic learning have long been pivotal to such efforts.

One objective of the SCHMi collaboration is to produce roughly annually a book or report for the informed public, comparing and contrasting the US and UK experiences on some major social issue. The first project, nearing now completion, is on diversity/immigration. We anticipate future reports on religion and public life, and on inequality. The fourth and final topic has not yet been determined, but will likely be either the social consequences of technology or the changing workplace.

Diversity is a critically important subject. In the opening decade of the 21st century immigration and racial diversity are high on both countries’ agendas, for both are undergoing rapid demographic change. But their starting points and trajectories are different, and the policy debates, while intertwined transatlantically, are also different. The Age of Obama (to come out in Fall 2009) compares the social, economic, demographic, and political consequences of immigration and racial diversity in the US and the UK. The work is unusually timely because many are now wondering whether there could be a British Obama.

The Age of Obama is written by Tom Clark, an experienced writer for The Guardian, and builds on substantive contributions from Professors Waters (Harvard), Fieldhouse (Manchester), Peach (Manchester-Oxford), Yaojun Li (Manchester), Daniel Hopkins (post-doc, Harvard Govt. Dept.), and Rob Ford (post-doc, Manchester sociology) with overall project direction being provided by Robert Putnam.

  • The underlying chapters are:1. Comparing Immigrant Integration in the US and the UK (based on research by Mary Waters)2. Ethnic and Racial Segregation in the US and Britain (based on research by Ceri Peach)3. Immigration and neighborhood diversity in the U.K. and the U.S.  Does diversity damage social capital? (based on research by Ed Fieldhouse and David Cutts)4. Socio-economic integration of immigrants in the US and UK (based on research by Yaojun Li)5. How levels of neighborhood immigration influence attitudes towards immigration in the U.S and the U.K and generational changes in the US and UK in attitudes toward race (based on research by Dan Hopkins and Rob Ford).