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What We Should Be Doing With Diversity on Our College Campuses

By Danielle S. Allen Published 2013

Dorling Kindersley
Scholars of network theory have shown that increased social connectivity through bridging ties, in particular, brings improved social outcomes.

College campuses struggle with how to think and talk about diversity of all kinds, a struggle that has gone on for more than two decades now. Every year, there are stories from around the country about anonymous hate speech and offensive theme parties with equally offensive T-shirts as well as controversies about “political correctness.” Nor has there been a year in my roughly two decades in higher ed when I haven’t read or heard someone wondering, “Why do all the black kids sit together in the cafeteria?”

What are the stakes for how well we deal with diversity on college campuses? There are two answers to this question, one concerning the stakes for the campuses themselves, the other the broader social stakes. First, for campuses. Social scientists have long distinguished between two kinds of social tie: “bonding ties” that connect people who share similar backgrounds and “bridging ties” that link people who come from different social spaces. Since the 1970s, scholars have been aware that “bridging ties” are especially powerful for generating knowledge transmission; more recently, scholars have argued convincingly that teams and communities that, first, emphasize bridging ties and, second, successfully learn how to communicate across their differences outperform more homogenous teams and communities with regard to the development and deployment of knowledge.

When we think about social skills, we need to recognize that there is an art of bonding but also a separate art of bridging. Campuses that can successfully cultivate the art of bridging should be able to lift the general intellectual performance of their student body. Achieving a “connected campus,” where students from diverse backgrounds have real and positive social relationships with one another, would support the intellectual mission of universities.

Yet the art of bridging that must be cultivated in colleges and universities if we are to take advantage of campus diversity has important ramifications well beyond the quads. In a variety of contexts, ranging from employment, to health, to education, scholars of network theory have shown that increased social connectivity through bridging ties, in particular, brings improved social outcomes.

The differences between these two categories of tie—bonding and bridging—really do matter. Research shows, for instance, that the majority of people who get a new job through information passed through a social network have acquired that information not from a close connection but from a distant one. This makes sense. One’s closest connections share too much of one’s world; they are a lot less likely to introduce new information.

We all know this intuitively. Whenever we are trying to help a friend who has been single too long, we scratch our brains to think of a further removed social connection who might connect our friend to a whole new pool of possibilities.

Perhaps these seem like trivial examples. But the most important egalitarian impacts of social connectivity flow from bridging ties and their impact on the diffusion of knowledge. The relations between social connectedness and both employment and educational opportunity, in particular, are profound. 

At the same time that successful bridging ties bring clear benefits to individuals and communities, another body of research has identified a worrying phenomenon. In communities with higher levels of diversity, there are often also higher levels of distrust.

The issue in such situations, I believe, is that it is not enough just to stick people together. They need, as I said above, an art of bridging and that art is much harder to come by than the art of bonding. Bonding ties, and their attendant curatorial art, take care of themselves, really. They start with the family and radiate out. Most of us begin learning the art of bonding from day one, upon our arrival in this world. And a large professional class of therapists devotes considerable energy to helping us improve our capacities to cultivate healthy bonding relationships.

But bridging ties are a matter of social structure. Schools, the military, political bodies—these have typically been the institutions that bring people from different backgrounds together. When our institutions are more effective at this—that is, when they bring a more diverse group together—participants face a heightened need for an art of bridging, and they may have had very little prior experience with such an art. After all, one of the most powerful lessons we teach young people is “don’t talk to strangers.”

If we wish in this country to undo the forms of economic inequality, political inequality, and social inequality that now characterize our democracy, we need, among other things, to build not only connected campuses but also, more generally, a connected society. This certainly requires institutional change so that we have more opportunities to form bridging ties, but it also requires the development of a skillset that is woefully undersupplied in our culture (the presence of a professional class of translators and interpreters, notwithstanding). We could learn something from the military about the art of bridging, and we could learn something from college campuses, if they themselves could get better at cultivating this. Yet the current sexual assault scandals in both contexts also make clear how much more both sets of institutions have to learn about gender and sexual diversity, specifically.

To say that we need an art of bridging is not, however, to say that we can ignore the art of bonding. For the sake of healthy psychological development, all people need bonding relationships. Bonding builds a sense of security and trust, supports for self-confidence that can, in the right contexts, undergird success. We black kids have good reason for sometimes wanting to sit together.

A comprehensive 2008 study of student social life at the University of California, Los Angeles, published by Russell Sage as The Diversity Challenge, provides significant insight into the complex ways that bonding and bridging intersect with one another. The study traces in-group and out-group friendships for the four major ethnic groups on the UCLA campus (black, Latino, Asian, and white) as well as participation in ethnic organizations and fraternities and sororities, which are functionally ethnic organizations despite going by a different label. Students who come to campus having already had greater-than-average out-group contact continue in that direction, forming out-group friendships at far higher rates. Students of all ethnicities whose pre-collegiate experience has, in contrast, tended toward in-group bias (more positive feelings towards one’s own group), anxiety about intercultural competence, and perceptions of discrimination are more likely to develop an extensively in-group friendship set. Yet the results of this proclivity to bond are different for different groups. On the negative side, this bonding further increases in-group bias, perceptions of discrimination, and interactional anxiety for all groups. Also on the negative side, for Latinos at UCLA during the time of the study, those in-group bonding relationships also led to lower motivation, attachment, and commitment. Yet for Asians and blacks in the study, these bonding experiences also led to higher commitment, and for blacks, they, in addition, led to greater attachment to the university and higher academic motivation, all indubitably good outcomes.

These data dramatically make the point that not all bonding is the same and that there is much work to be done to understand (1) the mechanisms that generate bonding’s positive effects, (2) the mechanisms that generate its negative (anti-bridging) effects, and (3) the mechanisms by which bonding itself might serve to teach people how to bridge rather than be insular.

The important message, then, is this: everybody needs opportunities both to bond and to bridge, and everybody therefore needs arts of both bonding and bridging. We also, importantly, need to learn ways of bonding that enable us to bridge. On college campuses, and in a variety of other social contexts, we need to give more attention to understanding and cultivating these two intertwined arts.

But here we come to an impasse. If our families and our therapists help us learn how to bond, who helps us learn how to bridge? There remains much research to be done—by sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, historians, and philosophers—to deepen our understanding of the art of bridging, in order that we may more effectively cultivate it. 


Recommended Reading: Danielle Allen served as part of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’s commission that produced the report The Heart of the Matter. The report responded to a bipartisan request from Congress to “assess the state of humanistic and social scientific scholarship and education.” Among the many notable members of the commission are Institute Trustee Roger W. Ferguson, Jr., and former Institute scholars Robert Berdahl and Amy Gutmann. You may read the full report at www.humanitiescommission.org/ _pdf/HSS_Report.pdf and listen to Allen discuss the report in an interview on WHYY radio: http://whyy.org/cms/radiotimes/2013/07/01/why- the-humanities-matter/.

Danielle Allen, UPS Foundation Professor in the School of Social Science since 2007, is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2002 for her ability to combine “the classicist’s careful attention to texts and language with the political theorist’s sophisticated and informed engagement.” Her most recent book is Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality, forthcoming from Norton/Liveright in 2014.

Published in The Institute Letter Summer 2013