Whatever its financial benefits, immigration is bad for social cohesion. Such is the conventional view. But this might be wrong. This new paper suggests that, in theory, migration might actually improve cohesion.
To see the point, start with the standard view, for which there is some evidence. It says people prefer living in ethnically homogenous areas because they find it easier to trust people like themselves; we know how like-minded folk behave. In this view, immigration is a bad thing because it makes the actions of our neighbours more unpredictable. People don't like foreigners not because they are racist but because they don't like uncertainty. This is why anti-immigration sentiment tends to be greatest when the migrants are new - because that's when their behaviour is most uncertain; just look how hostility to Ugandan Asians has faded since the 1970s.
However, there are two forces which can offset this tendency for immigration to increase the uncertainty of others' behaviour.
First, immigration can help in creating new social norms. Take four examples:
1. Danny wants to institute a social norm whereby we all give 1% of our incomes to charity. The presence of migrants might help create and sustain this norm, because it's given us two groups of people who already possess it: Jews with their tzedakah and Muslims with their zakat. Because we tend to imitate others' behaviour, these can give a kickstart to Danny's initiative.
2. If you want to live in a quiet area, you should hope for Indians or Chinese neighbours, as these are less likely than indigenous whites to have regular loud parties or wild teenagers.
3. Immigrants can reinforce norms against heavy drinking. If people have Muslim or American colleagues or friends, they are less likely to socialize with them by spending all night in the pub.
4. Immigration has helped shore up Christianity in Britain; churches are full of Poles and West Indians.
Secondly, the existence of immigration throws the very question of social cohesion and social norms into open discussion. The questions "what does it mean to be British?" and "how can we increase social cohesion?" are responses to mass migration. And the effect of discussing these questions might be to increase trust among people by making hitherto implicit, tacit social norms more explicit.
It's possible, therefore, that immigration might actually be a force for social cohesion, at least in the long-run. Could it be then that the lack of social cohesion as a result of immigration is (just?) a temporary disequilibrium?