Does Classroom and Neighborhood Diversity Increase Cross-Ethnic Friendships?

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 By: Tara Kuther

In recent decades, ethnic diversity has grown in many societies, yet many neighborhoods and schools are ethnically segregated and adolescents often form more same-ethnic than cross-ethnic friendships. Munniksma, Scheepers, Stark, and Tolsma (2016) examined the extent to which classroom and neighborhood ethnic diversity was associated with the formation and reciprocation of same- and cross-ethnic friendships in early adolescence. They studied 911 middle school students (age 12) from 43 classrooms and 9 schools in the Netherlands. Two-thirds of the sample was Native Dutch, 7% another Western ethnic background, 13% Turkish, 4% Moroccan, 5% Surinamese and Dutch Antillean, and 11% another non-Western ethnic background. Indexes of classroom and neighborhood diversity were created using students’ reported ethnic backgrounds and neighborhood demographic data. At the beginning of the first middle school year, students reported on their friendship networks by nominating their close friends.

Across all students were more likely to report same-ethnic rather than cross-ethnic friendships, but Native Dutch students identified fewer cross-ethnic friendships (27%) than did ethnic minority students (78%).  Greater classroom and neighborhood diversity was associated with a stronger tendency to choose same-ethnic rather than cross-ethnic friends among all students, regardless of their own ethnicity. In addition, students in more ethnically diverse classrooms had more friends overall.  Adolescents face many challenges during the transition to middle school, including new peer relationship, new teachers, courses, and buildings, all while trying to figure out who they are. School diversity may pose an additional challenge to young people who might be drawn to the familiarity of same-ethnicity peers. Similar to findings with students in the United States, in diverse classrooms and neighborhoods in the Netherlands, social subgroups are likely to form based on the ethnic backgrounds of students. Cross-ethnic friendships tend to reduce ethnic prejudice; however, these results suggest that diverse peers do not always lead to cross-ethnic friendships.

To learn more:
Munniksma, A., Scheepers, P., Stark, T. H., & Tolsma, J. (2016). The impact of adolescents’ classroom and neighborhood ethnic diversity on same-and cross-ethnic friendships within classrooms. Journal of Research on Adolescence. DOI: 10.1111/jora.12248