Postwar immigration-related diversity has fundamentally re-shaped the content of public policy discussions in the UK. Fiercely contested debates over multiculturalism, discrimination, integration, trust and identity are now dominant features of European political discourse, demonstrating the powerful impact of ethnic diversification on the public policy agenda of ‘receiver’ societies such as the UK.
The integration of Britain’s ethnic minorities remains one of the most challenging and divisive areas of public policy. My recently submitted PhD thesis sought to break away from ideologically driven discussions on social integration and instead provide a balanced, evidence-led, analytical account of its positive and negative effects.
The thesis was a mixed-methods study, incorporating quantitative analysis reliant on 2010 EMBES data and complementary semi-structured interviews conducted over the course of 2018. Five main UK ethnic minority groups were under analysis: British Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Black Caribbeans and Black Africans. The thesis explored the possibility that while social integration provides opportunities for positive cross-group contact that are beneficial for social trust, it can also potentially heighten exposure to discrimination and perceptions of unequal treatment. My PhD research delivered three key findings:
- By creating greater opportunities for positive inter-ethnic contact, social integration is beneficial for social trust
- However, a drawback of social integration is that increased cross-ethnic contact also heightens the probability of experiencing discrimination (primarily on racial grounds)
- Partly due to this heightened exposure to (and awareness of) discrimination, socially integrated BAME people are less likely to be satisfied with British democracy
Much of the existing research prioritises the positive side effects of inter-group contact. This was demonstrated by a meta-analysis consisting of 714 independent studies in the field of inter-ethnic relations, which showed that the vast majority found a positive relationship between cross-group contact and prejudice reduction (Pettigrew and Tropp, 2006). Thomas Pettigrew, a leading scholar in the field of inter-group studies, found that research into the negative effects of inter-group contact was relatively underdeveloped.
Addressing this asymmetry, my thesis found that a composite measure of social integration (encompassing co-ethnicity of friendship group, workplace, neighbourhood, place of worship and civic associations) was significantly associated with a higher likelihood of reporting discrimination. Looking at specific “domains” of social integration, this relationship especially applies to the workplace.
As Fig. 1 below shows, ethnic minority people who are part of more “ethnically mixed” workplaces (where only a few or none of their work colleagues belong to their own ethnic group) are more likely to report discrimination than those who are “occupationally segregated” and employed in more “ingroup”, co-ethnic, bonding places of work. Interestingly, BAME people who are unemployed/not in work (‘NIW’) are the least likely to report discrimination. Another interesting finding was that higher educational attainment was associated with a heightened probability of reported discrimination.
*Binary logistic regression model controlled for ethnicity, gender, age, birthplace, education, social class, main language at home, co-ethnicity of friendship group, neighbourhood non-white density and neighbourhood deprivation. Dependent variable included cases of racial and religious discrimination.
There was evidence that being part of more ethnically mixed networks could counterbalance the negative effects of discrimination on social trust. Although social integration can heighten exposure to discrimination, it is positively associated with social trust. While some degree of conflict is likely, this suggests that greater inter-ethnic contact can be positive for social trust on the whole.
This supports the general implications of contact theory. Despite being “insulated” from discriminatory behaviours and attitudes, socially and occupationally segregated people are less likely to be socially trusting, suggesting that limited opportunities for cross-ethnic contact can inhibit social trust among BAME people. This supports the findings of the government-commissioned 2001 Cantle and 2016 Casey reports – that meaningful cross-group contact can help to develop bonds of familiarity and mutual understanding which can be beneficial for social trust, while segregation is particularly harmful to community cohesion.
Fig. 2 provides an interesting contrast to Fig. 1. BAME people in ethnically mixed workplaces – who are most likely to report discrimination – are also most likely to be socially trusting. Those who are unemployed/NIW may be the least likely to report discrimination, but they are nevertheless the least likely to be socially trusting. This demonstrates that unemployment and associated forms of social exclusion are particularly damaging for social trust among BAME people.
*Logistic regression model controls for ethnicity, gender, age, birthplace, education, social class, main language at home, co-ethnicity of friendship group, reported discrimination, neighbourhood non-white density and neighbourhood deprivation. Interestingly, discrimination variable is non-significant in the model.
Satisfaction with Democracy
This is where social integration becomes problematic. While more likely to be socially trusting, socially integrated BAME people are more likely to report discrimination and less likely to be satisfied with how democracy works in Britain. Ethnic minority people who are more socially integrated through friends and work colleagues are less likely to report democratic satisfaction. Britain’s Black Caribbeans, who are famously integrated through friendships and relationships, are the least likely to be satisfied with British democracy. Quite interestingly, British Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, who are more socially and occupationally segregated from the mainstream, are more likely to be satisfied with British democracy. This could be down to a number of reasons and is deserving of further attention.
While quantitative analysis found that this could partly be down to heightened exposure to discrimination, that is by no means a full explanation. There is the possibility that socially integrated BAME people become absorbed into a social mainstream which is generally cynical and critical of conventional politics. Another plausible explanation is that as BAME people become more socially integrated, they are more likely to use members of the white British majority as a reference point when evaluating their own lives.
With a number of studies providing evidence of “ethnic penalties” in terms of job and salary grade, social integration may heighten perceptions of unfair treatment and inequality of opportunity. These two points could explain why BAME people who are part of more ethnically mixed friendship networks are less likely to report democratic satisfaction in Fig. 3.
*Logistic regression model controlled for ethnicity, age, gender, birthplace, education, social class, main language at home, co-ethnicity of workplace, reported discrimination, neighbourhood non-white density and neighbourhood deprivation.
These findings collectively provide much food for thought. Social integration is beneficial for social trust among Britain’s ethnic minorities. However, social integration has its drawbacks, heightening exposure to discrimination and undermining satisfaction with the democratic system of governance. This suggests that as BAME people become more socially integrated, they could become more socially trusting but less democratically satisfied. In this sense, there are “two sides” to integration. The findings of my PhD research certainly pose a challenge for policymakers and practitioners who are interested to establishing a more socially cohesive and democratically satisfied multi-ethnic British society.