Immigration, Diversity and Social Cohesion
This briefing discusses the meaning, dimensions, measurement and determinants of social cohesion. Drawing on research in the US, UK and other European countries, it focuses on what we know and don’t know about the relationship between immigration, diversity and social cohesion.
- There is significant policy concern about the impacts of immigration on social cohesion. However, most research analyses the relationship between diversity (typically measured in terms of racial and ethnic composition of the population) and social cohesion, not between immigration (typically measured based on place of birth and/or nationality) and social cohesion.
- There is no universally agreed definition of social cohesion. Most definitions involve notions of ‘solidarity’ and ‘togetherness’. A wide range of indicators have been used to measure and analyse social cohesion. The most common indicators include measures of trust and common social norms.
- The empirical evidence from the US suggests a negative relationship between diversity and cohesion. The evidence from the UK and rest of Europe is more mixed. Results differ depending on the indicators used.
- British and other European studies have raised the yet unresolved question whether it is income inequality, in particular deprivation and impoverishment of an area, rather than diversity per se that serves to estrange people.
Although commonly used in policy debates in the UK and other developed democracies, there is no universally accepted definition of social cohesion. Social cohesion is often identified as ‘solidarity’ and ‘togetherness’. Social disorder, or rather social disorganisation is often thought to be the opposite of social cohesion. Frequently social cohesion is simply defined as ‘solidarity’ and somewhat interchangeably used together with the term ‘community cohesion’. As is the case with the related concept of social capital, cohesion seems better identifiable through its possible outcomes. Forrest and Kearns (2001: 2129) provide the following popular summary of the domains of community and social cohesion: common values and a civic culture, social order and social control, social solidarity and reductions in wealth disparities, social networks and social capital, place attachment and identity.
Other British policy reports highlight the peaceful co-existence of diverse groups as the heart of social cohesion and identify a cohesive community as one where:
“there is a common vision and a sense of belonging for all communities; the diversity of people’s different backgrounds and circumstances are appreciated and positively valued; those from different backgrounds have similar life opportunities; and strong and positive relationships are being developed between people from different backgrounds in the workplace, in schools and within neighbourhoods” (Cantle 2005: 14).
Social cohesion is most commonly measured in terms of trust and common social norms
The lack of a unified definition raises a variety of challenges for the measurement of social cohesion. Most researchers have assumed that high levels of cohesion and social capital in a community will be reflected in high levels of trust between individuals and the observance of common social norms. Therefore, trust and norms are among the most common indicators used in empirical research, although some studies include traditional measures of social capital such as membership in associations and political participation, as well as crime and “collective efficacy” i.e. the extent to which neighbours pull together to solve community problems (Sampson et al. 1997, Blake et al. 2008).
It is important to note that very few studies measure the actual level of social contact between neighbours in diverse communities despite the significance of contact for the establishment and maintenance of community cohesion (Cantle 2005). Consequently, the premises of contact theory are not directly tested: namely, whether increased contact between people from different ethnic groups decreases prejudice and thus stimulates cooperation (Allport 1954, Hewstone 2000, Hewstone 2006). The Citizenship Surveys of 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 in the UK and the national survey of the Oxford Diversity Project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, all of which include detailed questions about intra-ethnic and inter-ethnic contacts, create an opportunity for such measures to be used in future research on cohesion.
Does increased diversity undermine social cohesion? The evidence from the US suggests a negative relationship
Frequently, the focus in social cohesion studies is on trust – generalised (whether most people can be trusted) or neighbourhood trust (most of the neighbours in this community can be trusted). Most of the empirical literature on this subject finds that the relationship between diversity and trust is negative – the more diverse a community is, the less likely individuals in it are to be trusting. The trend seems to hold especially strong for the US. Costa and Khan (2003) established with the General Social Survey that people in more diverse neighbourhoods trust their neighbours less and are less likely to be politically or communally involved. Alesina and La Ferrara (2000, 2005) found that trust in general and more specifically interpersonal trust is lower in more racially heterogeneous communities in the US. Stolle et al. (2008) comparing US and Canada observed a strong negative effect of diversity on trust; however, they also found that contact may neutralize but not make this relationship positive. Most notably, Putnam (2007) argues that diversity seems to alienate people in general and in his words pushes them towards ‘hunkering down’ i.e. towards segregation and isolation.
The evidence from Europe and the UK is more mixed: income inequality and deprivation may be more important determinants
Some cross-national comparative research in Europe shows similar results with trust used as a proxy for cohesiveness (Gerritsen and Lubbens 2010). However, the use of trust as the sole predictor of community spirit and togetherness has been severely criticised (Hooghe 2007) since generalized trust is but one of the components of social cohesion. Studies which focus on different dimensions of social capital besides interpersonal trust offer evidence that economic inequality and the democratic patterns in European societies are more important for explaining European countries’ different levels of social capital and cohesion (Gesthuizen et al. 2009).
Data from British neighbourhoods also do not conform to findings from the US. Fieldhouse and Cutts (2010), comparing the US and the UK, suggested that in Britain, diversity has a negative effect on both shared social norms and civic participation, but that these negative effects are offset by the positive effect of co-ethnic concentration. In other words, areas that are more diverse have higher rates of co-ethnic density which in turn, Fieldhouse and Cutts suggest, assists the building of more cohesive communities. Laurence and Heath (2008) and Letki (2008), looking at different predictors of social cohesion in the 2005 and 2001 Citizenship Surveys, argue that there is no strong evidence for an eroding effect of diversity once the association between diversity and economic deprivation is taken into account. Still, with British data based on the Citizenship Survey 2005, Laurence (2009) argued that rising diversity is associated with lower levels of neighbourhood trust, although people with “bridging ties” (i.e. ties connecting individuals belonging to different minority groups) have less negative experiences.
The studies based on British data such as Laurence and Heath (2008), Letki (2008) and Sturgis et al. (2010) and Twigg and Taylor (2010) have raised the question whether it is income inequality, in particular deprivation and impoverishment of an area, rather than diversity per se that serves to estrange people, a sentiment echoed in much of the British policy research and reports based on qualitative in-depth interviews (Cantle 2005). Saggar et al. (2012) using data from the National Insurance Number (NINO) registrations datasets and the Citizenship Surveys find that increases in local authority deprivation are nearly always associated with a decline in perceptions of social cohesion among residents. However, when it comes to distinguishing between the effects of previous diversity and recent immigration, no clear cut pattern can be observed: when both measures are included in a single model, migration becomes insignificant; furthermore, when deprivation is added, all three predictors lose their significance – a result which can be very much due to the strong correlation between previous diversity levels and recent migration at the local authority level.
Evidence gaps and limitations
As highlighted at the beginning of this briefing, a key limitation of the available literature is its focus on diversity and social cohesion, rather than immigration and social cohesion. Communities can become more diverse without immigration and immigration does not always increase ethnic or racial diversity. Statistically, at least, it is hard to distil between diversity levels and recent migration effects. Thus researchers have been so far unable to quench the rising opposition to immigration among the general public – with UK becoming an outlier in its lack of support for immigrant integration (Saggar and Somerville 2012).
Another limitation relates to disagreements about how to define and what indicators to use to measure social cohesion. Some researchers argue that a preoccupation with trust as an indicator seems unjustifiable since generalized trust is but one of the mechanisms of social capital and is one of the predictors most vulnerable to the effects of diversity, unlike other measures such as associational membership (Hooghe 2007). In addition, the instruments on which the measurement of trust is based in survey analysis are far from perfect (Nannestad 2008). Frequently, when an indicator other than trust is used as seen from the literature overview, no negative relationship between cohesion and diversity can be detected.
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- Sturgis, P., I. Brunton-Smith, S. Read and N. Allum. “Does Ethnic Diversity Erode Trust? Putnam’s ‘Hunkering Down’ Thesis Reconsidered.” British Journal of Political Science 41, no. 1 (2010): 57-82.
- Twigg, L. and J. Taylor. "Diversity or Disadvantage? Putnam, Goodhart, Ethnic Heterogeneity, and Collective Efficacy.” Environment and Planning A 42 (2010): 1421–1438.
- Migration Observatory briefing: Who Counts as a Migrant? Definitions and their Consequences