Interethnic Friendships in British Civil Society Organizations

We should question the assumption that civil society organizations have helped bridge ethnic divides in British communities, write Liran Morav and Senhu Wang.

Like the rest of Europe, Britain is an increasingly diverse society. However, communication across cultural divides can be tricky. Members of different communities do not always agree on how their neighbourhoods should be managed or what should be the appropriate norms of civility and conduct in public spaces. On top of that, things get trickier when policing practices and government actions are perceived to be singling out specific minority groups for unfair treatment. Over the last century, several ‘race riots’, including the London riots in 2011, erupted for precisely these reasons. Sometimes, it was members of the majority ethnic group – the so-called White Britons – that responded to ethnic tensions and state policies by mobilizing and protesting against what they considered to be threatening levels of migration and diversity in British society. The most obvious example of this is the successful public campaign for Brexit, which was animated by a White-British anti-immigration voting bloc.

Britain’s Ethnic Diversity Challenge

Few will deny that ‘living with difference’ is one of the social policy challenges of our time. Britain’s political establishment has long understood that government, local authorities and civil society have all-important roles to play in helping harmonize inter-communal relations in British communities. The management of interethnic and interfaith relations was the subject of multiple public commissions and parliamentary research reports, including the Parekh Report in 2000, Cantle Report (2001), Commission on Cohesion and Integration (2007), Casey Review (2016), Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life (2015), and most recently the All-Party Parliamentary Group report on Social Integration (2017).

One of the most important themes running through these commissions’ reports and recommendations is the recognition that achieving cohesion in diverse communities requires that members of different ethnic and faith groups be given opportunities to engage in positive interactions with each other. Beginning in 2001, the Cantle Report recommended that “In order to combat the fear and ignorance of different communities which stems from the lack of contact with each other”, local communities should draft cohesion plans that “include the promotion of cross cultural contact between different communities at all levels, foster understanding and respect, and break down barriers.”(p.11). Since then, the promotion of positive interethnic contact has become an important strategy for multiple community cohesion initiatives.

Policymakers, too, have stressed the importance of contact for cohesion and integration in British communities. In a 2015 speech on ‘Anti-Extremism’, for example, British Prime Minister David Cameron asserted that “it cannot be right […] that people can grow up and go to school and hardly ever come into meaningful contact with people from other backgrounds and faiths. That doesn’t foster a sense of shared belonging and understanding – it can drive people apart”. More recently, in 2017, Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration recommended that UK public authorities support “the growth of civic and community institutions that can which promote cross-community contact” (p. 52). 

Questioning the impact of cross-community contact

The idea that ‘cross-community contact’ in institutional settings can improve relations in society can be traced to Gordon Allport’s innovative work on racial prejudice in the United States. As early as 1954, Allport devised a series of experiments in which white and black Americans were asked to cooperate on a joint task. Attitudinal tests administered to participants in these contrived mixed-race encounters helped Allport show that regular positive interactions between black and white Americans in collaborative settings can go a long way in reducing participants’ interracial prejudices. Psychological research conducted since then has generalized Allport’s ‘Intergroup Contact Hypothesis’, demonstrating that positive intergroup contact in conducive settings – for example, schools and community organisations – tends to reduce prejudicial attitudes existing between members of different ethnic and religious groups.

Intrigued by the findings of this literature, we decided to examine whether it is sensible to assume that intergroup contact in structured settings can transform interethnic relations in actual British communities. We were concerned by a rich body of research on the ‘attitude-behaviour gap’, which suggests that people’s attitudes do not reliably predict their behaviours. We reasoned that even if positive interactions between members of different ethnic/faith groups improve individuals’ attitudes towards each other – does this equate with improved community relations? In our view, community cohesion and social harmony depend on people’s relationships with each other – not on their attitudes.

Consider this hypothetical example: imagine that Tom, a White British person who grew up in a homogeneous white neighbourhood, joins an ethnically diverse amateur football club. In this club, he regularly interacts with members of different British ethnic minorities and – according to the Intergroup Contact Hypothesis – develops sympathetic attitudes towards his fellow club members. Although Tom’s changed attitudes are no doubt a positive outcome of his club activity, one could legitimately ask whether they portend a transformation in Tom’s broader patterns of behaviour. How likely is he, for example, to establish long-lasting relationships with ethnic minorities in other walks of life? Will he join future anti-racism demonstrations or volunteer in cross-ethnic charities? Will his contact experiences in the football club have a long term, downstream impact on the fabric of interethnic relations in the local community?

These questions might sound petty, but the point they underscore is that social cohesion in diverse communities depends less on how people ‘feel’ towards each other (attitudes) – and more on how they behave and relate to each other over the long term. Whereas the Intergroup Contact literature describes how to change people’s attitudes, the key to improving social cohesion in diverse communities lies in changing people’s behaviours and relationships – and there’s no guarantee that changed attitudes are enough to trigger such changes.  

The impact of cross-community contact on inter-ethnic friendships in Britain

In light of this, we decided to examine the effect of structured interethnic contact within civil society organizations (CSOs) on British ethnic minorities’ interethnic friendships. CSOs include any non-religious and pan-ethnic association that brings people together on a voluntary basis for some shared purpose. They may include sports and recreational clubs, volunteer organizations, and grassroots political associations, among other things. Because participation in them is voluntary, collaborative and geared towards a common purpose, CSOs provide optimum conditions for the formation of friendships between members of different ethnic groups.

The reason we chose to analyse the impact of CSOs on interethnic friendships was that friendship relationships embed trust and reciprocity, which are the very building blocks of cohesive communities. People united by the bond of friendship are more likely to help, support and cooperate with each other. This is why political theorists like Robert Putnam and Francis Fukuyama have argued that when friendship ties within a community cross ethnic lines, it gets easier for different groups to resolve their differences constructively and work together to achieve shared goals. Compared to attitudes, people’s friendships are a much more reliable indicator of the quality of intergroup life in diverse communities.

In Britain, empirical research paints a mixed picture of people’s openness to interethnic relationships. Last year, a study by Cambridge’s ‘Woolf Institute’ found that three-quarters of British people living in England and Wales report having at least one friend from a different ethnic background. This rate, however, varies by education, income and location. Compared to university graduates, Britons with a non-university degree are 77% more likely to say they have only same-ethnic friends; similarly, compared with people who earn over £60,000 a year, those earning below £20,000 are 52% more likely to have only same-ethnic friends; and finally, people living in Britain’s North East are 150% (!) more likely than Londoners to have only same-ethnic friends. Further insights on British friendships patterns can also be gleaned from an earlier study by demographer Raya Muttarak, which examined data from 2007-9 and found that 44% of British ethnic minorities do not have a single friend from a different ethnicity. This figure ranges from 59% for ethnic minorities born abroad to 33% for those born in Britain.

Our Findings

The study we conducted used two large-scale nationally representative datasets to explore the association between participation in CSOs and the interethnic friendship patterns of five self-identified British ethnic minority respondents (Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Black Africans and Black Caribbeans), and analyse how this relationship is affected by the ethnic compositions of CSOs. Our main source of data was the UK Household Longitudinal Study (2011-2019), which allowed us to investigate how changes in individuals’ participation in CSOs relate to changes in their interethnic friendships over time. The second data source was the 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Survey (EMBES), which allowed us to explore the relationship between the degree of interethnic exposure within CSOs and the interethnic friendships of ethnic minority participants.

Following a series of robust statistical analyses of both datasets, we concluded that, on the whole, participation in CSOs does not seem to increase British ethnic minority participants’ interethnic friends (see figure 1). Of the five ethnic groups examined, only British-Indians reported having more interethnic friends following participation in CSOs:

Figure 1 – Participation in CSOs does not increase British ethnic minorities’ interethnic friendships

Why does participation in CSOs not contribute to interethnic friendships? Our subsequent analysis of the EMBES data revealed that respondents who participated in CSOs where most other participants belonged to other ethnic groups (‘Mostly interethnic’ CSOs) reported a significantly higher share of interethnic friends than respondents who did not participate in any CSO at all. Conversely, respondents participating in CSOs where they were in the ethnic majority (‘Majority co-ethnic’ CSOs) were found to have less interethnic friends than non-participants (figure 2). These results help explain why CSO participation has no overall effect on the ethnic composition of British ethnic minorities’ friendship networks: the gains in interethnic friendships experienced by participants in ‘Majority interethnic’ CSOs are likely offset by losses in such friendships among participants in ‘Majority co-ethnic’ CSOs.

Figure 2 – Data source: EMBES 2010


Overall, the cumulative findings of our study call into question the assumption that participation in CSOs strengthens intergroup relations in British communities. Even though survey respondents in our study joined CSOs offering opportunities for interethnic contact, only a subset of them went on to form interethnic friendships as a result of their participation. Those that did most likely participated in CSOs in which their respective ethnic groups were in the numeric minority. This suggests that in order to help forge lasting relationships between people of different ethnic groups, civil society organizations must ensure that their memberships are sufficiently diverse. The most straightforward way for a CSO to do this would be to adjust its recruitment strategy.

Other than CSO membership compositions, there are other important factors that determine people’s friend-making habits within CSOs. Ethnic identity appears to be an important source of variation in this regard. As our own study found, British-Indians are more likely to form friendships in CSOs than any other ethnic minority group. We are not sure how to explain this result. Perhaps British-Indians are more inclined than other minority groups to view CSOs as platforms for cross-ethnic encounters. Future research will hopefully shed light on this puzzle. In any case, another likely determinant of friendship formation in CSOs are the specific activities taking place within them. Sport clubs may be more conducive to interethnic friendships than, say, neighbourhood watches or parent-teacher associations. The significance of these and other dimensions of CSO activities should form the focus of future research on community cohesion and integration in Britain.

Liran Morav (@LiranMorav) is a PhD student at St Edmunds College. Dr Senhu Wang (@SenhuWang) is a former PhD student from Churchill College, recently appointed as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology of the National University of Singapore.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay