Are Ethnic Enclaves to Blame for Social Glue Fractures?

Ethnic enclaves show up frequently in the speeches of politicians who often declare them to be areas blighted by social problems. In 2011 speech, David Cameron lamented the failures of multiculturalism that had led to the existence of highly segregated areas with values that run counter to that of the mainstream: “Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they [my note: young disaffected men] feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.” These sentiments were echoed by other world leaders such as the German Chancellor Angela Merkel who also proclaimed multiculturalism dead and with it the Multikulti vision of communities living side by side but not engaging with one another. Politicians fear that enclaves equate social isolation and they are not completely wrong. Research shows that high levels of ethnic concentration expose the cracks in the relationship between different ethnic groups and is a signal of ethnic tensions (Smith et al., 2014, Goldschmidt and Rydgren, 2018), often seen as responsible for failed attempts at integration. Linguistic isolation can be typical in such areas (Koopmans and Schaeffer, 2016).

Yet, enclaves can be important for migrants at the onset of their journeys, and they can provide their residents with important goods and services (Portes and Zhou, 1993) or protection towards discrimination (Bécares et al., 2009) although as to the latter the evidence is mixed (Nandi et al., 2020). In this context, it is more important than ever to provide evidence-based knowledge on the economic and social outcomes of residents of local communities that are considered to be under pressure, to sit outside the protective shield of the mainstream society but which also happen in many cases to be beleaguered by a range of economic stress factors that present a challenge to integration – ethnic enclaves and local areas with an increasing concentration of migrants and minorities. My research looks to fill these gaps.

Defining the ethnic enclave

Ethnic enclaves are local residential areas in which migrants and minorities form a large proportion of the population while there is little presence of majority members (Waldinger, 1994). In such areas ethnic businesses and formal and informal community institutions predominate, and such conurbations can be culturally and economically distinctive (Zhou, 2004). A defining feature is however the spatial concentration of non-majority members in the residential locality (Danzer and Yaman, 2013, Poulsen et al., 2002). In my work, I have tried to draw a distinction between the ethnic enclave – the residential areas characterized by minority concentration and the ethnic niche or the ethnic economy in which ethnic businesses predominate. Some scholars have used the two terms almost interchangeably pointing to the fact that a hard distinction between the two may sometimes be hard to achieve (Portes, 1995). Yet, I believe such a distinction is important. There will be differences between individuals who reside in an enclave and work in the mainstream economy and those that are enclave residents but work for a co-ethnic or a distinctively ethnic business. The two settings will determine the extent of contact of the individual and their opportunity for tie formation either with members of one’s own group which is frequently described as bonding or with outgroupers which is described as bridging.

Ethnic enclaves may be areas defined by high levels of minority concentration, but they may not necessarily be segregated areas. In the European and the British context that I research, such areas very infrequently reach the levels of spatial concentration noted in the US. In fact, Peach (2009) has argued that Britain is not sleepwalking into segregation and enclaves should not be feared. More recent research by Catney (2015, 2016b, 2016a, 2017) suggests that Britain is diversifying, that there is a growing presence of young white British professionals moving into traditionally ethnic minority areas and that even among Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities a moving away from the ethnic nuclei is visible. In the European context, Musterd (2009) shows that segregation can be found in some big cities such as Brussels and Antwerp but not in others and usually the inequality noted along ethnic lines is less than what can be observed in the US.

Research Findings

My recent work (Demireva and Zwysen, 2021) using European data from the European Social Survey (ESS) demonstrated the importance of studying local areas with high concentration of migrants and minorities. In a cross-nationally comparative study based on data from 27 European countries, I looked at ‘perceived ethnic enclaves’ – areas that are characterized by the ESS survey respondents as being dominated by migrant and minority groups – and found that increased migrant and minority presence in the local area does not seem to be a viable economic threat for majority members but ethnic enclaves and the isolation in them are associated with poorer employment prospects for both migrants and minorities. In alignment with the observations of political commentators, majority members in such local areas experienced their political power threatened and acted to redress the balance by voting for a far-right party irrespective of their actual economic position.

Exposure to the perceived ethnic enclave, on the other hand, isolated the second generation from the occupational hierarchies of the mainstream labour market while also served to consolidate their dissatisfaction with democracy. Some more recent research (under review) shows that individual socio-demographic characteristics help to explain the enclave penalty in terms of social distance and happiness – perceived enclaves are areas in which individuals with poorer socio-economic profiles settle down. For social trust, the difference between enclave and non-enclave residents diminishes but does not disappear. Despite the fact that the literature generally ascribes a positive effect to spatially concentrated areas for migrants and minorities in terms of the experience of discrimination (Bécares et al., 2009), the results of my research with European data aligned with these of recent studies in the UK (Nandi et al., 2020) which find little evidence of shielding effects for areas in which migrants and minorities predominate – thus, national ‘hostile’ policy effects can trickle down to the local area.

Further thoughts

Some of the difficulties of research in this area comes from the challenge of establishing the causal connection between sociability, trust, solidarity and residing in the ethnic enclave. We cannot randomly allocate people to live in certain areas and usually people choose to live in specific neighbourhoods due to variety of reasons. Robert Putnam (2000) summarizes this predicament of the researcher interested in societal outcomes well: ‘The causal arrows among civic involvement, reciprocity, honesty and social trust are as tangled as well-tossed spaghetti. Only careful, even experimental, research will be able to sort them apart definitively. […] We need to recognize that they form a coherent syndrome.’ (Putnam, 2000: p.145). We can however attempt to understand whether there are particular patterns and outcomes of people residing in ethnically concentrated areas and trace the changes in such neighbourhoods over time. My body of work argues that it is important to contextualize diversity and explore finer distinctions between groups (Demireva and Heath, 2014, Heath and Demireva, 2014, Demireva and Heath, 2017), and to explore the heterogeneity of impacts in a variety of communities. Thus, further longitudinal work based on panel data such as BHPS/Understanding society can be extremely illuminating and bring much needed understanding of the role of contextual and individual factors.


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