Stability and quality of interethnic friendships in primary school

Interethnic friendships have been shown to reduce prejudice. The education system provides unique opportunities for children and adolescents to meet and befriend peers from different ethnic groups. However, previous research shows that children and adolescents are more likely to have friends with the same race, ethnicity, immigrant background, and country of origin. We know less about whether this is because students are less likely to befriend inter-ethnic peers, or because interethnic friendships do not last as long as same-ethnic ones (or both). There is also little evidence whether interethnic friendships, apart from being less likely to exist, are otherwise different from same-ethnic ones.

Together with colleagues from the Universities of Vienna and Tübingen (Sophie Oczlon, Susanne Schwab, Lisa Bardach, Mike Lehofer, and Marko Lüftenegger), we are analysing a data set of primary school students in Austria, in order to better understand the differences between same-ethnic and interethnic friendships. First, we are interested whether inter-ethnic friendships are less likely to form than same-ethnic ones, and whether they are less stable than same-ethnic ones, or, once formed, they are just as likely to be maintained over time. Here our preliminary results show that ethnicity did not influence Austrian children’s friendship formation. However, interethnic relationships were more likely to dissolve over a year than same-ethnic ones. This holds even if we take into account network processes such as befriending friends of friends, known to reinforce the overrepresentation of same-ethnic friendships in communities over time.

Second, not all friendships are of the same strength or quality, and there is little evidence if there are systematic differences between interethnic and same-ethnic friendships. In the dataset we analyse, friendship quality was measured for each friendship each student reported in terms of companionship, intimacy, and support. We find no evidence that inter-ethnic and same-ethnic friendships are different in their quality. This also means that the higher likelihood of same-ethnic friendships to survive cannot be explained by differences in quality. The reasons for interethnic friendships to dissolve more easily therefore need further investigation.