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Larger groups means you are less likely to form interracial relationships

Friday, April 26, 2013
posted by Rita Handrich

dv168060aI sent my kids to a small school with a 1:12 student teacher ratio for kindergarten through 12th grade. While I knew that student/teacher ratio was terrific, I worried sometimes that they did not have the diversity in student body they would have in a larger school. My kids (now in college) have told me consistently this was not an issue since they were taught to look at the individual and not just ethnicity both at home and at school. And they were forced by school size to do just that since there were fewer than 500 students in the entire K-12 school. They have friends (and in my daughter’s case, a first generation Vietnamese-American roommate) from that school to this day that reflect the diversity of students in the school. Nonetheless, I was glad to see this study from researchers at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

Two researchers looked at 4,745 high school students in the United States and ultimately conclude that “large schools promote racial segregation and discourage interracial friendships”. The researchers say that people, in general, prefer to make friends with same race others. We also prefer those who are similar in age, education, hobbies, personality, religious affiliation and political beliefs. It’s a lot of preferences through which we screen potential friend candidates.

I find that their characterization that the schools “promote” segregation is not quite fair. It suggests an intent to segregate that isn’t really supported. What is clear though, is that larger schools result in such divisions. In a smaller environment, you are unable to find as many same-race/ethnicity matches and thus are more likely to form friendships with those different than you in race/ethnicity. In other words, you are forced to look beyond what is visible to the eye and instead learn to know potential friends for their additional characteristics. Smaller groups tend to view one another on a more personal level, because people know one another more closely. If the 6th grade has 75 people, most students will know them all. If there is a grade size of 1000, you might still only really ‘know’ 75, and those 75 will tend to be those most ‘like me’. The researchers are sociologists and also (apparently) well-versed in statistics so the article itself is not a simple read. The conclusion, however, is simple: smaller groups yield more interracial relationships.

The researchers wonder about the impact of the internet and social media on interracial relationships and suggest that the huge “group” size available to all of us via the internet and social media could predict fewer interracial relationships in the future. Or as they say it:

One potential negative social consequence of the internet as a social interaction medium in the ever more globalized world is to encourage social isolation and social segmentation by expanding size immensely.”

Not all of us have/had the choice to attend small schools. Not all students want to attend small schools. But this research isn’t just applicable to primary and secondary education environments. It’s also a lesson for the workplace.

If you are a large organization, establish interest groups that will draw people across racial/ethnic lines.

Pay attention to having diversity across the spectrum in your employees but also in specialty areas/niches so you do not end up inadvertently racially segregating your employees.

Attorneys have to be able to talk to many different kinds of jurors about many different kinds of topics. Sometimes it’s awkward. Providing training on successfully negotiating potentially awkward conversations in the workplace can bolster workplace communications and potentially transfer to more comfort in the courtroom.

Look at diversity from multiple perspectives. It isn’t only about race/ethnicity. It’s also about gender, age, sexual orientation, religious beliefs or the lack thereof, disability status, and more.

Different is good. And it often makes us nervous. Precisely because it’s different. What this research says is that smaller groupings lead to more friendships across racial/ethnic lines. What we say is that smaller groupings and diverse choices could lead to more friendships and easy working relationships across lots of differences that could divide us. We are more alike than we are different. Make sure your workplace structure, organization, and culture lets employees discover that over and over again.

Cheng S, & Xie Y (2013). Structural effect of size on interracial friendship. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 23589848