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Excerpted from Poverty & Race, Volume 31, No.2 (Oct-Dec 2022)
Linda R. Tropp and Mohammed Naeem
As income and wealth gaps continue to grow, economic segregation in American society has become increasingly widespread (Horowitz, Igelnik, & Arditi, 2020; Reardon, & Bischoff, 2011) and opportunities for economic mobility are commonly overestimated (Kraus & Tan, 2015). The landmark analysis recently published by Chetty et al. (2022a; 2022b) emphasizes the crucial role of social capital—that is, the constellation of resources and benefits gained through one’s social network—in addressing challenges presented by economic segregation and supporting prospects for economic mobility among those with lower socio-economic status (SES).
Analyzing data based on 21 billion friendships in the social networks of 72.2 million Facebook users between the ages of 25 and 44, the authors highlight the importance of one particular form of social capital, which they refer to as economic connectedness. In their first of two articles, they define economic connectedness as the degree to which people from low-SES and high-SES backgrounds “are friends with each other” (p. 108). One key finding is that people are more likely to be friends with people from their own socio-economic background than with people from another socio-economic background. Importantly, however, the authors also find that in counties or zip codes where people from low-SES backgrounds tend to have more high-SES friends, low-income children have higher rates of upward mobility.
Although the associations observed between economic connectedness and upward economic mobility by Chetty and colleagues were conducted at aggregate levels (county and zip code), the patterns of associations are entirely compatible with a vast, rich, and long-standing research literature that analyzes connections between people from different social groups at the individual level. On the one hand, studies suggest that people are more likely to become friends with others from their own groups, relative to their propensity to become friends with people from other social groups (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001)—what Chetty and colleagues refer to as a friending bias. On the other hand, to the extent that people develop friendships with members of other social groups, they are more likely to develop positive attitudes toward those other groups than people who have fewer or no cross-group friendships (Davies, Tropp, Aron, Pettigrew, & Wright, 2011).
This research emphasis is most prominent in the fields of social psychology and sociology, where the term intergroup contact is commonly used to refer to studies that examine the effects of connections between people from different social groups. In the intergroup contact research literature, contact is defined in terms of face-to-face interaction that members of different groups have with each other, whether this interaction is reported by research participants themselves, or observed directly by researchers over the course of a study. Decades of research including survey, experimental, and longitudinal studies provide strong evidence that contact between members of different social groups can be an effective tool for reducing prejudice and improving intergroup attitudes (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2011). Moreover, meta-analytic research pooling data from more than 500 studies, conducted in 38 countries and including more than 250,000 research participants, shows that greater contact between groups is typically associated with lower prejudice—and this association between contact and reduced prejudice emerges across studies involving many different types of social groups (e.g., race and ethnicity, physical disability, sexual orientation, mental illness) and many different social contexts (e.g., schools, workplaces, research laboratories, recreational settings; see Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006).
Whereas the intergroup contact research literature has traditionally focused on effects related to social attitudes, a number of recent studies have tested the effects of intergroup contact on policy attitudes and other outcomes relevant to civic participation, with a particular focus on racial and ethnic relations. For instance, in the U.S., studies show that the more White Americans report having close contact with Black Americans, the more they are willing to support racial justice efforts, and the more they report having participated in Black Lives Matter protests (Selvanathan, Techakesari, Tropp, & Barlow, 2018). Longitudinal research also indicates that having greater numbers of interracial friendships predicts White Americans’ greater support for affirmative action over time (Northcutt Bohmert & DeMaris, 2015).
Related research also shows how living and learning in racially diverse environments can mold people’s social and political attitudes. For example, compared to those educated in racially homogeneous schools, White children who were educated in racially diverse schools tend to self-report lower racial prejudice in adulthood (Wood & Sonleitner, 1996), as well as greater interest in living and working in racially integrated environments when they become adults (Merlino, Steinhardt, & Wren-Lewis, 2022; Mickelson & Nkomo, 2012). Recent work also shows that White men who grew up with a Black neighbor during their childhoods were more likely to identify as Democrats later in life (Brown, Enos, Feigenbaum, & Mazumder, 2021). In a similar vein, the research presented by Chetty and colleagues reveals how the diversity and nature of social relations in one’s local environment can shape later life outcomes in fundamental ways. Using an intriguing analytic approach, Chetty and colleagues (2022a) link children’s likelihood of social mobility to the degree to which people from high-SES and low-SES backgrounds are more (or less) likely to be connected through social networks in the counties and zip codes in which these children were raised. Importantly, the authors’ approach brings us closer to understanding the long-term impact of cross-group relations on social mobility, a finding that highlights the perils of residential segregation in our communities. Economic and racial segregation persist in the U.S. (Massey, 2020), reinforcing troubling trends toward racial segregation in U.S. schools (Tegeler & Hilton, 2017) and high levels of racial isolation for youth from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds (Geiger, 2017). Yet in their article, Chetty and colleagues (2022b) are correct to recognize that desegregation is not the same as integration, and that shifting the composition of groups in a given setting or institution is not the same as guaranteeing that members of different groups will necessarily develop social ties or connections to one another. Thus, beyond examining the effects of exposure (or lack of exposure) to people from other socio-economic backgrounds within one’s local environment, Chetty and colleagues (2022b) also stress that a friending bias may also limit the degree to which friendship networks will afford opportunities for social mobility; specifically, the authors state that “the relationship between economic connectedness and upward mobility is not merely driven by the presence of high-SES peers… instead, interaction with those peers is what predicts upward mobility most strongly” (p. 128).
Consistent with Chetty et al.’s (2022b) interpretation, friending bias has been well-established established in the research literature, referred to as the concept of homophily: people are generally more likely to become friends with people who are members of their own social groups (McPherson et al., 2001). At the same time, prior research has demonstrated links between exposure to other social groups and weaker friending bias tendencies; for instance, a greater representation of students from another racial backgrounds in the classroom predicts students’ own propensities to choose cross-race friends (Hallinan & Teixeira, 1987).
Notwithstanding, it remains difficult to discern from the present set of papers how much of the upward mobility effect observed by Chetty and colleagues may be due to the actual contact or direct ties individual people from low-SES backgrounds have with those from higher-SES backgrounds, as compared to how much of the effect may be due to local norms that support integration across economic lines. Studies show that the more people observe others in their community engaging in contact across group lines, or approving of such contact, the more they themselves report being willing to interact with people from other groups (Mazziotta, Mummendey, & Wright, 2011; Meleady, 2021; Tropp, O’Brien, & Migacheva, 2014). Other social psychological research indicates that, beyond the effects of one’s own direct contact experience, a contextual effect of contact emerges whereby more supportive norms for integration emerge the more that people in one’s local community have positive contact with other groups (Christ et al., 2014). Examining these finer distinctions in predictors of upward mobility could be a worthwhile direction for further research; future work would be particularly valuable if it were to merge investigations of economic and social outcomes by linking aggregate data available through large-scale datasets with responses gathered at the individual level.
Additionally, to the extent that contact is measured at the individual level in this future work, it would be useful to distinguish between varied forms of contact that are commonly assessed in the existing intergroup contact research literature. For example, people’s cross-group experiences may vary in terms of being relatively superficial to intimate, from being commonplace and numerous to very rare, and in being experienced as positive and warm to being very negative and hostile in nature (Hayward, Tropp, Hornsey, & Barlow, 2017). Moreover, people differ in how they use and sustain friendship networks on social media outlets like Facebook, such that their social networks may reflect a more narrow circle of intimate relationships, or a broader circle of more superficial acquaintances, or some combination of the two (see Lambert, 2013). Other social science research also suggests that relatively close and weak ties to others may shape one’s prospects for economic advancement in different ways (Gee, Jones, & Burke, 2017). Closer examination of the nature of people’s experiences across group lines could thus offer greater insights regarding the types of contact between groups that would be most likely to propel opportunities for social mobility.
As Chetty and colleagues noted, communities need to invest in strategies and design spaces that facilitate interaction across group lines. Very much in line with this view, some local and national organizations, foundations, and the private sector have all recognized this distinct need and have begun to deploy considerable resources and energy toward this goal. As one example, the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council (AIC) has been making early-stage investments in organizations seeking to scale community-based programming through contact-based strategies. Partners in this effort are using varied approaches, including pilot bridge-building projects in public spaces and cross-sector programs that bring local communities together. These efforts are being designed intentionally to ensure that interactions between social groups occur repeatedly over time, with people from different groups working together toward shared goals, to reflect insights from the research literature on intergroup contact.
As these efforts have grown, we have come to recognize that many local communities and organizations desire additional guidance regarding how their programs could be designed and evaluated toward maximum effectiveness. Through a partnership between AIC’s Center for Inclusion and Belonging, Welcoming America, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, we therefore recently released a new guide entitled Cultivating Contact: A Guide to Building Bridges and Meaningful Connections Between Groups (Tropp & Dehrone, 2022), which distills lessons from decades of intergroup contact research and describes strategies for building trust and belonging among people from different backgrounds through community-based programs and initiatives. Of particular note, the guide offers concrete examples of how optimal conditions for contact (e.g., equal status, institutional support, cooperative interdependence) may be implemented in practice, and how desired outcomes of contact programs can assessed and evaluated. Already being amplified by practitioners and organizations across civil society, government, and the private sector, this guide is now helping to set the stage for building meaningful and sustained contact in communities across the country.
The work of Chetty and colleagues has helped to illuminate how profoundly connected social networks can influence one’s life outcomes. It is now incumbent upon all of us to learn from their example, and to rely on the broader base of knowledge on contact between groups, to expand the ecosystem of actors seeking to build bridges and forge relationships across lines of difference, toward a more promising future for our society.
Linda R. Tropp (email@example.com) is Professor of Social Psychology and Faculty Affiliate in Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Mohammed Naeem (MNaeem@immcouncil.org) is Senior Manager for Strategy and Partnerships at the Center for Inclusion and Belonging of the American Immigration Council.
Brown, J. R., Enos, R. D., Feigenbaum, J., & Mazumder, S. (2021, June). Childhood cross-ethnic exposure predicts political behavior seven decades later: Evidence from linked administrative data. Science Advances, 7, eabe8432.
Chetty, R., Jackson, M. O., Kuchler, T., Stroebel, J., Hendren, N., Fluegge, R. B., Gong, S., Gonzalez, F., Grondin, A., Jacob, M., Johnston, D., Koenen, M., Laguna-Muggenberg, E., Mudekereza, F., Rutter, T., Thor, N., Townsend, W., Zhang, R., Bailey, M., Barberá, P., Bhole, M., & Wernerfelt, N. (2022a). Social capital I: Measurement and associations with economic mobility. Nature, 608, 108–121.
Chetty, R., Jackson, M. O., Kuchler, T., Stroebel, J., Hendren, N., Fluegge, R. B., Gong, S., Gonzalez, F., Grondin, A., Jacob, M., Johnston, D., Koenen, M., Laguna-Muggenberg, E., Mudekereza, F., Rutter, T., Thor, N., Townsend, W., Zhang, R., Bailey, M., Barberá, P., Bhole, M., & Wernerfelt, N. (2022b). Social capital II: Determinants of economic connectedness. Nature, 608, 122–134.
Christ, O., Schmid, K., Lolliot, S., Swart, H., Stolle, D., Tausch, N., Ramiah, A. A., Wagner, U., Vertovec, S., & Hewstone, M. (2014). Contextual effect of positive intergroup contact on outgroup prejudice. PNAS: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 3996-4000.
Davies, K., Tropp, L. R., Aron, A., Pettigrew, T. F., & Wright, S. C. (2011). Cross-group friendships and intergroup attitudes: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15, 332–351.
Gee, L. K., Jones, J., & Burke, M. (2017). Social networks and labor markets: How strong ties relate to job finding on Facebook’s social network. Journal of Labor Economics, 35, 485-518.
Geiger, A. (2017, October). Many minority students go to schools where at least half of their peers are their race or ethnicity. Pew Research Center.
Hallinan, M. T., & Teixeira, R. A. (1987). Opportunities and constraints: Black-White differences in the formation of interracial friendships. Child Development, 58, 1358-1371.
Hayward, L. E., Tropp, L. R., Hornsey, M. J., & Barlow, F. K. (2017). Toward a comprehensive understanding of intergroup contact: Descriptions and mediators of positive and negative contact among majority and minority groups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43, 347-364.
Horowitz, J., Igelnik, R., & Arditi, T. (2020). Most Americans Say There Is Too Much Economic Inequality in the U.S., but Fewer Than Half Call It a Top Priority. Pew Research Center.
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Lambert, A. (2013). Intimacy and friendship on Facebook. Springer.
Massey, D. S. (2020). Still the linchpin: Segregation and stratification in the USA. Race and Social Problems, 12, 1–12.
Mazziotta, A., Mummendey, A., & Wright, S. C. (2011). Vicarious intergroup contact effects: Applying social-cognitive theory to intergroup contact research. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 14, 255-274.
McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Cook, J. M. (2001). Birds of a feather: Homophily in social networks. Annual Review of Sociology, 27, 415-444.
Meleady, R. (2021). Nudging intergroup contact: Normative social influences on intergroup contact engagement. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 24, 1180-1199.
Merlino, L. P., Steinhardt, M. F., & Wren-Lewis, L. (2022). The long-run impact of childhood interracial contact on residential segregation. IZA Institute of Labor Economics, Working paper #15538.
Mickelson, R. A., & Nkomo, M. (2012). Integrated schooling, life course outcomes, and social cohesion in multiethnic democratic societies. Review of Research in Education, 36, 197-238.
Northcutt Bohmert, M., & DeMaris, A. (2015). Interracial friendship and the trajectory of prominority attitudes: Assessing intergroup contact theory. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 18, 225-240.
Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2006). A meta-analytic test of intergroup contact theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 751–783.
Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2011). When groups meet: The dynamics of intergroup contact. Psychology Press.
Reardon, S. F., & Bischoff, K. (2011). Income inequality and income segregation. American Journal of Sociology, 116, 1092-1153.
Selvanathan, H., Techakesari, P., Tropp, L. R., & Barlow, F. K. (2018). Whites for racial justice: How contact with Blacks predicts Whites’ collective action. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, 21, 893-912.
Tegeler, P., & Hilton, M. (2017). Disrupting the reciprocal relationship between housing and school segregation. Poverty and Race Research Action Council.
Tropp, L. R., & Dehrone, T. A. (2022). Cultivating contact: A guide for building bridges and meaningful connections between groups. Resource guide developed in collaboration with the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at American Immigration Council and Welcoming America.
Tropp, L. R., O’Brien, T. C., & Migacheva, K. (2014). How peer norms of inclusion and exclusion predict children’s interest in cross-ethnic friendships. Journal of Social Issues, 70, 151–166.
Wood, P. B., & Sonleitner, N. (1996). The effect of childhood interracial contact on adult antiblack prejudice. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 20, 1–17.