It’s widely accepted that when people of different religions and ethnicities live side by side and interact, it improves mutual trust and relations. By the same token, research shows that when there are more ethnic or religious minority people in a neighbourhood but less interaction between them and the white majority residents, the latter tend to be more prejudiced and less trusting.
This theory – based on the “contact hypothesis” – gives us reason to be concerned about segregation between white majority and ethnic or religious minority residents. That’s why a recent report claiming that ethnic segregation is increasing across the UK caused a flurry of debate about how to address the issue.
But in reality, the picture is far more complicated. Some research draws the opposite conclusion: that British cities have actually become less segregated over the years.
Other experts have criticised the way the report measured segregation, arguing that we should be more concerned about tackling racism instead. After all, even in residential areas with low levels of segregation, people can self-segregate in spaces such as community centres, cafés, sports clubs, and bars, in order to avoid contact with each other.
Beyond the neighbourhood
Wealth can also play a role: when neighbourhoods are both segregated and poor, it can lower the quality of community life, or it can enhance community welfare and support. The place where we live undoubtedly shapes our lives – but it’s not the only factor.
Let’s not forget that our attitudes toward others are shaped outside our neighbourhoods, too. We also spend time in the workplace or other institutions, such as universities, schools, parks, public services, shops and sports associations.
Research based on the European Social Survey has demonstrated that diversity in the workplace can play an even greater role in forging friendships between people of different religions and ethnicities. It has even been shown that chain cafés, which are dotted throughout cities, create a convivial spaces which enable more in-depth interactions between diverse consumers.
All of this evidence seems to indicate that the kinds of spaces where interactions take place have an impact on the attitudes of white majority people toward minorities. To better understand this link, my colleagues and I developed a study: after gathering data from surveys in Leeds, UK, and Warsaw, Poland, we analysed the prejudice of white residents of these two cities.
We asked them about their contact with people from minority groups in a variety of places. We then classified these places into five types of space, according to the different degrees of closeness they created between people. There were private spaces (homes), social spaces (social clubs, sport groups, community centres), institutional spaces (places of work and study), spaces of consumption (restaurants, pubs, bars, cafés) and public spaces (streets, parks, public transport, public services).
We measured people’s attitudes with two questions: the first was a “feeling thermometer”, where respondents express the warmth of their feelings towards other groups in terms of degrees, from zero to 100. For the second question, we asked respondents how friendly they would be towards minority groups if they became their neighbours.
Meeting places matter
The results confirmed what we suspected – that where contact takes place matters when it comes to reducing prejudice. In Leeds, people held more positive feelings towards minorities when they interacted with them in institutional and social spaces. But only encounters in social spaces would make people more friendly to new minority neighbours.
So, while sharing a workplace with minorities can improve feelings toward them, this does not necessarily translate into neighbourly friendliness among white British people.
In Warsaw, we found a positive link between feelings and meeting minority people in public and consumption spaces. In particular, encounters with minority people in bars, restaurants and cafés were more likely to lead white majority residents to be friendly to them in neighbourhoods.
We suspect that in Warsaw cafés and restaurants play a similar role to social clubs and community centres in Leeds, by bringing people of different backgrounds together. Since the opening of country’s borders in 1989, Asian (mostly Vietnamese) restaurants and takeaways have spread across the Polish capital. They often become the sites of the first and – as it turns out – most meaningful encounters with non-Polish residents.
All this confirms that contact between people from different backgrounds is crucial for building cohesive societies – and we know that residential segregation makes this contact less likely.
But the spaces where contact takes place matter too. Whether in Leeds or Warsaw, encounters in public spaces do not translate into friendliness toward new minority neighbours. Reducing segregation does not guarantee that everyone will get along. Rather, we should cherish social spaces, as well as bars, cafés and restaurants, where people are encouraged to act as neighbours – not just strangers living side by side.