Immigration, Diversity and Social Cohesion

29th April 2014
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29/04/2015
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Rob McNeil

This briefing discusses the meaning, dimensions, measurement and determinants of social cohesion. Drawing on research in the US, UK and other European countries, it focuses on what we know and don’t know about the relationship between immigration, diversity and social cohesion.

Key points

  • There is significant policy concern about the impacts of immigration on social cohesion. However, most research analyses the relationship between diversity (typically measured in terms of racial and ethnic composition of the population) and social cohesion, not between immigration (typically measured based on place of birth and/or nationality) and social cohesion.
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  • There is no universally agreed definition of social cohesion. Most definitions involve notions of ‘solidarity’ and ‘togetherness’. A wide range of indicators have been used to measure and analyse social cohesion. The most common indicators include measures of trust and common social norms.
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  • Empirical evidence from the US suggests a negative relationship between diversity and cohesion. Evidence from the UK and rest of Europe is more mixed. Results differ depending on the indicators used.
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  • British and other European studies have raised the yet unresolved question whether it is income inequality, in particular deprivation and impoverishment of an area, rather than diversity per se that serves to estrange people.
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Understanding the evidence


There is significant policy concern about the impacts of immigration on social cohesion. However, most relevant research analyses the relationship between diversity and social cohesion, not between immigration and social cohesion. In theory, diversity can be defined and measured in different ways, e.g. by ethnicity, religion, place of birth, nationality and so on. In practice, most empirical studies define diversity by the racial and ethnic composition of the neighbourhood, rather than immigration status (which is typically measured using data on foreign-born or foreign nationals; see the Migration Observatory briefing "Who Counts as a Migrant? Definitions and their Consequences"). One of the most common measures of diversity is the index of ethnic fractionalisation, which measures the probability that two randomly selected individuals (who may or may not be migrants) in a neighbourhood belong to the same ethnic group.

Data sources typically used in studies of diversity and social cohesion in the UK include the Census (for measuring diversity) and the Citizenship Survey which includes a range of questions about attitudes toward and experiences of immigration and integration, as well as other topics relating to community life.

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There is no universally accepted definition of social cohesion

Although commonly used in policy debates in the UK and other developed democracies, there is no universally accepted definition of social cohesion. Social cohesion is often identified as ‘solidarity’ and ‘togetherness’. Social disorder, or rather social disorganisation is often thought to be the opposite of social cohesion. Frequently social cohesion is simply defined as ‘solidarity’ and somewhat interchangeably used together with the term ‘community cohesion’. As is the case with the related concept of social capital, cohesion seems better identifiable through its possible outcomes. Forrest and Kearns (2001: 2129) provide the following popular summary of the domains of community and social cohesion: common values and a civic culture, social order and social control, social solidarity and reductions in wealth disparities, social networks and social capital, place attachment and identity.

Other British policy reports highlight the peaceful co-existence of diverse groups as the heart of social cohesion and identify a cohesive community as one where:

"there is a common vision and a sense of belonging for all communities; the diversity of people’s different backgrounds and circumstances are appreciated and positively valued; those from different backgrounds have similar life opportunities; and strong and positive relationships are being developed between people from different backgrounds in the workplace, in schools and within neighbourhoods" (Cantle 2005: 14).

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Social cohesion is most commonly measured in terms of trust and common social norms  

The lack of a unified definition raises a variety of challenges for the measurement of social cohesion. Most researchers have assumed that high levels of cohesion and social capital in a community will be reflected in high levels of trust between individuals and the observance of common social norms. Therefore, trust and norms are among the most common indicators used in empirical research, although some studies include traditional measures of social capital such as membership in associations and political participation, as well as crime and “collective efficacy” i.e. the extent to which neighbours pull together to solve community problems (Sampson et al. 1997, Blake et al. 2008). Some researchers argue against a preoccupation with trust as an outcome, since generalised trust is but one of the dimensions of social cohesion (Hooghe 2007).

It is important to note that very few studies measure the actual level of social contact between neighbours in diverse communities despite the significance of contact for the establishment and maintenance of community cohesion (Cantle 2005). Contact between people from different ethnic groups generally decreases prejudice and thus stimulates cooperation (Allport 1954, Hewstone 2000, Hewstone 2006). Consequently, the premises of contact theory are not directly tested in studies that examine diversity without measuring social contact between members of different groups. We will see how important is to account for the role of actual contact in the next sections of this briefing.

Does increased diversity undermine social cohesion? Evidence from the US suggests a negative relationship

Frequently, the focus in social cohesion studies is on trust – generalised (whether most people can be trusted) or neighbourhood trust (most of the neighbours in this community can be trusted). Most of the empirical literature on this subject finds that the relationship between diversity and trust is negative – the more diverse a community is, the less likely individuals in it are to be trusting. The trend seems to hold especially strong for the US. Costa and Khan (2003) established with the General Social Survey that people in more diverse neighbourhoods trust their neighbours less and are less likely to be politically or communally involved. Alesina and La Ferrara (2000, 2005) found that trust in general and more specifically interpersonal trust is lower in more racially heterogeneous communities in the US. Stolle et al. (2008) comparing US and Canada observed a strong negative effect of diversity on trust; however, they also found that contact may neutralise but not make this relationship positive. Most notably, Putnam (2007) argues that diversity seems to alienate people in general and in his words pushes them towards ‘hunkering down’ i.e. towards segregation and isolation.

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Evidence from Europe and the UK is more mixed: income inequality and deprivation may be more important determinants

Some cross-national comparative research in Europe shows similar results with trust used as a proxy for cohesiveness (Gerritsen and Lubbens 2010). However, as noted above, the use of trust as the sole predictor of community spirit and togetherness has been severely criticised (Hooghe 2007) since generalised trust is but one of the components of social cohesion. Studies focussing on different dimensions of social capital besides interpersonal trust offer evidence that economic inequality and the democratic patterns in European societies are more important for explaining European countries’ different levels of social capital and cohesion (Gesthuizen et al. 2009).

Data from British neighbourhoods also do not conform to findings from the US. Fieldhouse and Cutts (2010), comparing the US and the UK, suggested that in Britain, diversity has a negative effect on both shared social norms and civic participation, but that these negative effects are offset by the positive effect of co-ethnic concentration. In other words, areas that are more diverse have higher rates of co-ethnic density which in turn, Fieldhouse and Cutts suggest, assists the building of more cohesive communities. Laurence and Heath (2008) and Letki (2008), looking at different predictors of social cohesion in the 2005 and 2001 Citizenship Surveys, argue that there is no strong evidence for an eroding effect of diversity once the association between diversity and economic deprivation is taken into account. Still, with British data based on the Citizenship Survey 2005, Laurence (2009) argued that rising diversity is associated with lower levels of neighbourhood trust.

The studies based on British data such as Laurence and Heath (2008), Letki (2008) and Sturgis et al. (2010) have raised the question whether it is income inequality, in particular deprivation and impoverishment of an area, rather than diversity per se that serves to estrange people, a sentiment echoed in much of the British policy research and reports based on qualitative in-depth interviews (Cantle 2005). Most recently, Sturgis et al. (2013) have gone further, showing that neighbourhood ethnic diversity in London is positively related to the perceived social cohesion of neighbourhood residents, once statistical controls for economic deprivation are introduced. Moreover, it is ethnic segregation within neighbourhoods that is associated with lower levels of perceived social cohesion. Both effects are strongly moderated by the age of the respondents, meaning that diversity tends to have a different relationship with cohesion for people of different ages. In this case, diversity has a more a positive effect on cohesion for younger people.

Contact with people from different groups also plays an important role in moderating the relationship between diversity and cohesion. Using British data based on the 2005 Citizenship Survey, Laurence (2011) argued that rising diversity is associated with lower levels of neighbourhood trust, although people with “bridging ties” (i.e. ties connecting individuals belonging to different minority groups) have less negative experiences. Similarly, Demireva and Heath (2014), using the 2010 Managing Cultural Diversity Survey (administered by the Oxford Diversity Project) and the 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Study conclude that diversity helps to cement the integration progress of migrants and foster stronger identification with Britain in the second generation. Heath and Demireva (2013) establish that high levels of “bonding” social capital (i.e. ties among individuals within a group) coexist with a number of individual-level markers of integration: positive orientations towards integration, high levels of British identity and relatively positive views of intermarriage across racial or ethnic lines.

Meanwhile, for members of the white British majority group, Laurence (2013) observes that contact moderates the negative effect of community diversity – in other words, for those that have formed ties to individuals in minority groups, diversity has no detrimental effect on cohesion. Importantly, it seems that diversity may undermine local (neighbourhood) social capital yet has little effect on individuals’ total levels of engagement (Laurence 2013). Thus, individuals in diverse communities have less neighbourhood-centric networks but other active and healthy ones. Datasets such as Understanding Society and the earlier Citizenship Survey allow further examination of the role of contact in different settings: neighbourhood, workplace, voluntary associations and more research is needed in the formation and strength of inter-ethnic contacts.

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Evidence gaps and limitations

As highlighted at the beginning of this briefing, a key limitation of the available literature remains its focus on diversity and social cohesion, rather than immigration and social cohesion. Communities can become more diverse without immigration and immigration does not always increase ethnic or racial diversity. It is therefore very difficult to use the available research to make strong claims about the relationship between immigration and social cohesion since at local authority level, there is a strong correlation between previous diversity levels and recent migration (Saggar et al. 2012).

Another limitation relates to disagreements about how to define and what indicators to use to measure social cohesion. Frequently, when a measure other than trust is used as seen from the literature overview, no negative relationship between cohesion and diversity can be detected and this is important since measurement of trust in survey analysis is far from perfect (Nannestad 2008).

There is great political concern with the effects of segregation on prospects of migrants to gain the skills needed for successful employment in the Britain, such as language fluency (Cameron 2013). The role of bonding and bridging capital has been investigated in relation to the labour market achievement of minority members with German data (Lancee 2012); and bridging ties with majority members allow for better position in the occupational hierarchy for minorities. More research in that direction is expected, which may shift the debate from cohesion back to integration.

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References

  • Alesina, A. and E. La Ferrara. "Participation in Heterogeneous Communities." Quarterly Journal of Economics 115 (2008): 47-904.
  • Alesina, A. and E. La Ferrara. "Ethnic Diversity and Economic Performance." Journal of Economic Literature 43 (2005): 762-800.
  • Allport, G. W. The Nature of Prejudice. Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1954.
  • Blake, G., J. Diamond, J. Foot, B. Gidley, M. Mayo, K. Shukra, and M. Yarnit. “Community Engagement and Community Cohesion.” Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York, 2008.
  • Cameron, D.  "Speech on immigration and welfare reform." Cabinet Office and Prime Minister's Office, 25 March 2013.
  • Cantle, T. Community Cohesion: A New Framework for Race and Diversity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
  • Costa, D. L. and M. E. Kahn. "Civic Engagement and Community Heterogeneity: An Economist's Perspective." Perspectives on Politics 1 (2003): 103-111.
  • Delhey, J. and K. Newton. "Predicting Cross-National Levels of Social Trust: Global Pattern or Nordic Exceptionalism?" European Sociological Review 21, no. 4 (2005): 311-327.
  • Demireva, N. and A. Heath. "Diversity and the Civic Spirit in British Neighbourhoods: An Investigation with MCDS and EMBES 2010 Data." Sociology (31 Jan 2014). 0038038513516695.
  • Department for Communities and Local Government. "2008-09 Citizenship Survey: Empowered Communities Topic Report." DCLG, London, 2010.
  • Fieldhouse, E. and D. Cutts. "Does Diversity Damage Social Capital? A Comparative Study of Neighbourhood Diversity and Social Capital in the US and Britain." Canadian Journal of Political Science-Revue Canadienne de Science Politique 43, no. 2 (2010): 289-318.
  • Forrest, R. and A. Kearns. "Social Cohesion, Social Capital and the Neighbourhood." Urban Studies 38, no. 12 (2001): 2125-2143.
  • Gerritsen, D. and M. Lubbers. "Unknown Is Unloved? Diversity and Inter-Population Trust in Europe." European Union Politics 11 (2010): 267-287.
  • Gesthuizen, M., T. Van Der Meer, and P. Scheepers. "Ethnic Diversity and Social Capital in Europe: Tests of Putnam's Thesis in European Countries." Scandinavian Political Studies 32, no. 2 (2009): 121-142.
  • Heath, A. and N. Demireva. "Has multiculturalism failed in Britain?" Ethnic and Racial Studies 37, no. 1 (2014): 161-180.
  • Hewstone, M., E. Cairns, A. Voci, J. Hamberger and U. Niens. "Intergroup Contact, Forgiveness, and Experience of 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland." Journal of Social Issues 62 (2006): 99-120.
  • Hewstone, M. and J. Hamberger. "Perceived Variability and Stereotype Change." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 36 (2000): 103-124.
  • Hooghe, M. "Social Capital and Diversity Generalized Trust, Social Cohesion and Regimes of Diversity." Canadian Journal of Political Science-Revue Canadienne de Science Politique 40 (2007): 709-732.
  • Lancee, B. "The economic returns of bonding and bridging social capital for immigrant men in Germany." Ethnic and Racial Studies 35, no. 4 (2012): 664-683.
  • Laurence, J. "Reconciling the contact and threat hypotheses: does ethnic diversity strengthen or weaken community inter-ethnic relations?" Ethnic and Racial Studies (14 May 2013). 10.1080/01419870.2013.788727
  • Laurence, J. "The Effect of Ethnic Diversity and Community Disadvantage on Social Cohesion: A Multi-Level Analysis of Social Capital and Interethnic Relations in UK Communities." European Sociological Review 27 (2011).
  • Laurence, J. and A. Heath. "Predictors of Community Cohesion: Multi-Level Modelling of the 2005 Citizneship Survey." Department for Communities and Local Government, London, 2008.
  • Letki, N. "Does Diversity Erode Social Cohesion? Social Capital and Race in British Neighbourhoods." Political Studies 56 (2008): 99-126.
  • Nannestad, P. "What Have We Learned about Generalized Trust, if Anything?" Annual Review of Political Science 11 (2008): 413-436.
  • Putnam, R. 2007. E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century. The 2006 Johan Skytte Prize Lecture." Scandinavian Political Studies 30, no. 2 (2007): 137-174.
  • Saggar, S., W. Somerville, R. Ford  and M. Sobolewska. “The Impacts of Migration on Social Cohesion and Integration.” Final report to the Migration Advisory Committee, home Office, London, 2012.
  • Sampson, R., S. Raudenbush, and F. Earls. "Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy." Science 277, no. 5328  (1997): 918-924.
  • Stolle, D., S. Soroka, and R. Johnston. "When Does Diversity Erode Trust? Neighborhood Diversity, Interpersonal Trust and the Mediating Effect of Social Interactions." Political Studies 56 (2008): 57-75.
  • Sturgis, P., Brunton-Smith, I., Kuha, J., & Jackson, J. "Ethnic diversity, segregation and the social cohesion of neighbourhoods in London". Ethnic and Racial Studies (14 Oct 2013). 10.1080/01419870.2013.831932
  • Sturgis, P., I. Brunton-Smith, S. Read and N. Allum. “Does Ethnic Diversity Erode Trust? Putnam’s ‘Hunkering Down’ Thesis Reconsidered.” British Journal of Political Science 41, no. 1 (2010): 57-82.

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