Integration and Dissatisfaction for British Ethnic Minorities

Welcome to third and final installment of my three-part blog series on the effects of social integration for the UK’s non-white ethnic minorities.

In Part 1, I discussed the “discrimination through integration” thesis. Finding that greater social integration is significantly associated with heightened reporting of discrimination, I explained that there are two plausible explanations for this. While social integration can create opportunities for positive inter-group contact which fosters social trust (as explained in Part 2 of the blog series), it can also heighten exposure to discriminatory behaviours and attitudes.

Another explanation is that socially integrated ethnic minority people are more inculcated under the liberal-egalitarian norms of mainstream society – meaning they may be more sensitive to interpreting negative experiences through an “identity-based lens.”

The first two parts of the blog series tee us up nicely for the third and final part on the democratic satisfaction of Britain’s non-white ethnic minorities.

My doctoral thesis addressed a glaring oversight in the vast body of scholarship: how do the lived experiences and social networks of ethnic minority people within a country – in this case, the UK – shape satisfaction with their own democratic system.

As discussed in Parts 1 and 2, perceptions of discrimination are stronger among more socially integrated ethnic minority people – who interestingly are more likely to be socially trusting of wider British society.  This helped to formulate the main hypothesis for the third and final empirical chapter of my PhD thesis:

“While social integration creates opportunities… it can also heighten exposure to/perceptions of discrimination which in turn undermine satisfaction with the democratic system of governance – a system which is expected to ensure a meritocratic allocation of rewards and opportunities

By being more socially integrated, ethnic minority people may use “out-groupers” – especially members of the white British majority – to measure themselves up against (such as career progression, salary and general socio-economic status). Therefore, social integration has the potential to give rise to feelings of relative deprivation, which in turn may undermine satisfaction with the British democratic system of governance.

I sought to explain how ethnic integration related to democratic satisfaction in two ways:

  • How it related to ethnic integration in the workplace
  • How it relates to ethnic integration in friendship circles

The Ethnic Minority British Elections Study of 2010 (EMBES), a representative survey of UK ethnic minorities, contains a measure of democratic satisfaction.

My analysis of the survey, took into account party identification, ethnicity, gender, age, birthplace, education level, social class, main language spoken at home, self-reported discrimination, neighbourhood non-white density, and neighbourhood deprivation.

Co-Ethnicity of Workplace

Large-scale CV field studies show both ethnic and religious penalties continue to persist in the British labour market. There is the possibility that ethnic minority workers who are employed in the “mainstream economy” and outside of “ethnic enclaves” may be more aware of these penalties than “less exposed” ethnic minority workers who operate in “occupationally segregated” sectors.

Figure 1 shows the results from my analysis, that ethnic minority people who “bridge” by being more socially integrated through work, are less likely to be satisfied with British democracy. Ethnic minority people who are employed in “bonding” workplaces – where about half or more of their co-workers belong to their own group – are more likely to report satisfaction with the British democratic system. (This finding is statistically significant at a 1% level; N.B. NIW = not in work.)


Co-Ethnicity of Friendship Network

Figure 2 shows the relationship between co-ethnicity of friendship network and democratic satisfaction among British ethnic minority people.

Following a similar pattern for workplace, ethnic minority people who are more socially integrated through their friendship group are less likely to report democratic satisfaction than those who are part of predominantly co-ethnic “bonding” friendship networks. Being “socially segregated” is associated with a higher likelihood of reporting satisfaction with Britain’s democratic system. (As in the case of the workplace, this finding is also statistically significant at the 1% level.)

Fig. 2

Broader discussion of results

At face-value, there appears to be a somewhat paradoxical association – ethnic minority people who are more socially integrated into British society are less likely to be satisfied with how democracy works in the UK.

They are also more likely to report discrimination – which in turn feeds into democratic dissatisfaction. However, it is important to acknowledge that reported discrimination – which is included in the main model – can only partly account for the seemingly paradoxical relationship between social integration and democratic dissatisfaction in the British ethnic minority context.

One perfectly plausible explanation for this link is that being dissatisfied with democracy is a natural consequence of becoming more integrated into the political cynicism of the white British mainstream. This essentially implies that ethnic minority people “take on” the “critical attitudes” of the white British majority as they “mix” outside of their own group and become more “absorbed” into the relatively cynical social mainstream.

Another plausible explanation is that as ethnic minority people become more socially integrated and develop friendships with out-group members of society, they are more likely to use out-groupers (including friends as well as work colleagues) as a “point of reference” when evaluating how they benefit from the allocation of rewards and opportunities in the UK. Friendships often encompass the divulging of personal details, such as educational qualifications, occupational grade, promotions and salary/income.

And research has demonstrated the enduring nature of ethnic penalties in a UK labour market where BAME people are more likely to be underemployed and often in roles not commensurate with their qualifications when compared to similarly-qualified white British peers.

While socially integrated ethnic minority people are more likely to have positive contact with out-groupers – they are also more likely to use them as reference points when evaluating their own socio-economic position and career progression. This in turn heightens the possibility of developing feelings of relative deprivation – a sense of being unfairly treated.

The findings suggest that Britain’s democratic institutions and system of governance are held accountable by ethnic minority people who feel that there are forces of “out-group favouritism”.

In this sense, social integration represents a double-edged sword for Britain’s ethnic minorities. While it creates opportunities for building positive inter-group relations, social integration can also heighten perceptions of discrimination and feelings of relative deprivation – which in turn can feed into dissatisfaction with the democratic system.

Social integration should be strongly encouraged as it helps to cultivate bonds of trust, familiarity and mutual respect. However, we must be honest about the drawbacks of social integration and the importance of ‘managed diversity’.


Dr Rakib Ehsan is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society’s Centre on Social & Political Risk. His PhD, titled Discrimination, Social Relations and Trust: Civic Inclusion of British Ethnic Minorities, was completed at Royal Holloway, University of London.

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