Social Integration and Trust: Friendship and Employment Networks of British Ethnic Minorities

Welcome to the second blog of my three-part series with All in Britain, which is modelled on the three main empirical chapters of my PhD thesis. With Part 1 of the blog series looking at the relationship between social integration and heightened reporting of discrimination, we now look at how social integration and intergroup contact impacts on the generalised social trust of Britain’s ethnic minorities.

Generalised social trust is slightly different to interpersonal social trust. While the latter focuses on actual social relationships (trust in family members, neighbours, friends and work colleagues), attitudes surrounding generalised social trust “extend beyond the boundaries of face-to-face interaction and incorporate people who are not personally known to each other” (Rothstein and Stolle, 2008). That citizens in countries, regions, cities and neighbourhoods are able to trust one another – without actual personal contact – and thereby able to co-operate and solve collective problems, continues to be one of the most interesting areas of social science research.

Much research in this field of study identifies the positive impact of intergroup contact. Drawing inspiration from “contact theory”, this existing body of scholarship collectively affirms that social contact between different groups – racial, ethnic, religious – leads to reduced prejudices towards the “outgroup.” Intergroup contact has the potential to build social trust in multi-ethnic societies – compensating for innate human prejudices towards “outgroupers” who may not share similar physical and biological characteristics.

While much of the existing social trust research in the Western world is from the “vantage point” of the white-majority ethnic group, my thesis explored how generalised social trust is shaped and constructed among the UK’s non-white minority groups. I asked if there was a significant relationship between integration and trust among British ethnic minorities?

In my PhD research, I focused on two specific “domains” of social integration and how they relate to ethnic-minority generalised social trust: friendship networks and the workplace. The 2010 Ethnic Minority British Election Study, which remains the most comprehensive survey looking into the socio-political behaviour and attitudes of British ethnic minorities, was utilised for this analysis.

Using regression analysis, I sought to predict under what conditions of integration ethnic minority people were more likely to describe themselves as trusting of others.

Friendship Network

Ethnically diverse friendship units can have the potential to produce positive outcomes for the generalised social trust of British ethnic minorities. This is supported by an interesting experimental study in the Iraqi cities of Erbil and Kirkuk (Rydgren et al. 2013), which found that interethnic friendships were associated with more positive perceptions of “the outgroup” and a stronger sense of intergroup tolerance and mutual respect.

Inspired by Robert Putnam’s concepts of bridging and bonding social capital,  non-white ethnic minority people who had no or only a few friends who belonged to their own ethnic group fell into the “bridging” category, while those who reported that about half or more friends shared the same ethnic background, were included in the “bonding” category.

(The modelling controlled for ethnicity, gender, age, birthplace, education, social class, main language at home, self-reported racial/ethnic discrimination, co-ethnicity of workplace, neighbourhood non-white density and neighbourhood deprivation.)

I found that British ethnic minority people who “bridge” and are more socially integrated through their friendship network are more likely to be socially trusting than those who are part of predominantly co-ethnic networks (Figure 1). This suggests that being part of a more inclusive and “ethnically open” friendship network helps to cultivate generalised social trust for British ethnic minority groups.

Fig. 1

Employment Network

While friendship groups are traditionally viewed as positive sources of support and enjoyment which are underpinned by bonds of trust, this does not necessarily apply for places of work. It cannot be as comfortably assumed that places of work are generally healthy sources of support, encouragement and mutual respect. While teamwork is in many cases an essential part of workplace success, individual performance-related assessments and vying for internal promotions mean that the world of work can be characterised by intense forms of competition and rivalry in the British market economy. This is further complicated by ethnic penalties which continue to persist in the UK labour market.

In addition to this, there is the important matter of self-selection. Freedom of self-selection is far greater in the case of friendship network in comparison to the workplace. An individual has much greater control over who they are friends are, as opposed to who they work with.

For this part of the analysis, workplace integration was classified into three main categories: “bridging”, “bonding” and “unemployed/not in work” (NIW.). Ethnic minority people who had no or only a few work colleagues who belonged to their own ethnic group fell into the “bridging” category. Those who were employed in a place of work where about half or more co-workers shared the same ethnic background, were included in the “bonding” category.

Following the pattern of association for friendship network, Fig. 2 below shows that those who “bridge” and are more socially integrated through their place of work are more likely to be socially trusting than those who are employed in predominantly co-ethnic workplaces. Ethnic minority people who are unemployed/not in work (N.I.W.) – in other words economically inactive – are the least likely to be socially trusting. Therefore, being socially integrated, through both friends and work, appears to be beneficial for the generalised social trust of British non-white ethnic minority people.

Fig. 2

Broader Discussion of Results

The results, when considered alongside those presented in Part 1 of the blog series, provides this central message – social integration inevitably involves a degree of conflict but ultimately leads to positive outcomes for ethnic minority social trust in the UK. Social integration, whilst being associated with heightened reporting of discrimination, also creates more opportunities for positive interethnic contact – which in turn strengthens social trust.

The 2001 Cantle and 2016 Casey reports on integration correctly identify segregation as a fundamental problem from a social cohesion perspective. Without sustained levels of intergroup contact, less opportunities for meaningful positive interactions between different ethnic groups are created. While social integration and interethnic contact can help to develop bonds of familiarity, understanding and mutual regard, social and occupational segregation can breed “suspicion of the unknown” and undermine trust.

A lack of contact between different groups in racially and religiously diverse parts of “urban Britain” is certainly an issue from a counter-extremism perspective. Experiences of positive interethnic contact through participation in cross-community projects – skills schemes, health awareness workshops, inter-institution sporting competitions – can help to foster meaningful intergroup relations which act as an effective “shield” from deliberately divisive narratives constructed by extremist forces.

The central picture is clear – integration on the whole helps to develop the social trust of British ethnic minority people, and segregation very much undermines it. Our political leaders and policymakers should take note.


Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. His PhD, titled Discrimination, Social Relations and Trust: Civic Inclusion of British Ethnic Minorities, was completed at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Rakib Ehsan Written by:

One Comment

  1. Hypatia
    June 11, 2019

    Indeed this makes sense: “segregation as a fundamental problem from a social cohesion perspective. Without sustained levels of intergroup contact, less opportunities for meaningful positive interactions between different ethnic groups are created.” It seems that many conservative Muslims do not wish to interact with the wider culture, however, and language and clothing barriers make initiation of contact from the host culture group’s side virtually impossible where it would otherwise be likely to happen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.