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An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Consequences of Ethnic Diversity for Trust

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  An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Consequences of Ethnic Diversity for Trust

“The most certain prediction that we can make about almost any modern society is that it will be more diverse a generation from now than it is today” (Putnam, 2007, p. 137).

How to contend with ethnic, religious and cultural heterogeneity is one of the main social challenges that many Western multicultural societies currently face. Sociologists, political scientists, and, more recently, psychologists are examining the consequences of ethnic diversity on trust in others to establish whether or not immigration is deteriorating one of the most important synthetic forces in society (Hewstone, 2015). This controversial view was first introduced by political scientist Robert Putnam in 2007 and sparked a wave of studies that continues to this day. He argued that ethnic diversity is likely to evoke feelings of intergroup threat, which in turn leads individuals to withdraw from others and social life at large resulting in a decrease in trust toward both familiar and unfamiliar others. Putnam (2007) concluded that “people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’--that is, to pull in like a turtle” (p. 149).

But the question remains: Does ethnic diversity drive down trust? As noted by Van der Meer and Tolsma (2014) in their recent review of 90 empirical papers, the most certain answer at the moment is that the lack of consensus in the literature is disconcerting. Roughly one quarter of the studies finds support, whereas another quarter of the studies rejects the notion that ethnic diversity erodes trust and the remaining half show mixed results, where conclusions vary with different indicators of trust.

This lack of consistency is a great example of the worst and the best outcomes of interdisciplinary research. A major hurdle in combining disciplines of political science, sociology and psychology for research on trust is the question as to whether they are actually speaking about the same constructs. In order to successfully collaborate across disciplines, awareness of the profound differences in conceptualizing trust is important. Conceptualization will directly impact the understanding of the different mechanisms through which ethnic diversity can motivate, enhance, or hinder feelings of trust. Most researchers in political science and sociology have focused on generalized trust, which is the personal predisposition or basic expectation that most people can be trusted (Uslaner, 2012). In psychology, there is a stronger focus on out group trust, which is grounded in an individual’s personal experiences with and responses to specified out groups (Tropp, 2008). While it appears that ethnic diversity is not negatively related to generalized trust (Hooghe, Reeskens, Stolle& Trappers, 2009), it may have a stronger impact on out group trust as it is more susceptible to intergroup experiences (Schmid, Al Ramiah, &Hewstone, 2014).

Greater understanding of underlying mechanisms and consequences of ethnic diversity further illustrate the great advantage of interdisciplinary research: While sociology and political science contribute richly to our knowledge of the influence of contextual factors such as ethnic diversity, psychology contributes to our understanding of mechanisms that are likely to explain their influence. For example, the recent paper by Schmid et al. (2014) also showed that while ethnic diversity is directly related to lower out group trust, ethnic diversity is also associated with greater intergroup contact which in turn reduced intergroup threat.

Although recent studies have shown that intergroup contact plays a crucial role in the consequences of ethnic diversity for trust, more work is needed to consider multi-group contexts marked by differences in racial status, socio-economic status and national origin. Additionally, given that prior work has typically focused on relations between two groups in a particular context of interaction, there is little knowledge about how contact in different social and institutional spaces may enhance or inhibit trust.

In addition to bridging disciplinary differences, there is also great value in examining similar processes in different national, cultural, and social contexts. After several years of conducting research on ethnic diversity and trust between immigrants and natives in Europe, I have recently joined a research team examining relations between ethnic diversity, contact, and trust between immigrant and native communities in the multi-ethnic context of the United States. This project, spearheaded by Linda Tropp, Helen Marrow, Dina Okamoto, and Michael Jones-Correa, examines relations among Mexican and South Asian Indian immigrants, and native-born blacks and whites in two metropolitan areas in the U.S.: Philadelphia and Atlanta. These groups and sites were purposely selected to consider a wide array of racial and socioeconomic group characteristics that shape the nature and quality of immigrant-native contact (please see the project website for more information: philadelphia-atlanta.weebly.com).

The project takes into account how intergroup contact experiences across different social spaces (i.e., workplace, neighborhood, public space) and how immigration-related status characteristics such as legal status and citizenship, language, religion, and skin color contribute to immigrant and native reports of intergroup contact and trust, alongside and in interaction with the dimensions of race and socioeconomic status. Findings from this research will contribute to the understanding the impact of ethnic diversity on contact and trust for both native-born and immigrant groups that differ in multiple ways. In addition, findings will help to design programs for multicultural host societies to ease immigrant incorporation.

Meta van der Linden is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Leuven working with Professor Marc Hooghe at the University of Leuven in Belgium and with Professor Linda Tropp at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the United States.




Hewstone, M., 2015. Consequences of diversity for social cohesion and prejudice: The missing dimension of intergroup contact. Journal of Social Issues, 71(2), 417-438.

Hooghe, M., Reeskens, T., Stolle, D., & Trappers, A. (2009). Ethnic diversity and generalized trust in Europe: A cross-national multilevel study. Comparative Political Studies 42(2), 198-223

Putnam, R. (2007). E Pluribus unum: Diversity and community in the twenty-first century. The 2006 Jonathan Skytte prize lecture. Scandinavian Political Studies, 30, 137-174.

Schmid, K., Al Ramiah, A., &Hewstone, M. (2014). Neighborhood ethnic diversity and trust: The role of intergroup contact and perceived threat. Psychological Science, 25(3), 665-674.

Tropp, L. R. (2008). The role of trust in intergroup contact: Its significance and implications for improving relations between groups. In U. Wagner, L. R. Tropp, G. Finchilescu, C. Tredoux (Eds.), Improving intergroup relations (pp. 91-106).

Malden, MA: Blackwell. Uslaner, E. M. (2012). Segregation and mistrust. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Van der Meer, T., &Tolsma, J. (2014). Ethnic diversity and its effects on social cohesion. Annual Review of Sociology, 40, 459-478.

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