Why there is less supportive evidence for contact theory than they say there is: A quantitative cultural–sociological critique

Abstract

The finding that ethnic prejudice is particularly weakly developed among those with interethnic friendships is often construed as confirming the so-called ‘contact theory,’ which holds that interethnic contact reduces racial prejudice. This theory raises cultural–sociological suspicions, however, because of its tendency to reduce culture to an allegedly ‘more fundamental’ realm of social interaction. Analyzing data from the first wave of the European Social Survey, we therefore test the theory alongside an alternative cultural–sociological theory about culturally driven processes of contact selection. We find that whereas interethnic friendships are indeed culturally driven, which confirms our cultural–sociological theory, contacts with neighbors and colleagues do indeed affect ethnic prejudice. They do so in a manner that is more complex and more culturally sensitive than contact theory suggests, however: while positive cultural stances vis-à-vis ethnic diversity lead interethnic contact to decrease ethnic prejudice, negative ones rather lead the former to increase the latter.

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Figure 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    In these studies, contact is operationalized variably: sometimes as contacts with friends sometimes with neighbors and or colleagues. The results between these different types of operationalization do not differ markedly.

  2. 2.

    In a meta-analysis of interethnic contact studies, Pettigrew et al (2011) compare contacts open to choice with no choice contacts, holding that ‘no choice eliminates the possibility of selection bias’ (Pettigrew et al, 2011, p. 274). They claim to find stronger contact effects for no choice contacts, ‘just the opposite as what we would expect from a strong selection bias’ (Ibid). However, they do not elaborate upon the way in which choice and no choice contacts are measured. Unfortunately, this makes it rather complicated for the reader to assess the validity of their claim.

  3. 3.

    The authors following this rationale seem to assume that interethnic friendships should necessarily lead to the sharing of beliefs and values. It is, however, questionable whether perceiving beliefs and values as similar is a necessary condition for friendship. Another possibility is that differing opinions on certain issues are acknowledged and accepted without adopting the befriended person’s view.

  4. 4.

    For an interesting view on the implausibility of contact selection in neighborhoods, see, Putnam (2007, pp. 153–154).

  5. 5.

    Some authors have used this scale or a similar one as a measurement of ‘perceived ethnic threat’ (e.g., Schneider, 2008; Scheepers et al, 2002; McLaren, 2003). Others have used such a scale as a measurement for anti-immigrant prejudice (e.g., Quillian, 1995). Both cases match the definition of ethnic prejudice we use here, which is a general negative stance toward ethnic out-groups.

  6. 6.

    Similar to our measurement of the dependent variable, the interpretation of ‘immigrant’ is here left up to the respondent. The measurement therefore cannot account for the possibility that highly skilled immigrants with a strong economic position may be less likely seen as stereotypical immigrants than low-skilled immigrants in a weak economic position. Since contact opportunities are greater between people in equal economic positions, this may lead to an underestimation of ‘actual’ interethnic contact situations especially among natives with a strong economic position. It is, however, difficult to oversee the possible implications of this shortcoming, since in the end our main interest is in situations when people involved actually qualify these as ‘interethnic’ themselves.

  7. 7.

    Usually, occupational educational level is referred to as a person’s cultural occupational status. We believe our interpretation of the measurement neither violates nor contradicts this original interpretation.

  8. 8.

    This finding contradicts a previous study (Stolle et al, 2013) in which prejudice-reducing contact effects of neighborhood contact were found. This difference in results could be either attributable to the composition of the samples or to the measurement of interethnic contact. Concerning the latter, Stolle et al use the frequencies of talking with someone with a different ethnic background as a measurement of interethnic contact. As argued before, this measurement leaves more room for cultural selection than our measurement which more closely approximates mere interethnic exposure.

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Acknowledgements

This research was funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) within the framework of the Mosaic Programme (Grant Number 017.006.085). The authors wish to thank the Members of LOBOCOP – a discussion group for cultural sociologists at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam – for their valuable comments and suggestions. The authors are indebted to the anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions on earlier versions of the manuscript.

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Manevska, K., Achterberg, P. & Houtman, D. Why there is less supportive evidence for contact theory than they say there is: A quantitative cultural–sociological critique. Am J Cult Sociol 6, 296–321 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-017-0028-8

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Keywords

  • interethnic contact
  • ethnic prejudice
  • contact theory
  • cultural framing
  • quantitative methods