In many European countries, people overestimate the share of minority populations and immigration volume. This could be a result of people not being well informed or knowledgeable about the social issues around them – but skewed perceptions of ethnic diversity have implications for social relations and openness towards minority ethnic groups.
Although the influence of ethnic diversity on various aspects of social life has been thoroughly investigated in many countries, results are still inconclusive. Some studies found that ethnic diversity is harmful to community cohesion, because it lowers trust in others. Other research says that it promotes better relationships between people of different ethnicities, because it provides more opportunities for everyday contact with people who are different from us.
But whatever the impacts of ethnic diversity, the issue remains that the “actual” ethnic diversity of our neighbourhoods – calculated using census or other data such as immigration statistics – can be very different from our individual perceptions of it.
Perception vs reality
The research I took part in – Living with Difference in Europe – surveyed the attitudes of white British residents in Leeds and Polish residents in Warsaw toward ethnic minorities. Our analysis was based on responses from over 1,000 people in each city.
We asked them to assess the proportion of people “who are of different ethnic background to them” living in their neighbourhoods. The results were analysed along small area data on actual ethnic diversity, using the 2011 census for Leeds, and the 2002 census for Warsaw.
We had two very interesting findings. First, the study confirmed the positive effects of higher exposure to actual ethnic diversity: residents of ethnically mixed neighbourhoods in Leeds, and people who have daily contact with those of minority ethnic backgrounds in both cities, are more tolerant towards them.
Second, in both cities, we found that the more diverse residents perceive their neighbourhoods to be, the more prejudiced they are towards minority ethnic groups. Importantly, those who perceive their neighbourhood as being diverse are equally prejudiced against ethnic minorities – regardless of whether their area was actually diverse or not. By contrast, those living in areas with a high percentage of non-White British people in Leeds – who do not “notice” this diversity around them – are more tolerant.
This could indicate that in some places, diversity has become so commonplace – and the presence of ethnic minorities so normal – that they do not stick out as visibly different.
Skewing the picture
We also wanted to know whether perceptions of diversity could denote more negative attitudes toward ethnic minorities in some neighbourhoods than others: after all, every neighbourhood has its own unique make-up and history. We looked at changes in the diversity of neighbourhoods in Leeds between 2001 and 2011. (Unfortunately, 2011 census data were not available for small areas in Warsaw.)
It turns out that residents who perceive high levels of diversity in their neighbourhoods have more prejudiced attitudes towards ethnic minorities when they live in areas that have actually experienced a recent influx of “white other” (non-British) and “mixed” ethnicity residents.
Interestingly, this was not the case for respondents living among new residents of “Black” and “Asian” ethnicity. We suspect that the the recent changes in the media’s coverage of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe might contribute towards making these newcomers more visible in society.
We also found out that residents who perceive high levels of diversity have more negative attitudes towards ethnic minorities when they are living in neighbourhoods that have had more council housing added recently. High-density council housing is often associated with more disorder, higher levels of violence and fewer opportunities to engage in social life with others. So, we suspect that this may cause residents to feel insecure, and subsequently project these feelings onto local ethnic minority groups – whether or not they are council housing tenants.
Perhaps most importantly, we learned that perceptions of diversity are dynamic across cities – they could be very different between residents living in two similar neighbourhoods in terms of actual proportion of minority ethnic groups. Both the characteristics of the neighbourhoods, and recent changes in the local population, could be responsible for distorting people’s perceptions of ethnic diversity.
Our findings show that we cannot tackle prejudice simply by mixing people of different ethnicities together in the same neighbourhood. Contact between different ethnic groups can help to increasing tolerance. But it seems that peaceful and respectful coexistence can be diminished when our prejudices are reinforced by negative media or social stereotypes.