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Home Opinion Ethnic diversity and the future of social solidarity
Immigration • Diversity • Social Solidarity

Ethnic diversity and the future of social solidarity

Bo Rothstein - 13 May 2014

Ethnic diversity can weaken social solidarity, but only in societies where the quality of the government institutions is low. Ensuring effective and efficient government is the best way to tackle xenophobia

Is increasing ethnic diversity bad for social trust and thereby for the future of social solidarity? This issue has become a central topic both in public debate and research. Many empirical findings show that societies with a high ethnic diversity tend to have lower social trust and hinder support for redistribution. This argument has not gone without criticism and several studies have pointed out that ethnic diversity does not necessarily, or only under certain specific conditions, destroy social trust. In a recent overview of this research, including an analysis of no less than 480 empirical findings from 172 studies, Merlin Schaeffer shows that many studies about this controversial issue reach very different conclusions. This inconclusiveness is, according to his analysis, due to variation in research design such as which region of the world is analysed, which type of ethnic diversity is scrutinised and also what type of measure is used for social solidarity.  

1.    Quality of government and social trust

What is missing in most of these analyses is a variable of some significance, namely the quality of government. Three recent empirical studies have shown that if the quality of government factor is brought in, the negative effect of ethnic diversity on social trust either disappears or is strongly reduced. Using a survey from Sweden containing detailed questions about perceptions of how fairly respondents were treated by government authorities, Staffan Kumlin and I found that for (non-Nordic) immigrants, perceptions of having been treated fairly by government authorities and public services had a significant positive effect on their social trust, even when controlling for income, left-right orientation, being unemployed, membership in voluntary associations, age and gender.

Peter Dinesen studies what happens to immigrants from very low trust countries that have come to Denmark, which has the world record in social trust. His finding is that the immigrants’ perceptions of Danish government authorities have a strong impact on their social trust. Those who perceive that the Danish institutions treat immigrants and native Danes evenhandedly are much more likely to “trust other people in general.” With a special focus on young first and second generation immigrants, Dinesen found that perceptions of institutional fairness at an early age contribute to the general adaption of immigrants to the high level of trust of native Danes.

The third study is built on two surveys carried out by my colleagues and I at the Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg in 2010 and 2013. The 2010 sample consisted of about 34,000 citizen interviews and the more recent survey sampled over 85,000 individuals. The respondents have been sampled by regions in European countries, in total 212 regions within 25 European countries.  These surveys have focused on citizen perceptions and experiences of the quality of their regional government institutions (the police, public health care and public schools) and included both perceptions regarding fairness and impartiality as well as questions about personal experiences of corruption.

2.    The (negligible) impact of ethnic diversity on social trust

These surveys show that the regional-level variation in social trust across Europe is striking, ranging from a mere 8 percent of high social trust in Východné Slovensko region in Slovakia to a stunning 80 percent in the Copenhagen region in Denmark. There are also large differences within countries. Taking advantage of this huge variation within Europe, our study shows that the effect of ethnic diversity (measured as the percentage of people in each of the 212 regions that are born outside Europe) on social trust becomes negligible when the quality of government is included as a variable.

In other words, in regions where people perceive that their public authorities are corrupt, dishonest, discriminatory and/or partial, ethnic diversity does have a negative effect on social trust and thereby on the possibilities for social solidarity. However, in regions where people perceive that their regional authorities are impartial, honest and non-corrupt, etc., the effect of ethnic diversity on social trust becomes insignificant.

3.    Improving quality of governing institutions to increase social solidarity

Citizens facing increased diversity in a society with low quality of government may start thinking that people that are from a different ethnic group are getting away with overusing or misusing public and social services and therefore they should not be trusted. However, this type of suspicion is less likely in a society with high quality government which implies that “people in general can be trusted”. Other theoretical interpretations are for sure possible but as I see it, the message from this research is pretty clear. Yes, ethnic diversity can spell trouble for social solidarity but only in societies where the quality of the government institutions is low.

Bo Rothstein is the August Röhss Chair in political science at the University of Gothenberg

This is a contribution to the “Making Progressive Politics Work” publication ‒ ideas and policy proposals from 40 leading international experts.

Tags: Bo Rothstein , Opinion , Progressive Governance Conference , Progressive Governance , Growth , Social stability , Living standards , Policy Network , Global Progress , Competitiveness , Growth , Solidarity , Globalisation , Centre-left , Centre-left , Europe , EU , European Union , Eurozone , Southern Europe , Northern Europe , Production , Productivity , Growth , Wages , Investment , Jobs , Globalisation , Equality , Pre-distribution

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