Ethnic Diversity, Social Trust and Civic Engagement


Theoretical background and objectives

There is a large amount of evidence on a negative relationship between ethnic heterogeneity, various measures of social capital (trust, voluntarism, associational membership etc.), and levels of public goods provision. The evidence includes survey-based studies, (field) experiments, as well as studies relating aggregate-level data to spatial units. Much of this evidence pertains to the United States, but in addition there are also some studies of African and Asian countries, as well as large-N cross-national studies. Studies focusing on European countries are rarer, and do not always provide unequivocal support for the negative relationship between ethnic diversity and various forms of social capital.

The results should not be taken as support for anti-immigration policies, given the advantages and inevitability of immigration, especially in a globalised economy. Policies that stimulate ethnic segregation might be seen as a remedy against the adverse effects of heterogeneity, but segregation is seen by most authors as creating more problems than it solves. While it may solve the negative effects of heterogeneity on social capital and public goods provision at lower levels of spatial aggregation (e.g., the neighbourhood), it may hurt interethnic trust, bridging social ties, and shared norms at higher levels (e.g., the city or the nation).

But how then can negative effects of ethnic diversity on social capital and public goods provision be overcome? And what role can public policies play in this regard? Many studies, including Putnam's widelypublished contribution to the debate, end by raising this question, but the present state of research does not allow us to answer it. Needed are comparative studies that investigate how different public policy approaches towards the management of ethnic diversity affect the relationship between ethnic heterogeneity, social capital and public goods provision. Are multicultural policies that publicly affirm the advantages of diversity and that provide support for the identities, cultural practices and organisations of ethnic groups more successful in mitigating the negative effects of heterogeneity on social capital and public goods provision? Or are assimilationist policies that emphasise common identities, norms, and institutions more successful in promoting social capital across in ethnically diverse contexts? On the public policy side, not only policies specifically addressing ethnic diversity seem important, but also policies on socio-economic inequality. Ethnic heterogeneity is often highly correlated with income inequality, and it is not easy to separate the effects of the two.

Research design, data and methodology

The project "Ethnic Diversity, Social Trust, and Civic Engagement" is intended to fill some of these gaps by conducting a comparative analysis across three countries, across cities, and in different sub-local organisational contexts (schools and sports clubs), using three different but comple­men­tary methodological approaches.

First the "Ethnic Diversity and Collective Action Survey" (EDCAS) of local populations in 67 cities and towns in Germany, France, and the Netherlands with a total sample size of 9 100 (conducted from October 2009 until July 2010), allows wider comparisons of cities with different levels of ethnic diversities and different policy approaches to deal with immigration. The survey especially focuses on neighbourhood social cohesion, interethnic networks and civic engagement as dependant variables. Secondly, case studies of schools and sport associations in Berlin and Lyon will give insight into the micro-level processes behind the ethnic diversity effects. Here the focus lies especially on interethnic cooperation and voluntary engagement. Finally, survey, online and field experiments with local citizens are pursued in order to investigate how ethnic diversity affects cooperation.

Since all data are conducted in different local settings, analysing the impact of context charac­teristics is the prime goal. Public policy approaches towards immigrant integration will be measured by way of quantitative indicators (e.g., naturalisation rates, strength of pro- and anti-immigrant parties) and analysis of policy documents. The sample of cities to be investigated includes localities in three countries: Germany, the Netherlands and France to increase variation regarding policy approaches.


First results demonstrate the importance of perceptions of diversity as potential individual-level mediating mechanisms and causes in their own right. Following the most important theories on the relationship between ethno-cultural diversity and trust and collective action we particularly analysed the effects of perceived ethnic, norm and value, and linguistic diversity. Regarding any effects of statistical ethnic diversity, as used by all previous studies so far, we show that the perceptions of the here investigated three diversities all function as strong mediating mechanisms. Thereby, our study shows in-group/out-group biases, asymmetric preferences, and coordination problems to be mechanisms driving the ethnic diversity effects.

Furthermore, empirical evidence from a first survey experiment suggests that priming the salience of ethnic and religious divisions reduces trust. Interethnic contact, however, acts as a barrier against this priming effect.

Overall, these first findings suggest that public policies which focus on the perception and salience of ethnic diversity might play a crucial role.

Main content

Selected Publications

Schaeffer, Merlin/Koopmans, Ruud/Veit, Susanne/Wagner, Mareike/Wiedner, Jonas (2011): The Ethnic Diversity and Collective Action Survey (EDCAS). Technical Report. WZB Discussion Paper SP IV 2011-701. Berlin: WZB.
Koopmans, Ruud/Dunkel, Anna/Schaeffer, Merlin/Veit, Susanne (2011): Ethnische Diversität, soziales Vertrauen und Zivilengagement. Projektbericht - Im Auftrag des Bundesministeriums für Familie, Senioren, Frauen und Jugend. WZB Discussion Paper SP IV 2011–703. Berlin: WZB.
Dissertation projects

Schaeffer, Merlin (2012). Ethnic Fractionalization and Social Cohesion: The Relation between Immigration, Ethnic Fractionalization, and Potentials for Civic, Collective Action in Germany. Dissertation. Universiteit van Amsterdam Digital Academic Repostiory:

Veit, Susanne (2015). Ethnic diversity and cooperation: Causality, Linking Mechanism, and Contexts.Dissertation: Freie Universität Berlin [Microfiche]

Related projects

Lancee, Bram (2011-2013): Ethnic Diversity and Social Cohesion in Germany

Project-related events

Merlin Schaeffer, 02.11.2010: Friend or foe: How are prejudices and resentment overcome to establish interethnic contact. Harvard Migrant and Immigrant Incorporation Workshop, Harvard University, USA.

Ruud Koopmans/Merlin Schaeffer, 22.09.2010: Immigration, Perceived Diversity, and Social Cohesion. The Impact of Perceived versus Statistical Diversities on Social Capital. ESA Conference Researching Migration in Europe, Vienna, Austria.

Susanne Veit, 07.09.2010: Cooperation in the Shadow of Ethnic Diversity and Otherness. IAREP/SABE/ICABEEP 2010 Conference, Köln.

Merlin Schaeffer, 15.07.2010: Friend or foe: How are prejudices and resentment overcome to establish interethnic contact. XVII World Congress of Sociology, Gothenburg, Sweden.

Susanne Veit, 13.07.2010: Effects of ethnic diversity on trust in neighbours – evidence from a large-scale survey experiment. XVII World Congress of Sociology, Gothenburg, Sweden.

Susanne Veit, 14.04.2010: Priming of ethnic diversity and trust in neighbors. Does intergroup contact moderate priming effects? Inaugural CResPP Conference on Tearing Down the Walls, Queens University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Merlin Schaeffer, 19.03.2010: Explaining perceptions of conflictual diversity. Political and Social Challenges in Europe, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spain.