Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Friends hard to find in ethnically diverse enclaves

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A plague of friendlessness is epidemic in many cities. A high proportion of city dwellers confirm making friends is a chronic, pervasive and uphill struggle.

But the resulting withdrawal and seclusion from mainstream life is at its worst in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, accumulating evidence shows.

The situation in Vancouver is so serious that a mayor's task force has been set up to discover why so many residents report they are socially isolated. Data confirms one-third of residents of Greater Vancouver report they have trouble making friends. More than one-quarter say they are lonely; most have little interaction with their neighbours and a majority are withdrawing from community life.

Vancouver's problems with regard to fractured social interrelationships are shared with many other large cities, particularly those with substantial ethnic populations.

"Ethnic diversity in the neighbourhood negatively affects individual social trust, both for immigrants and native residents," says Robert Putman at Harvard University.

According to a new study by Bram Lancee and Jaap Dronkers at the European University Institute, "Ethnic diversity tends to reduce solidarity and social capital: In ethnically diverse neighbourhoods, residents of all ethnicities tend to 'hunker down.' "

Under such circumstances, the researchers reported, "Trust (even in one's own ethnic group) is lower, altruism and community co-operation is more rare, friends fewer."

Trust is a fundamental element in friendships. Where trust is lacking, friendships are correspondingly empty and unrewarding.

"Ethnic diversity in the neighbourhood increases the likelihood of having neighbours that are ethnically different," Putman says.

According to Lancee and Dronkers, the more ethnically diverse a neighbourhood is, the less trust exists among neighbours.

"Policies aiming at promoting ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in order to promote ethnic integration at the societal level might have an unintended inverse affect of decreasing individual trust," they concluded.

In that case, friendships are less likely to take root.

Several studies show members of ethnic groups tend to cluster when they move to a new country, often in discrete subcommunities within neighbourhoods. A 2007 Dutch study indicated under those conditions, members of an ethnic group are much less likely to interact with mainstream society or to adopt its "attitudes and values."

Such social isolation tends to invite distrust.

Research at the University of the Aegean suggests ethnic newcomers adopt "acculturation," in which they sequester themselves away from mainstream society, a process that generates "marginalization and social exclusion."

A 2011 study indicated immigrant children rarely trust anyone other than closest family members and almost never anyone outside their ethnic group. Such low out-group levels of trust "could be regarded as an impediment to building friendships," the researchers concluded.

A recent study by Elizabeth Gareis at City University of New York concludes among international students in the United States, almost half admitted to having no close American friends. Researchers suggest the matter of friendlessness in multicultural cities requires more rigorous study if remedial measures are to be implemented.

Robert Alison is a zoologist and freelance writer based in Victoria.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 15, 2012 A11

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