Friendships in the migration society
Jun.-Prof. Dr. Miriam Schwarzenthal / Institute for Educational Research
Photo: Friederike von Heyden

Friendships can reduce prejudices

At the Institute of Educational Research, Jun.-Prof. Dr. Miriam Schwarzenthal is working on friendships in the migration society in the School Socialization Research Unit.

Interethnic friendships promote language acquisition, help to understand other cultures and reduce prejudices. Nevertheless, the establishment of these relationships, which usually develop in childhood, through school, sports or other clubs, is often difficult, knows educational researcher Miriam Schwarzenthal and says: "Friendships unfortunately still fail today due to social inequalities."


"Friendship is a kind of longer-lasting relationship that is entered into voluntarily and in which there is also an emotional bond. It is a reciprocal relationship. You like each other, you're fine with it, and you also care if the other person is fine," the researcher explains. Everyone knows from their own experience how important friends are in daily life. Ideally, they are always there to help with family problems as well as everyday difficulties, and they always have an open ear. But Schwarzenthal knows that finding and getting to know them requires closeness. That's why one of the most important questions for her is: "When do you even meet people from other social or cultural groups?" At this point, the type of school plays an essential role. "For example, if the parents have graduated from high school," she explains, "their children usually go to high school as well. If the parents didn't attend a Gymnasium or graduate from high school, they are much more likely to attend a Hauptschule or Realschule. One expression of social inequality in Germany is also that members of different ethnic groups are very unequally distributed across the various types of school" This means, he says, that these children cannot meet each other in the context of school from the outset. Another factor, he said, is the aspect of similarity. "People tend to be more likely to befriend people who are similar to themselves. If you then think about your own friends, you often find that they have a similar background or similar interests," the researcher says. In addition, they also have the same values or hobbies. However, in order to find out about these similarities, people first have to get to know each other, and this is where interethnic relationships are more difficult. "Obstacles that make friendships across group boundaries more difficult are prejudices, fears and stereotypes about other social or even ethnic groups," emphasizes Schwarzenthal, "and that initially proves to be a barrier for many people, because you don't let yourself get involved in a situation without bias and then of course you can't discover the possible common interests, values and hobbies that you could share with the other person.

Reduce prejudices

"Friendships are optimal for breaking down prejudices between people from different groups," emphasizes Schwarzenthal, who works on school socialization research at the Institute for Educational Research at Bergische Universität. The scientist knows from well-studied social psychological findings that people with interethnic friendships have fewer prejudices. Contact at eye level is always supportive. This also promotes social and intercultural skills. "People who have more interethnic friendships also have more social skills." As part of her dissertation, Schwarzenthal also conducted studies on this topic with 6th, 8th and 10th grade students at schools in NRW and asked the children about their interethnic friendships. "There we asked, among other things, whether they also talk about cultural variations with their friends, for example, about different religions and about experiences of discrimination." She then used situational tests to try to find out how students interpreted interethnic interactions and how they reacted to them. "In the process, we found that the kids who have a lot of interethnic friendships, and talk to them about differences and similarities, have higher intercultural competence."

Increasing awareness of social inequalities in society?

It is still open whether and under which conditions interethnic friendships can also promote an awareness of discrimination and social inequalities in society. "Many educational scientists* and educationalists* point out that it is important to know that there are social inequalities and racist structures in society and that some groups are treated worse or better than others." Given these facts, interethnic friendships can also potentially help people gain a better understanding of the perspective of different groups in society, because, the researcher says, "When you talk to your friend who belongs to a completely different group than you do, you might also see where people are treated differently. Or you hear stories from them about experiences of discrimination. Then, at least, it would be assumed that that would also promote my own critical awareness." A study from the U.S. with adults who talked about discrimination and inequality in contact with other groups at least proves that they were willing to take action against these grievances afterwards. This also shows that it is easier to reflect on one's experiences if the person I am talking to has a face and does not belong to an anonymous mass.

The role of schools in fostering interethnic friendships "School can definitely help foster intercultural and interethnic friendships by encouraging the exploration of similarities and differences and supporting contact between students* of different backgrounds." To do this, schools could take different approaches that would suit the individual school climate. One possibility, for example, would be to offer cooperative learning in group work by children from different groups. In these groups, the children involved would have to exchange ideas and get to know each other better. In addition, the children could be encouraged to reflect on similarities and differences between different groups. If differences and similarities, which are also important for belonging to a group, are not ignored, this already shows a more open attitude toward people from other groups.

Allowing a second look

In a project entitled "Identity Project," which Schwarzenthal's colleagues conducted at a school in Berlin, it was shown that attitudes toward other groups changed and became more open as soon as the students actively dealt with their cultural backgrounds. "People," Schwarzenthal concludes, "don't necessarily perceive similarities at first glance, but the second glance becomes important. And if that doesn't happen, friendships become more difficult."

Uwe Blass (interview 03.02.2022)

Dr. Miriam Schwarzenthal is a new assistant professor for school socialization research at the University of Wuppertal. Her research interests include socialization in school, family and peer contexts, especially in relation to cultural diversity and social inequality.

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