Research Findings

Unequal school access shapes ethnic boundaries in students’ identities and friendships

January 21, 2020

Every school year, a new cohort of parents faces the challenge of finding the right school for their child – each year with a disheartening result: ethnic minority children tend to end up at schools of lower prestige and quality. Intriguingly, this ethnic stratification across schools affects not only their further school careers, but it profoundly shapes minority students’ identities and their social relationships with their classmates.

Ethnic stratification, the uneven distribution of majority and minority children across schools of different prestige, is widespread: in various countries, at various school transitions, and in various school systems. A substantial share of the ethnic and racial inequalities we observe in modern societies originates from ethnic stratification in the school system.

But schools provide more than grades and certificates. It is here where youth form lasting friendships, where they develop their views, attitudes, and identities. Does unequal school sorting not only create unequal life chances but also produce stronger ethnic boundaries in the minds and relations of youth?

In a recent study, we found that minority students’ identities and interethnic friendships are shaped by local levels of ethnic stratification.

The study focused on the German secondary school system, as it exhibits a particularly telling and obvious case of stratification. After primary school, students in Germany enter secondary schools of several types, depending on their prior performance. Higher-track school types prepare for a university education while lower-track school types do not.

The study, which was carried out as part of the European Research Council-funded project SOCIALBOND, combined administrative spatial data on all secondary schools in Germany with survey data on identities and friendship networks. Combining these data sources allowed us to examine peer processes in local areas with varying levels of ethnic stratification. Holding as many other factors constant as possible, for example school composition and students’ social and ethnic background, we expected to see different peer processes unfolding.

And indeed, ethnic inequality in access to high-track schools seemed to affect minority students’ identities and social relationships with their classmates.

In areas where adolescents with a migration background rarely attended high-track schools, their attendance at these schools was associated with assimilative tendencies: Minority students showed a much greater willingness to identify as German and these feelings were more relevant for their friendships with majority students. In turn, majority students also tied their acceptance of minority students to the latter’s identification with the majority group. Hence, in areas with strong ethnic stratification, educational placement was strongly associated with identification and friendship formation.

In areas where adolescents with an immigrant background were also well represented at high-track schools, this coupling of educational advancement and boundary crossing turned out to be absent: Minority students showed no increased tendency to feel German and identification as German was also less relevant for cross-group friendships.

In brief, high-track schools appear to function as “schools of the nation” in ethnically stratified areas, whereas in areas with greater educational equality they tend to be “schools of diversity” in which the question of identification as Germans is less important.

At the same time, however, the belonging of minority youth is not only a question of the local context: For Muslim minority students, we found no heightened inclination to identify as German – even in local contexts that are particularly conducive to crossing the native-immigrant boundary. Previous research on the situation of Muslims in Europe suggests that they confront specific stereotypes and othering discourses, which makes it particularly difficult for them to feel and be seen as full members of the German nation.

These findings may be relevant also in other countries and school systems. First of all, there are strong differences in the quality and prestige of schools even within open educational systems. For example, although there is no formal hierarchy of secondary schools in the United States, the decentralized system of locally funded schools likewise leads to great disparities between schools.

Secondly, minority students who attend mainstream institutions often experience a struggle to belong when developing their identities and peer relations. In Germany, this struggle involves the question of what it means to be German. In the United States, it is easier for immigrant and racial minorities to “feel American.”

Still, research has documented that minority students in US schools that are dominated by the white native majority often do not belong in the same taken-for-granted manner and may feel compelled to assimilate culturally and socially to the dominant ethnic group. Hence, in addition to the common focus on how schools produce unequal test scores and school leaving certificates, we should view schools as developmental contexts that profoundly shape whether adolescents feel similar to or different from their peers. After all, these everyday experiences may be another significant obstacle in their journey to find their place in society.

Read more

Hanno Kruse and Clemens Kroneberg. “More than a Sorting Machine: Ethnic Boundary Making in a Stratified School System.” American Journal of Sociology 2019. For a free, pre-publication version of the article, click here.

Image: Wokandapix via pixabay

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