Students leave Waubonsee Valley High School 17 May 2004 in Aurora, IL, on the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case. Brown stood for the principle that the Constitution guarantees equality for all and state-sponsored racial segregation was indefensible. Photo: JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images
Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY
- Popular belief is the larger the community, the more diverse it is, but when forming friendships, size of a school matters
- The number of potential friends is limited in a small community
- Some preferences for friendships are more important than others
The bigger the pool of potential friends, the less likely they'll be interracial, according to a study out today that examines the way young people form friendships.
Popular wisdom is that the larger the community, the more diverse it will be, and the University of Michigan researchers don't dispute that. But when it comes to forming friendships, they say, the size of the school makes the difference.
"Humans consider multiple factors in choosing whom to be friends with - family background, academic performance, personality, religion, hobbies - many, many things besides race," says co-author Yu Xie, a sociology professor at the Ann Arbor campus.
"In a smaller community, the number of potential friends is limited. It's harder to find a person who meets other criteria you want and of the same race. But in a larger school ... it's more likely to find someone who will meet other criteria for a friend plus be of the same race. Race plays a bigger role in a larger community because you can satisfy other criteria, but in a smaller school other factors dominate the decision who is your friend."
The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is based on a nationally representative sample of 4,745 students in grades 7-12 collected during the 1994-95 school year. Xie says it's the only such sample of interracial friendships because the survey collected the detailed friendship data only that year. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health includes 172 schools and asked students of both sexes to use a school roster and nominate up to five best friends of each sex in order of closeness.
"The larger the school, the more racial segregation there is," Xie says.
But sociologist Tyrone Forman of Emory University in Atlanta, who directs an institute focused on the study of race, offers another explanation. He has reviewed the study, and although he says the researchers accounted for a variety of factors within the schools, including diversity, he says academic tracking - which he says tends to occur more in larger schools than smaller ones - wasn't among them.
Such tracking is a way of sorting the school population by academic ability level, with high achievers in classes with high-achieving peers and those who are average or lower achievers grouped with peers of similar abilities.
"What they're interpreting as being about individuals' preferences could be just about the internal structuring of larger schools in comparison to smaller schools," Forman says. "It also could be that what's happening in large schools tends to be tracking, which we know leads to greater internal segregation of the schools."
And even though social-science research has found a preference for friends of the same race, Forman says, the study analyzes these factors on equal grounds.
"The truth is, some preferences people weigh more than others," he says. "They talk about race and personality being two preferences people might have and in some cases, personality might trump race. But social-science evidence suggests that race is a very important preference, so it may very well override other preferences."