Ethnic Diversity and Social Cohesion: Immigration, Ethnic Fractionalization and Potentials for Civic Action


Dissertation project

Theoretical background and objectives

At the outset of this project stands a debate between social scientists on the consequences of ethnic diversity for social cohesion and the production of public goods. Ethnic diversity has been proposed as one of the reasons for stagnation and corruption in the developing world or as an explanation why the US does not have a European-style welfare state. Given increasing levels of ethnic diversity in Western countries because of immigration, this debate has seen growing attention among European scholars, spurred by the fear that the high levels of trust, civic engagement and redistribution that characterize European countries might be at threat. In Sweden higher levels of ethnic diversity have been shown to be associated with declining levels of support for welfare state spending, in Germany with a decline in the support for the unemployed, and in many other European countries with declines in social trust and civic engagement. With similar levels of concern, critics have warned that the debate obscures the much more important role of socio-economic deprivation and generalizes research findings that are particular to the racial situation of the US or the ethnic configurations of developing countries. Rather than analyzing a contemporary social problem, so the critics’ apprehension, social scientists who problematize diversity unwillingly fuel populist-right agendas.

Notwithstanding, both advocates and critics agree that the long-term benefits of ethnic diversity will prevail, which makes ethnic residential integration rather than segregation the more promising policy approach. Yet, if ethnic residential integration is associated with short and mid-term declines in social cohesion and public goods production, we should understand why, in order to be able to find solutions to these “Paradoxes of Integration”. Unfortunately, social scientists are so concerned with the question, whether any negative relation between ethnic diversity and social cohesion exists at all that the scientific debate has produced little knowledge on why people's reciprocity and trust should be reduced in more ethnically diverse areas. This insufficient knowledge about underlying mechanisms makes it hard to propose any policy solutions. Moreover, this situation also makes it hard to judge, why the overall literature is inconclusive. If for example ethnic diversity was about communication and coordination problems as propose, we would not expect a strong ethnic diversity effect in countries where immigrants tend to speak the native language, such as France.

Research design, data and methodology

My work sets out to tackle this question in both theoretically and empirically innovative ways. The empirical analyses of this study make exclusive use of the German sub-set of the Ethnic Diversity and Collective Action Survey (EDCAS). With its history of hiring guest workers in the 1960's and its traditionally strong welfare state, Germany is a prime example for those European countries that the debate focuses on. Today, about every fifth person living in Germany has a migration background, meaning that either they themselves or one of their parents was born abroad. The EDCA-Survey is a large-scale computer-assisted telephone interview (CATI) survey with 7,500 standardized telephone interviews conducted in Germany. The survey allows for the statistical comparison of 55 theoretically and randomly sampled regions that vary on contextual characteristics of interest. These 55 cities and regions encompass the whole variance of ethnic diversity in Germany and thus qualify the EDCA-Survey as particularly well-suited to study the consequences of ethnic diversity. The EDCA-Survey was conducted in the project “Ethnic Diversity, Social Trust and Civic Engagement” that is supervised by Prof. Dr. Ruud Koopmans and was funded by a competitive grant of the German Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth.

Main content

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 Repository:

Selected Publications

Schaeffer, Merlin (2014): Ethnic Diversity and Social Cohesion. Immigration, Ethnic Fractionalization and Potentials for Civic Action. Research in Migration and Ethnic Relations Series. Farnham ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, XI, 196 S.