Sociologist argues neighborhoods with racial/ethnic diversity and social cohesion not possible

An urban sociologist looks at whether neighborhoods can have both social cohesion and racially/ethnically diverse populations:

As reported in the American Journal of Community Psychology, Zachary Neal found that neighborhood integration and cohesion cannot co-exist.

“Is a better world possible? Unfortunately, these findings show it may not be possible to simultaneously create communities that are both fully integrated and fully cohesive,” Neal said. “In essence, when it comes to neighborhood desegregation and social cohesion, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

The reason has to do with how people form relationships. Neal said people usually develop relationships with others who are close rather than far away, and similar rather than different from themselves (be it through race, religion, social class, etc.).

Neal ran computer modeling of different fictional neighborhoods and, after millions of trials, consistently found the same thing: The more integrated a neighborhood is, the less socially cohesive it becomes, and vice versa…

Neal said he started the project because past research had failed to turn up a city that is both truly integrated and cohesive – from the United States to the United Kingdom to Asia. But it’s not from lack of effort, he said.

This sounds similar to Thomas Schelling’s famous 1971 piece “Dynamic Models of Segregation.” Working with hypothetical models and different assumptions about what two racial/ethnic groups might desire for the best neighborhood composition, Schelling suggested the actions of the two groups tend to lead to more segregated than integrated outcomes. Later research based on these ideas suggests whites generally start moving out of a neighborhood when it becomes roughly 15% black while blacks say they are more comfortable with up to a 50/50 mix of whites and blacks.

If this doesn’t often work in neighborhoods and cities today, wouldn’t one solution be to try to focus less on particular locations and instead working at a more societal level to try to get people to be more comfortable interacting with and eventually living with people different than themselves?

0 thoughts on “Sociologist argues neighborhoods with racial/ethnic diversity and social cohesion not possible

  1. Thanks for this cite, Brian. I think this is a great example of the limits of the contact hypothesis. Contact alone is much less effective at lessening intergroup conflict – or facilitating cohesion – than if there is also some induced impetus to work together in ways that break down stereotypes.

    I haven’t read the paper yet, but I would be interested to know if the neighborhood integration stemmed beyond housing – into schools, workplaces, restaurants and places of leisure, etc. Cohesion isn’t built from co-existence; it comes from interdependence.


    • Good points Jessica. Of course, the contact hypothesis also breaks down if different groups are unwilling to have much contact. The literature on residential segregation from the last few decades suggests whites are quite resistant to living in neighborhoods with significant numbers of African Americans.

      One place to look at cohesion would be the mixed-income neighborhoods that replaced the public housing high-rises that were torn down in many major cities. Findings from these new neighborhoods of former public housing residents plus residents of market-rate housing suggest cohesion does not come automatically or quickly, even if people are living right next to each other.


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