Hanno Kruse studies the role of geographic proximity and social background in interethnic friendships in Germany. In our interview, he explains how a variety of factors interact to affect integration in a neighborhood.

Sabine Gysi: It seems obvious: When young immigrants and local youth find themselves in closer proximity to one another – living in the same town, for example, or attending the same school – they have more opportunities for contact, so integration will be more successful. Is that true? Or does that leave out other important factors?

Hanno Kruse: That was my assumption at the outset of my current study. But if you look more closely at adolescents’ friendships, you will find that while immigrants and members of the majority population are indeed less likely to be friends when separated by geography, mere proximity does not necessarily result in more social contacts or more friendships. It takes more than physical proximity, which appears to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for friendships to develop.

It is important to note that my study focused on “best friends” – significant close relationships outside of the family. If young immigrants fail to list a nonimmigrant as one of their five best friends, that doesn’t mean that they have no contact at all with the majority population.

“Germany’s system of separate schools acts as an additional segregating mechanism.”

SG: Your work looks at the role of neighborhoods in integration. How is it possible to divide up neighborhoods in a meaningful way? How do you determine what is considered a neighborhood or “local area”?

HK: Since researchers have to rely on the information that is available, they generally focus on administrative units such as counties or urban districts. In some cases those units reflect an adolescent’s social reality, but in many cases they do not. So we’re always dealing with a rough estimate.

Another way to determine the composition of the local area that captures the subjective experiences of the young people who live there is to ask them directly: Which of your classmates live less than a five-minute walk away? That may be a more accurate way of identifying the individuals who are perceived to be neighbors. The next step is to take these various kinds of data and make them “operational,” or measurable.

SG: You say that schools, which really should encourage integration, often have the opposite effect and promote segregation. What happens when children transition to secondary school (specifically in Germany)?

HK: As I pointed out, living in the same neighborhood or in proximity to the majority population doesn’t necessarily lead to more friendships. Friendships develop systematically, not randomly. Physical proximity leads to friendships for some young people, but not for others. The link is stronger for adolescents from a higher SES background.

“Certain factors, such as hobbies, interests and extracurricular activities, can foster integration. They can build bridges to reduce the gap between ethnicities.”

I wondered why. And one reason is the structure of the German school system, which tracks students into separate schools; that has a major impact. Young immigrants who attend a higher-level secondary school, such as a Gymnasium, have more contact with nonimmigrants than those who attend a Hauptschule, for example.

So opportunities for contact depend not only on where someone lives, but also, importantly, on the type of school that person attends after completing elementary school. Germany’s system of separate schools acts as an additional segregating mechanism.

SG: At what age do German students enter secondary school?

HK: That varies by state, but it is earlier than in most other countries. The transition from primary to secondary school often occurs between the fourth and fifth grades, when children are 10 or 11 years old. It is later in some states, however.

SG: There seems to be a close link between ethnicity and socioeconomic status, which is reflected in the schools. Which of those two factors is more important?

HK: What matters is the combination of the two. You asked at the beginning of our conversation what factor we are leaving out. If we look only at geographic proximity, then we’re ignoring the role of social background. If we include social background, we arrive at the following equation: Geographic proximity + high-SES background = high likelihood of contact with the majority population. But an immigrant from a low-SES background is quite likely not to have such contact, even when in physical proximity to members of the majority population.

In other words: The immigrant’s SES status determines whether proximity is more likely to lead to more interethnic contact or to more contact with members of the majority population.

What I haven’t yet examined is the perspective from the other side: What conditions will lead members of the majority population to come in contact with immigrants? That is another important question, but one that my work does not really address.

SG: Still, what do you think: How can we encourage children from the majority population to have more contact with minority children?

HK: This is where the overlap of personal characteristics becomes important. One example: Let’s say all of the boys are immigrants, while none of the girls are. The gap between immigrants and nonimmigrants will be very large in that case, since the impacts of ethnicity and gender will reinforce each other.

However, such extreme situations seldom exist; and certain factors, such as hobbies, interests and extracurricular activities, can foster integration. They can build bridges to reduce the gap between ethnicities. This is backed up by empirical evidence. Perhaps this is an approach that can work in both directions – influencing members of the majority population as well as immigrants.

“When one segregating mechanism is eliminated, parental decisions compensate for it to some degree.”

SG: What policy changes should be made to promote integration in Germany’s schools?

HK: We certainly need to take a closer look at Germany’s track-based school system, which acts as yet another mechanism to separate students by ethnicity. But my studies also show that in places where there is less institutional tracking, individual school choices are based to a greater extent on ethnicity. This means that when one segregating mechanism is eliminated, parental decisions compensate for it to some degree.

Accordingly, making radical changes at the school level and abandoning our track-based system would probably not result in as much ethnic integration as we might expect, based on descriptive statistical data. The unexpected side effect would probably be that parents would consider even more carefully which school to send their child to. And if they have the impression that not every Gymnasium can be relied upon to deliver a sufficiently high-quality education, then they will draw the appropriate conclusions.


Hanno Kruse is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Social Psychology at the University of Cologne. His research interests comprise the integration of immigrants, segregation dynamics across schools and neighborhoods, and social network analysis. Currently, he is involved in a research project that aims to gain a deeper understanding of social boundary making in the school context.

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