Sociologists have long held the belief that race is the most important predictor in whether two Americans will forge a friendship. However, according to a new UCLA-Harvard University study of college students on Facebook, the most significant friendship factor is actually social pressure.
For example, the desire to return a friendly gesture proved to be seven times greater than the draw of having the same racial background, say the researchers.
“Sociologists have long maintained that race is the strongest predictor of whether two Americans will socialize,” said Andreas Wimmer, sociologist at UCLA and lead author of the study.
“But we’ve found that birds of a feather don’t always flock together. Whom you get to know in your everyday life, where you live, and your country of origin or social class can provide stronger grounds for forging friendships than a shared racial background.”
Other factors that also proved stronger than sharing the same race included the following: having attended an elite prep school (twice as strong), coming from a state with a distinctive identity such as Hawaii (up to two-and-a-half times stronger) and sharing an ethnic background (up to three times stronger).
Sharing the same college major or a dorm often proved at least as strong—and in some cases stronger—than race in friendships, the researchers found. Living in the same dorm room was one of the strongest indicators for friendship formation, coming in only second to the desire to reciprocate a friendly notion.
“We’ve been able to show that just because two people of the same racial background are hanging out together, it’s not necessarily because they share the same racial background,” said co-author Kevin Lewis, a Harvard graduate student in sociology.
“We both were surprised by the strength of social pressure to return friendships,” said Lewis. “If I befriend you, chances are that you’re going to feel the need to balance things out and become my friend, and often even the friend of my friends.”
Wimmer, Lewis and colleagues at Harvard were looking for a way to study friendships as they developed and so decided that Facebook would be great resource. The researchers chose to observe the class of 2009 freshmen at an unidentified university with a high participation rate on the social networking site. The university is known for being highly selective as well as being a draw for students from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds.
“Given the school’s high admission standards, it was highly unlikely that these freshmen were going be enrolling with their high school buddies,” Wimmer said. “Most of these relationships were developing from scratch.”
Ninety-seven percent of the 1,640 students had Facebook profiles, but Wimmer and Lewis didn’t want to focus on the site’s most basic indicator of a social connection — the ‘friend’ feature, by which a ‘friend’ request is sent to another, who then chooses to accept or decline the ‘friendship.’
“We were trying to go for a stronger measure of friendship than just clicking a link and connecting with someone over the Web,” Lewis said.
So the study focused on 736 freshmen who posted photos of classmate-friends and then tagged the photos with their friends’ names, which causes the photos to be shown on the friends’ Facebook profiles.
“Tagged photos are by-products of people who obviously spent time together in real-life social settings,” Wimmer said.
“They’re an echo of a real interaction that students also want to have socially recognized. They’re not like some online communication that only occurs over the Web.”
The researchers tracked the tagged photos at an average rate of 15 distinct photos per student. Then they statistically analyzed dozens of characteristics shared by the freshmen who tagged each other.
As found in previous studies, the researchers initially observed students of the same race developing friendships at a much higher rate than if the relationships had occurred randomly, based on the racial makeup of the freshman class.
But when the sociologists dug deeper, race seemed less important than many other factors during friendship development.
For example, what appeared at first to be same-race preference, eventually proved to be preference for students with the same ethnic background, Wimmer and Lewis found. This was especially true for Asian students, who became friends with one another nearly three times more often than if relationships were formed by chance encounter.
As soon as the researchers controlled for the attraction of shared ethnic backgrounds or countries of origin, the seemingly high numbers for racial preference was cut almost in half.
“This means that students are going into social settings and saying to themselves, ‘Great, there’s someone else who is Vietnamese,’ not, ‘There is someone else who is Asian,’ ” Wimmer said.
Then, once social pressure to return friendships was controlled, the significance of race dropped even further.
“Two students with the same racial background can also become friends because they follow norms of how to make friends, not only because of racial preference,” Wimmer said.
“If only to avoid tensions in one’s social circles, friendships are often returned and friends of friends tend to become friends among themselves.”
The study demonstrates a new trend in social science research to gather data from social networking sites in an effort to observe human behavior.
The study can be found in the current issue of the American Journal of Sociology.
Source: University of California