Spaces of Encounters

Dr. Aneta Piekut and Prof. Gill Valentine

Contact with ethnic and religious minorities in different places is related with the level of prejudice

New research shows the potential to lower prejudice of British and Polish people is stronger when contact happens in semi-public spaces.

Dr Aneta Piekut, of Sheffield Methods Institute, and Professor Gill Valentine, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Social Sciences, explored whether British and Polish people who encounter minority ethnic or religious groups in different types of space, are more tolerant in comparison to those who do not engage.

The study, published in Social Science Research recently ([]2016),2016), investigated the relationship between attitudes towards and contact with ethnic and religious minorities for five types of spaces: private (immediate and extended family), socialization (social clubs, sport groups, community centres), institutional (workplace and study), consumption (restaurants, pubs, bars, cafes) and public (streets, parks, public transport, public services).

The analysis was based on a survey with of 1,236 residents in Leeds and 1,481 in Warsaw.

Gordon Allport’s ‘contact hypothesis’ is one of the most influential concepts in social sciences, however, the role of geography of contact for prejudice reduction has not been systematically tested in quantitative studies yet.

“We hypothesized that the effect of contact in public spaces will be the weakest, as it is often fleeting and based on the rules of anonymity and civility, while we expected encounters with people of different ethnic background to be linked with more tolerance in case of contacts in familial space, which are based on emotional bonds” said Dr Piekut.

Attitudes were measured with two multi-item questions, in order to increase reliability of the results. A well-known feeling thermometer was used and respondents were asked to assess on a scale ranging from 0 to 100 how warm their feelings were towards black people, refugees and asylum seekers, Muslim people and Jewish people. Secondly, they were asked to say how friendly they would be towards these groups if they became their neighbours (scale 1-5). Mean scores were then used for both attitudes in the analysis.

After controlling for socio-demographic traits of respondents and neighbourhood characteristics (ethnicity, deprivation and age composition), the study found that contact in different spaces was related with more sympathy or acceptance of minority ethnic and religious groups in each city.

In Leeds, people are more likely to express more positive feelings, when they encounter them in institutional spaces (workplace or study), but they are more likely to be friendly towards minority neighbours, when the contact takes places within socialisation spaces.

In Warsaw, more positive feelings towards minority ethnic groups are associated with contact in public and consumption spaces, yet, only contact in the latter and private space is related to higher acceptance of neighbours of different ethnic/religious background.

The results demonstrate that contact works differently depending on the space where it occurs and the socio-historical context.

Figure 1. Attitudes by contact in different spaces in Leeds and Warsaw


Source: LiveDifference Survey 2012.

“It is interesting that people who have contacts with minority ethnic and religious groups in institutional space in Leeds and public space in Warsaw express more sympathy to them, yet they are not more willing to be friendly to them as neighbours” said Dr Piekut.

Dr Piekut explained: “We suspect that due to different history of ethnic diversity in both cities, consumption spaces play a greater role in shaping inter-ethnic relations in the Polish city than in the British. The immigrant population is younger in Warsaw than in Leeds, where minorities are more likely to socialize with majority population through family and sport activities which they attend with children”.

“Also, ethnic food restaurants might be the main site of first encounters with new, non-Polish residents in Warsaw, while in Leeds, with longer history of immigration, first encounters with people of different background take place earlier in life, i.e. in school.”

While the study demonstrates that there is a link between where the contact occurs and ethnic prejudice, more studies is needed to establish a stronger causality of the relationship. It could be that more tolerant people self-select into contact in spaces which are more ethnically diverse.

There are also implications for community cohesion policies. Mixing policies will not be successful if people are merely met in public (e.g. streets, shops, parks, transport) or institutional space (i.e. workplace or study). This can facilitate ‘small talk’ and improve declared feelings towards minorities, yet it does not necessarily lead to eagerness to live together as neighbours.

Local cohesion programmes should identify semi-public spaces, which facilitate meaningful encounters in a given context, like socialisation space in the UK, and consumption space in Poland, and encourage residents to use them.

The work was part of the project ‘Living with Difference in Europe: making communities out of strangers in an era of super mobility and super diversity’ – a European Research Council Advanced Investigator Award to Professor Gill Valentine (grant no. 249658).

You can find out more by reading Aneta's piece on The Conversation here.