Project description

“Ethnic social capital and its impact on generalised trust and political participation among ethnic minority groups” (research project, 2008 – 2011)

Dirk Jacobs, professor at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and affiliated to research center METICES of the Institut de Sociologie, has been granted a SCIENTIFIC IMPULSE MANDATE by the national fund for scientific research (FNRS) for the project “Ethnic social capital and its impact on generalised trust and political participation among ethnic minority groups “ ( 2008 – 2011 ). The project is equally financed by the Fond d’Encouragement à la Recherche (FER) of the Université Libre de Bruxelles. You have reached the project website.

Dirk Jacobs, professeur en sociologie à l’Université Libre de Bruxelles et membre du centre de recherche METICES, Institut de Sociologie, vient d’obtenir un MANDAT D’IMPULSION SCIENTIFIQUE de la part du Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique (FNRS) pour le projet “Le capital social ethnique et son impact sur la confiance généralisée et la participation politique parmi les groupes de minorités ethniques” ( 2008 – 2011 ). Le projet est également financé par le Fond d’Encouragement à la Recherche (FER) de l’ Université Libre de Bruxelles. Ceci est le site du projet de recherche.

State of the Art and Objectives

Especially since the work of Putnam (1993) the concept of social capital has been increasingly in vogue as a crucial explanatory variable for political trust and political participation (see Paxton, 2002). Social capital – defined here in a strict sense as being embedded in a social network through associational life – is thus seen as an important factor influencing the level of political trust and the intensity (and even the quality) of political participation (both formal and informal) of citizens. One would, in fact, learn to be democratic through participation in civic associations, as Toqueville already argued in the 19th century. Not only could one question this social capital hypothesis on general grounds but one should also pose the question as to whether this link is cross-cultural, cross-national and univocal.

Certainly it is interesting to note that the social capital approach has also been gaining importance in the study of (political participation of) ethnic minorities. Dutch political scientists Fennema and Tillie (1999, 2001) maintain that differences in the political participation of ethnic minorities are related to differences in ‘civic community’, interpreted as the amount of ‘ethnic’ social capital (mainly operationalised in terms of participation in ethnic associational life). On the basis of their sociological research, Fennema & Tillie contend that ethnic voluntary associations create social trust, which spills over into political trust and higher levels of political participation. On the aggregate level this would imply that:

(1) Ethnic communities which constitute a stronger ‘civic ethnic community’ (i.e. groups who have a higher civic participation level and a more densely connected ethnic associational arena) will have a higher level of political trust and a higher level of political involvement.

On the individual level this would imply that:

(2) Members of ethnic organizations have higher trust levels and a higher degree of political involvement than non-members (all other factors being constant)

(3) Members of cross-ethnic organizations have higher trust levels and a higher degree of political involvement than non-members (all other factors being constant)

Inspired by Putnam, Fennema & Tillie claim there is, however, also a rainmaker effect through the aggregate level:

(4) individuals who are not active in associations but are part of an ethnic group in which there is a high degree of (ethnic and/or cross-ethnic) associational participation will have higher trust levels and a higher degree of political participation than the same kind of individuals who are part of an ethnic group in which there is a lower level of associational involvement

The latter hypothesis is based on the idea of diffusion of trust through informal social networks, organised around ethnic identity and cultural affinity. Civically active individuals would ‘contaminate’ non-civically active individuals in an ethnic minority group with their trust level.

Inspired by Paxton (2002), Tillie (2004) has, furthermore, added an additional element to the original thesis when suggesting that members of an isolated organisation will have a lesser amount of social capital than members of connected organisations, and will thus be less inclined to politically participate. Members who are part of a well connected organisation will, on the contrary, experience a boost in their trust level and political involvement. Moreover, members of bigger associations will have more social capital than members of smaller associations. In other words:

(5) ethnic voluntary associations which are densely connected with other organizations create more social trust (leading to political trust and political involvement) than less connected or isolated organizations.

(6) bigger ethnic associations create more trust (spilling over into political involvement) than smaller associations.

The underlying idea here is that, as a member of an association, one has access to the (informal) social capital of other members, but also to the social capital of the organisation as such.

Several elements of the theory of Fennema & Tillie have been tested in a number of settings, with varying, and at times contradictory, outcomes (see Jacobs & Tillie, 2004). In our own research (Jacobs, Phalet & Swyngedouw, 2004) we have, for instance, shown that only hypothesis 3 holds in the Brussels context, but that hypotheses 1, 2 and 4 have to be refuted. All these hypotheses were, however, confirmed in the Dutch case. One could say that the final verdict is still out.

Does ethnic social capital lead to higher trust levels among ethnic minorities and facilitate their socio-political integration in the host society? If Fennema & Tillie are right, then ethnic social capital should, of course, be fostered and stimulated. Do ethnic associations indeed function as bridges towards the dominant ethnic groups in mainstream society? Or do they, as some policy makers argue, in contrast rather lead to the institutionalisation of ethnic entrenchment in divided societies? Perhaps they are just neutral and do not hinder nor facilitate (political) integration, because other variables (economic capital, language knowledgeability, cross-ethnic interaction patterns) are far more important. This research project has the ambition to (help) settle the question, making use of cutting-edge empirical research combining both quantitative as qualitative methods in a mixed research design, combining survey research, network analysis and in-depth organisational studies.

We will specifically focus on the research question if there is a link between (the lack of) embeddedness of ethnic organisations in an ethnic associational network on the one hand and (the lack of) political participation (by and through ethnic organisations) on the other hand. This issue is not limited to the field of ethnic studies but has a larger relevance for social sciences. To our knowledge, the more general hypothesis that voluntary associations which are densely connected (on the elite level) with other organizations create more social trust (leading to political trust and political involvement) than less connected or isolated organizations, has not yet been formally tested in a convincing and direct manner. We aim to do so in this research project, by focusing on the specific case of ethnic associations. The broader theoretical relevance is that it allows to test the hypothesis that social capital can ‘travel’ and that trust is ‘contageous’; not just in networks of individuals (in organisations) or in networks of elites (between organisations), but also through the elite network (across organisations) to members of other organisations.

Fennema, M. and Tillie, J. (1999) ‘Political participation and political trust in Amsterdam. Civic communities and ethnic networks’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 25(4): 703–26.

Fennema, M. and Tillie, J. (2001) ‘Civic community, political participation and political trust of ethnic groups’, Connections, 24(1): 26–41.

Jacobs, D. & Tillie, J. (2004), “Introduction: Social Capital and Political Integration of Migrants”. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, vol 30 (3), 419-427.

Jacobs, D., Phalet, K. & Swyngedouw, M. (2004), “Associational Membership and Political Involvement Among Ethnic Minority Groups in Brussels”. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, vol 30 (3), 543-559.

Paxton, P. (2002) ‘Social capital and democracy: an interdependent relationship’, American Sociological Review, 67 (2): 254-277.

Putnam, R. (1993) Making Democracy Work. Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tillie, J. (2004) ‘Social Capital of Organisations and Their Members: Explaining the Political Integration of Immigrants in Amsterdam’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 30 (3): 529–542.

Methodology

We propose to further elaborate our main research hypothesis in distinguishing several sub dimensions. We do not have the space here to develop the entire set of plausible hypotheses and thus will just focus on the most straightforward ones. Let us first of all focus on the organizational level:

(A) ethnic organisations which are more firmly embedded in an ethnic (and/or cross-ethnic) associational network, through interlocking directorates at the elite level and/or informal contacts on the elite level, will develop more political activities than organisations which are (more) isolated in the field of ethnic associations (all other factors, such as size, being constant)

(B) ethnic organisations which are more firmly embedded in an ethnic (and/or cross-ethnic) associational network, through interlocking directorates at the elite level and/or informal contacts on the elite level, will try and boost social and political trust and will stimulate their members more actively in being politically involved than organisations which are (more) isolated in the field of associations (all other factors, such as size, being constant)

Self evidently we are equally interested in the next step on the individual level:

(C) members of ethnic organisations which are (more) firmly embedded in an ethnic (and/or cross-ethnic) associational network will have higher trust levels and higher political participation levels than members of ethnic organisations which are (more) isolated (all other factors being constant)

(D) the aforementioned effect will be more outspoken when we encounter bridging social capital (organizational links with associations of the ethnic majority group) than when we encounter bonding social capital (only links within the same ethnic group)

Let us try and explain more clearly what this means in terms of research agenda. The above figures represent formal interlocking directorates between on the one hand ethnic Moroccan organisations with other Moroccan associations (on the left) and on the other hand ethnic Turkish organisations with other Turkish associations (on the right) in Brussels. Completely isolated organisations are not shown in the figures, we only show those that are connected with at least one other ethnic organisation. It is clear that the Turkish ethnic organisational network structure is much more fragmented than the Moroccan one. One might now hypothesize that the more densely interconnected part of the Moroccan associational life is more effective in resorting political involvement than the more fragmented Turkish associations. We can do the same exercise comparing Moroccan associations linked to Belgian associations on the one hand with Moroccan associations which are not cross-culturally connected on the other hand, or we can compare a Turkish organisation which is isolated in ethnic terms with a Turkish organisation which is isolated in cross-ethnic terms, etc.

The research project thus implies a number of steps in terms of data-collection:

(a) An organisational study (i.e. a standardised questionnaire identifying key activities and characteristics of an association) among Moroccan, Turkish and Congolese ethnic associations in Brussels

(b) A network analysis of Moroccan, Turkish and Congolese ethnic associations based on interlocking directorates on the board level in Brussels

(c) A survey research among a representative sample of ethnic minority groups (of Moroccan, Turkish and Congolese origin) in selected neighbourhoods in Brussels (and non-immigrant persons living in the same neighbourhoods). If additional funding allows it, there will additionally also be targeted samples of members of different types of ethnic organisations.

Although the organisational survey, network analysis and survey research will deliver research results which are interesting on their own, the most exciting and innovative part will be the combined analysis of the different data sources. This will allow us to assess the impact of embedded organizations against isolated organisations on political involvement, which is our main focus of interest. We will however equally be able to assess whether also other structural network properties (such as centrality within a network, etc.) of organisations have an influence.

If we indeed do find an effect of structural network properties, it will most probably remain difficult to assess, merely on the basis of quantitative data, how this effect is exactly articulated. We will therefore, in a parallel strategy, also undertake:

(d) A qualitative study of different types of ethnic associations, entailing open interviews with members and leaders of different kinds of organisations and participant observation at their activities.

In sum, the project wants to assess the impact of ethnic social capital on political involvement using a mixed-method design. Team members will, consequently, have to collaborate closely.

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