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Game of clones – it’s who you know

By Guest Blogger, on 12 December 2016

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Written by Lucy Jordan, Communications Officer, UCL Psychology and Language Sciences

Why does it matter that we pick friends who are the same as us? Dr Katherine Woolf, Senior Lecturer in Medical Education at UCL, conducts research into fitting in and belonging and wants to know just this. As human beings, we need to belong and form interpersonal attachments. These bonds are of utmost importance for our happiness, success and health, but why are they, for the most part, to those so like ourselves? And what are the ramifications of this?

The audience is asked to think of a close friend who we have spoken to in the last few days and consider whether that friend has the same gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion and level of education as us. The majority chose someone with whom they have much overlap in these areas.

“I’ve done this exercise with lots of people all over the country, many times,” said Dr Woolf “and this is what we always see – people tend to be friends with people that they have lots in common with, and that in sociology is called homophily.”

Game of Clones

Homophily in the classroom

Dr Woolf’s current research concerns ethnic homophily in medical students and doctors. Of the 8,000 students who study medicine in the UK each year, one third are Black and Minority Ethnic (BME). The majority of these BME students have Asian backgrounds.  On average, statistics show that BME medical students underperform in exams compared to their white counterparts. This is not just a result of examiner bias the same differences are found in machine marked multiple-choice assessments.

We are told that these differences are clearly there and need to be challenged and changed, and the way to do this is to understand why they are there in the first place. To do this, Dr Woolf looked to students’ social networks. She presented year two medical students with a list of all 300 of the students in their year and asked them to circle all those who were their friends. A very clear divide in ethnicity emerged.

Who you know

We are also presented with a study conducted at The University of Manchester by Suzanne Vaughan, which asked students to name ten people important to their academic success. While correlation does not equal causation, the students who noted individual teachers were largely white had better grades, indicating that ethnicity could influence teacher-student relationships too.

Some teachers interviewed in the study admitted that they found it difficult to form relationships with BME students. This could lead to white students getting a better learning experience and sharing this preferential treatments with their networks, which can perhaps help to explain why we see these ethnic differences in attainment. It would appear that who you know affects what you know.

What do students themselves think about homophily? While students interviewed said that they enjoy mixing with people with different backgrounds, this was not reflected in their social spheres. One BME students expressed anxiety that they might be misunderstood by those of other ethnicities if they mixed with them. Another said that, at the start of a course, when faced with a room of 300 new faces, you sit with those that look like yours.

There are perceived benefits of homophily- we may gain a sense of identity and purpose and both psychological and tangible support. These benefits are known as “bonding capital”. However, this “us and them” attitude, whether conscious or subconscious, creates stereotypes, hinders relationships and magnifies already existing inequalities.

The benefits of diversity

Is there any evidence that diversity, the opposite of homophily, is beneficial to us? Studies have found that students who have more friends from different ethnic groups got better grades than those who didn’t. A study by management consultancy firm McKinsy reported that diverse boards ones that include women and BME members perform much better (i.e. make more money) compared to boards that don’t.

Further, research shows that “brokers”, individuals who associate with those of different backgrounds and link disparate groups of people, receive better pay and are viewed more positively by their peers.

Dr Woolf ends by telling us to remember that we all hold multiple identities and that the more you find out about someone as a person, the more you see them as a human being. It therefore remains that in order to ensure equality we must break down these barriers to challenge and change the status quo.

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