More Diverse Friendship Networks Linked to Higher Support for Religious Pluralism Among Americans
Washington, DC (May 24, 2022) — Across demographic groups, Americans’ core friendship networks tend to be dominated by people of their same race or ethnic background—particularly white Americans, among whom 90% of their friendship networks are also white, according to a new survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute. The new survey of over 5,000 Americans, designed to assess the scope and diversity of Americans’ self-reported friendship networks and their attitudes about racial and religious pluralism in America, follows up on a study PRRI conducted in 2013.
“The challenging news is that, despite some diversification since 2013, Americans’ close friendship networks remain predominantly homogeneous and insular—composed of people of the same religious, racial or ethnic, or partisan background. But the impact of just one person of a different background is profound, significantly increasing support for the ideals of a multiracial, multi-religious democracy,” said Robert P. Jones, Ph.D., PRRI founder and CEO. “In a time of unprecedented demographic and cultural change, it is clear that we need more institutions helping us bridge the divides.”
The composition and homogeneity of Americans’ friendship networks is strongly correlated with their views on questions about American identity, pluralism, Christian nationalism, and the changing demographics of the country.
Bubbles: The Structure of American Friendship Networks
The survey report uses two measures to describe Americans’ friendship networks: Composition, which is a measure of the average characteristics of people named in the networks, and homogeneity, which is a measure of how uniform each person’s network is.
Overall, white Americans’ friendship networks are on average 90% white, unchanged from 91% in 2013. But white Americans’ friendship networks have become less homogeneous over the last decade. Today, two-thirds of white Americans (67%) list only other white people in their friendship networks—a decrease from 75% in 2013. These numbers indicate that while white Americans are still overwhelmingly associating with mostly other white Americans, there has been a small decline in the uniformity of their friendship networks.
The homogeneity of white Americans’ friendship networks varies by political and religious affiliation and age. Nearly three in four white Republicans (73%) report all-white friendship networks, compared to 66% of white independents and 66% of white Democrats. White Americans between the ages of 18–29 are notably less likely than older age groups to report all-white friendship networks (54%, compared to two-thirds or more among all other age groups).
White Christian groups, including white evangelical Protestants (71%), white mainline Protestants (71%), and white Catholics (73%), are more likely to report all-white friendship networks than white Americans who belong to non-Christian religions (62%) or are religiously unaffiliated (57%). However, there is no significant variation in the racial homogeneity of white Americans’ friendship networks based on education levels (college, 68%; non-college, 66%).
The average friendship network of Black Americans is 78% Black, down slightly, from 83% in 2013. However, in terms of homogeneity, their friendship networks have diversified the most among all racial and ethnic groups; less than half (46%) of Black Americans’ friendship networks are composed entirely of people who are also Black, compared to 65% in 2013. The average composition of Hispanic Americans’ (63%) and Asian and Pacific Islander Americans’ (65%) friendship networks are also mostly people of their same general race or ethnicity, but they are much less likely than white Americans’ friendship networks to be racially homogeneous. Just over one-third of Hispanic Americans (37%)—compared to 46% in 2013—have networks that only include other Hispanic Americans, and 31% of AAPI Americans have networks that only include other AAPI Americans.
The religious homogeneity of American friendship networks has also persisted. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of Protestants’ friendship networks are also Protestants, and a majority of Catholics’ friendship networks identify as Catholics (59%), with a decrease from 72% in 2013. Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants’ friendship networks are on average more homogeneous than those of other Protestants (61% evangelical Protestant).
The Difference Just One Person of a Different Background Makes in a Friendship Network
The presence of just one person of a different background has a significant influence on respondents, particularly among those who hold attitudes less supportive of racial and religious pluralism and are less likely to acknowledge the impact of past discrimination. Among white Americans, those whose friendship networks include only white people are significantly less likely than those whose friendship networks include at least one nonwhite person to say that American culture and way of life have changed for the better since the 1950s (43% vs. 51%).
Among Republicans—the partisan group most likely to affirm the importance of Christian identity, native birth, or European heritage as being “truly American”—those whose friendship networks include only Republicans are more likely than those whose friendship networks include at least one non-Republican person to say that believing in God (73% vs. 68%), being Christian (62% vs. 53%), being born in America (62% vs. 51%), or being of Western European heritage (30% vs. 24%) is important to being truly American.
Among white evangelical Protestants—the religious group least likely to express a preference for a religiously diverse country—those whose friendship networks include only other evangelical Protestants are less likely than those whose friendship networks include at least one non-evangelical Protestant person to say that they prefer to live in a religiously diverse country (16% vs. 23%).
White Americans whose social networks only include other white people (42%) are less likely than those whose social networks include at least one nonwhite person (58%) to say that the legacy of slavery and discrimination still has an impact on the lives of Black Americans.
Satisfaction With Friendship Network Diversity
A slim majority of Americans (51%) report that they are very satisfied with the racial and ethnic diversity of their group of close friends, and an additional 35% are somewhat satisfied, with no significant differences in satisfaction based on the number of close contacts listed in the survey. Black Americans (59%) and Hispanic Americans (59%) are the most likely to say they are very satisfied with the racial and ethnic diversity of their close friend group, and nearly half of white Americans (48%) and multiracial Americans (47%) record high levels of satisfaction, while AAPI Americans are less likely to be very satisfied (38%).
There are considerable partisan differences in satisfaction with network racial and ethnic diversity: 62% of Republicans say they are very satisfied with the racial and ethnic diversity of their close friend group, compared to 47% of independents and 45% of Democrats. White Democrats (32%) are less likely than both white Republicans (61%) and Democrats of color (56%) to say they are very satisfied with the diversity of their networks.
Americans are less likely to report high levels of satisfaction with their neighborhood and community connections—only about one in four Americans (27%) report that they are very satisfied with the connections they feel with people in their neighborhoods. Three in ten Americans (31%) are very satisfied with their involvement in non-religious civic organizations in their communities. More—four in ten (41%)—are very satisfied with their involvement in religious organizations in their communities, including 37% of those who are religiously affiliated.
Other key findings in the PRRI analysis include:
- Friendship networks are highly interconnected. A majority of Americans (56%) say that most or all of the individuals in their networks talk to one another regularly, though more than one-third say a few or hardly any of them communicate with one another, and seven percent say none of them talk to one another.
- Women list more friendship network contacts than men, on average (4.5 people compared to 3.9 people). There are not large differences in the self-reported size of friendship networks by race and ethnicity, age, or education.
- Most Americans (81%) report that they are satisfied with how they have maintained connections throughout the pandemic, including 39% who are very satisfied.
- Most Americans are satisfied with the number of close friends they have: 47% are very satisfied, and an additional 33% are somewhat satisfied. Only one in five are somewhat dissatisfied (14%) or very dissatisfied (5%) with the number of close friends they have in their lives.
- Despite the popularity of online correspondence, six in ten Americans (57%) say they primarily communicate about important issues with their friendship networks in person. There is little variation in this trend by age; even a majority of Americans ages 18–29 (54%) say they do this.
- Less than half of Americans say that believing in God (48%), being born in America (44%), being a Christian (36%), or being of Western European heritage (16%) are important to being “truly American.” Notably, this is the first time in PRRI trend data that less than half of Americans think a belief in God is important to being truly American.
The full report, “American Bubbles: Politics, Race, and Religion in Americans’ Core Friendship Networks,” is available on PRRI’s website.
The survey was designed and conducted by PRRI among a random sample of 5,042 adults (ages 18 and over) living in all 50 states in the United States and who are part of Ipsos’s Knowledge Panel, and an additional 419 people who were recruited by Ipsos using opt-in survey panels to increase sample sizes in smaller states. Interviews were conducted online between March 11 and 30, 2022. The margin of error for the national survey is +/- 1.6 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence, including the design effect for the survey of 1.4. The survey was made possible through the generous support of the Fetzer Institute. Additionally, this work was made possible through the support of New Pluralists Collaborative, a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.
PRRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy.