The current pandemic has made it abundantly clear just how important social relations are. People all around the world are staying and working from home and many suffer from a lack of interaction with friends and family.
Social relations are especially important when moving to another country or city. While economic research has shown that people with foreign-sounding names suffer from discrimination in various interactions (when they apply for a job, when renting an Airbnb apartment, or when trying to get an Uber) it has neglected social integration.
This is very surprising as a large share of the population in many European countries is foreign-born (e.g., 29.7% in Switzerland, 19.3% in Austria, or 15.6% in Norway) — and people don’t just work and buy things, but also want to make friends and establish a social network. Without friends, life can be very unpleasant, despite a good job or a nice house. Having a social network is essential for people to feel comfortable in their (new) surroundings.
In many European countries, newcomers have a straightforward way to get access to a new social network: amateur sports. It can be hard to make social connections as an adult, and for many people, contacting one of the many local football, tennis, basketball, handball, or hockey clubs is a great way to start. Basically, that means that players meet once or twice a week, play the game, have the occasional beer after practice, and play a match against another team every other weekend or so. While being competitive is important, the focus is often on having a good time with friends while trying to stay fit. It’s a social activity as well as exercise.
I am part of a team of researchers from the University of Zürich in Switzerland and the NTNU in Norway who used this setting for an interesting research idea. We created fake email accounts with typical foreign- and native-sounding names and contacted amateur football clubs asking to participate in a training session. We estimate that it is an accurate method to measure access to social integration.
Declining to invite someone for a training session is similar to not giving the person access to a social network — they’re excluded from the social circle they’re trying to access. We performed the experiment not in one but in several countries to have a comprehensive overview of access to social integration for the respective countries.
We decided to perform the experiment using amateur football clubs. Football is by far the most popular amateur sport in Europe and tens of thousands of amateur football clubs exist throughout Europe. We identified 22 European countries that fit with the experimental setting. First, we gathered the emails of all amateur football clubs. Then, we translated the mail into the respective languages of the countries and created foreign-sounding names for natives and the three largest foreign groups in each country. Finally, we clarified in surveys in the respective countries that the names sounded indeed native or foreign.
Before the pandemic started, we sent more than 23,000 emails to amateur football clubs all over Europe. The results showed that, on average, people with a foreign-sounding name are 10% less likely to receive a response (see the figure below). Many countries, e.g., Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and Romania, were fairly close to the average for all European countries.
But there were notable exceptions. In Hungary, Austria, and Croatia, people with foreign-sounding names were 20% less likely to receive a response. On the other hand, football clubs in Ireland, France, and Portugal discriminated only marginally against people with foreign-sounding names.
Our results are important both for the general public and for policymakers. National and local governments invest considerable sums into integration-related programs, and rightfully so. Individuals who leave a city or country because they were never able to establish a social network generate real costs for themselves and for society. Thus, social integration is a field where policymakers and researchers should closely work together.
Amateur sports clubs remain a relatively easy way for foreigners to develop a social circle, but the present field experiment shows that discrimination against ethnic minority groups is still present. If we want to foster healthy social interactions for everyone, there’s still a lot of work to be done.
The findings have been published in Humanities and Social Sciences, a Nature journal.