The significance of ethnicity in youth peer relationships. A study of the encounters of youth from immigrant backgrounds and majority youth in youth work fields

Antti Kivijärvi

The study is anchored in the tradition of integration research, where the organisation of multiethnicity is examined in the institutional, occupational and everyday fields of post-immigration societies. The study analyses the implications of ethnicity in youth peer relationships in the fields of Finnish youth work, seeking to answer three questions: 1) In what ways do the boundaries based on ethnicity define the encounters of young people from immigrant and majority backgrounds in the fields of youth work? 2) How are the boundaries based on ethnicity formed in different areas and different settings organised by youth work? 3) In what ways do the ties to majority youth facilitate the access of youth from immigrant backgrounds to new leisure resources?

The theoretical foundation of the study is the constructionist view of ethnicity. Ethnicity is seen primarily as socially formed categories and differentiations between them, not so much as group attributes based on cultural characteristics or origins. In empirical terms, the focus is on young people’s daily interaction, within which boundaries based on ethnicity are formed. The study examines how ethnicity operates (or does not operate) in different youth work settings, defining the young people’s peer relationships.

The study is based on qualitative data. The majority of the materials was amassed as part of a multi-sited ethnography in 2008–2011. The researcher has visited both youth leisure facilities (e.g. youth centres and hobby groups) and youth workers’ meetings and training sessions. The ethnographic materials are mostly comprised of field diaries and interviews of both young people and youth workers. In addition, the study makes use of interviews of young people carried out in various parts of Finland in 2005.

The study consists of four articles and a summary. The publications show that despite its construed nature, ethnicity structures young people’s peer relationships in a number of ways. The main ethnicity-based boundary is formed between the majority youth and youth from immigrant backgrounds. Ethnicity and cultural features rarely become as important instruments of differentiation in the interaction between youth from immigrant backgrounds. Thus, the demarcation is primarily based on the majority-minority relationships of Finnish society, not so much on origins or cultural differences. Boundary settings are mostly a case of the readyformed circles of friendships among the majority youth and the mutual solidarity uniting minorities. On the other hand, the demarcations based on ethnicity are partially situational. The significance of the boundaries between majority youth and youth with immigrant backgrounds varies depending on locality, group composition, local youth cultures, youth work practices, and sometimes also cultural differences.

Despite the structural nature of the boundaries between youth from immigrant backgrounds and majority youth, individual young people constantly transgress them. For example, youth from immigrant backgrounds that has lived in Finland for a long time or date majority youth, as well as the offspring of transnational unions, form many kinds of ties independent of ethnic boundaries. On the other hand, a considerable part of the ties between majority youth and youth from immigrant backgrounds remain weak, as more distant acquaintances. The materials contain fewer examples of strong ties in the form of closer friendships or courtships. Moreover, many of the weak ties remain too fragile to contribute to the leisure resources of youth from immigrant backgrounds – to increase their knowledge of leisure activities, enable getting to know third-party young people, or lower the thresholds to new leisure facilities.

The results indicate that in many cases, ethnicity-based boundaries remain in place also in leisure fields. The significance of ethnicity may even be emphasized in leisure time, as young people choose their places and company. The informal interaction of leisure time may be based on ethnic categorizations more strongly than the more formal encounters of school classrooms, lecture halls and workplaces. Thus, the social integration of young people from immigrant backgrounds – the number and intensity of ties attaching them to the majority population – should also be examined from the viewpoints of the ethnic segregation within the education system and labour market.