Diversity is Delicious…AND Difficult

In the November issue of GQ Magazine, Devin Friedman embarked on a simple social experiment : make new black friends.

The article details Friedman’s many travails as he tries to bring increased “diversity” to his cadre of friends and in the end he refers to the Psychological notion of homophily to explain why human relationships may be getting increasingly homogenous:

There’s a psychological term that’s used to explain why white people and black people aren’t friends: homophily. It means that people are likely to be friends with those who are similar to them. (There’s an aphorism about homophily: Birds of a feather ?ock together. One of the peculiar duties of social scientists is to prove the most obvious things, make them seem complicated, and then reconstitute them as simple. For examples, see the work of Malcolm Gladwell.) I would argue that the modern world is, in many quarters, dominated by increasingly extreme homophily. If you don’t want to, youll never have to talk to anyone whose jeans are different from yours. And there’s the trend toward so-called cultural cocooning, where you only have to listen to people who have the same opinion as you, be it on Fox or MSNBC or Lou Dobbs, depending on if your philosophy is galvanized around conservatism or liberalism or angry people with wet piano keys for teeth.

As a whole, the entire article proved extremely interesting, but it was this idea of homophily that I found to be the most striking. I ran a mental scan of all my friends to think if the theory proved true and after discussing it with others, I was left with another question in place of the answer – what is “sameness?”

According to the Center for Interactive Advertising, Homophily is defined as:

The theory of homophily, defined by Lazarsfeld and Merton (1964), is that most human communication will occur between a source and a receiver who are alike (i.e., homophilous and have a common frame of reference). Homophily is the degree to which individuals in dyad are congruent or similar in certain attributes, such as demographic variables, beliefs and values (Touchey 1974). Gabriel Tarde (1903) also noted that social relations are generally between individuals who resemble each other in occupation and education. Hetrophily is the degree to which pairs of individuals are different in certain attributes. Thus, heterophily is the opposite of homophily.

Rogers and Bhowmik (1971) mentioned that homophily occurs frequently because communication is more effective when source and receiver are homopilous. When two individuals share common meanings, belief, and mutual understandings, communication between them is more likely to be effective. Individuals enjoy the comfort of interacting with others who are similar. Talking with those who are markedly different from us requires more effort to make communication effective. Heterophilous communication between dissimilar individuals may also cause cognitive dissonance because an individual is exposed to messages that are inconsistent with existing beliefs, resulting in an uncomfortable psychological state.

Homophily and effective communication breed one another. The more communication there is between members of a dyad, the more likely they are to become homophilous; the more homophilous two individuals are, the more likely that their communication will be effective. Individuals who depart from the homophily principle and attempt to communicate with others who are different from them often face the frustration of ineffective communication. Differences in technical competence, social status, beliefs, and language, lead to mistakes in meaning, thereby causing messages to be distorted or to go unheeded.

Homophily is the principle that contact between similar people occurs at a higher rate than among dissimilar people. The pervasive fact of homophily means that cultural, behavioral, genetic or material information that flows through networks will tend to be localized. Homophily implies that distance in terms of social characteristics translates into network distance, the number of relationships through which a piece of information must travel to connect two individuals. It also implies that any social entity that depends to a substantial degree on networks for its transmission will tend to be localized in social space, and will obey certain fundamental dynamics as it interacts with other social entities in an ecology of social forms.

So, with that as our base definition does the theory still hold in everyday interaction? Well, people often list “easy to talk to” as a desirable and positive trait in others, and that is more likely that not due to a sense of shared experiences but then one has to ask just how much sameness is needed to create a comfortable homophilous relationship? What I mean is, how much more likely are two people to be friends because they both live in Capitol Hill and rock True Religion Jeans?

Obviously, we have not answered this question of homophilous relationships and have in fact, been left once more with new questions in place of the answers we were seeking. But that is the greatest part of Friedman’s non-scientific experiment, because as I was reading the article I too began to wonder just how homophilous my own social circle is? Also, what do I consider to be “sameness” in a person that would make me more or less likely to be their friend?

Of what his experiment says about race in America today, Friedman has this to say:

It’s also an argument that says: Blackness and whiteness still matter. One of the most modern racial problems we suffer from can be boiled down to this: There is an actual debate going on about whether Barack Obama is the ?rst postracial candidate, if we are living in a postracial world. If we were living in a postracial world, white Americans would not have been so perplexed and terrified by the videotape of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who while clearly an idiot in some ways, is certainly not an unfamiliar character in black churches. And his foolish theory that the American government invented AIDS and gave it to black people? That rumor’s been spread through the black community for twenty years. Hardly defensible, but hardly surprising. He’s no weirder a character than Rush Limbaugh; it’s just that he doesn’t normally get picked up on cable news. And the idea that a black man raised by an occasionally broke single white mother in America can be successfully defined as an elitist betrays a failure of our culture-recognition software and is only possible because white people look at black people with a pretty fundamental lack of perception.

As Friedman’s closing lines to the article state, though homophilous relationships may be easier, there is little reason not to seek out Heterophilous relationships in our lives.

One of the most hopeful results of this experiment: No one punched me in the face, whatever faux pas I committed. In fact, to the person, everyone I asked to participate in Operation Black Friend agreed. There is a tremendous amount of goodwill out there. All you need to do is turn off the Radiohead and walk out the door.

WILL YOU BE MY BLACK FRIEND? [GQ]