The Characteristics And Quality Of Adolescent Friendships

While few researchers have examined the contextual-level predictors of friendship quality among ethnic minority adolescents, there has been an increasing number of studies examining the characteristics (e.g., number of cross-ethnic/racial friendships) and quality (e.g., level of support or intimacy) of friendships among ethnically diverse youth. This body of research has, for the most part, suggested that the characteristics and quality of friendships are influenced by race, ethnicity, gender and/or social class (Cauce, 1986, 1987; DuBois & Hirsch, 1990; Hamm, 1994; Way, 1996, 1998).

The Characteristics of Adolescent Friendships

Research focused on the extent to which ethnic minority and majority youth have cross ethnic/racial friendships has, for the most part, suggested that adolescents, including those who attend ethnically diverse schools, are less likely to befriend peers from other ethnic/racial groups than they are peers from their own ethnic/racial group (Brown, 1990; Hamm, 1998; Tatum, 1997). Inconsistencies, however, are evident in the research literature regarding the prevalence of cross-ethnic/racial friendships. Some studies show African American and/or European American youth as unlikely to have any cross ethnic friendships (Shrum et al., 1987; Way & Chen, 2000), while others depict adolescents who attend ethnically diverse schools as more commonly experiencing cross-race friendships (Hamm, 1998).

In addition, some findings show that the likelihood of cross ethnic/racial friendships differs depending on the race/ethnicity of the adolescent (Clark & Ayers, 1991; DuBois & Hirsch, 1990; Hamm, 1998). However, like the pattern of prevalence of cross ethnic/racial friendships, findings have been contradictory. Hamm (1998) showed, for example, 75% of the Asian American and Latino adolescents in her study as reportedly having at least one cross-ethnic/race friend, whereas this was true for only 50% of the African American and European American adolescents. Other scholars have shown, in contrast, that African American adolescents are almost twice as likely as their White peers to report having cross-ethnic/race friends (Clark & Ayers, 1991; DuBois & Hirsch, 1990).

In our own research, we find that the vast majority (>73%) of Black, Latino, and Asian American students report having same-race/ethnic friendship networks (Way & Chen, 2000). However, in contrast to Hamm's (1998) findings, Asian American students are most likely not to report having cross racial/ethnic friendships (85% of Asian American students in comparison to 73% and 64% of Latino and African American students, respectively). The discrepancy in findings regarding prevalence of cross-ethnic/race friendships as well as the ethnic/racial group least or most likely to report having such friendships draws attention to the importance of examining the context in which friendships are embedded. Cross-ethnic/race friends may be more likely in school contexts in which there are academic and extracurricular activities that implicitly or explicitly encourage such friendships (Phelan, Davidson, & Cao, 1991). Furthermore, the ethnic/racial diversity of the school as well as the dominance of particular ethnic/race groups within the school is likely to influence the prevalence of cross-ethnic/race friendships (Joyner & Kao, 2000). The discrepancy in findings may also be due to the type of friendship being examined. Closest friendships may be less likely to cross the racial/ethnic divide than friendships in general. Our quantitative findings suggest that closest friendships are more segregated by race/ethnicity than are friendships in general.

The prevalence of cross-ethnic/race friendships within particular ethnic/racial groups is also likely influenced by the social status and language use of the ethnic/racial group within the school (Suarez-Orozco & Suarez-Orozco, 2001). In our research, Asian American students, although representing the second largest pan ethnic group in the school, were very low on the social hierarchy and were harassed by their Black and Latino peers (see Way, Kim, & Santos, 2005). Consequently, the Asian American students reported fearing Black and Latino students and felt the need to keep to themselves (Rosenbloom & Way, 2004; Way et al., 2005). In addition, Asian American students were most likely among the adolescents in our research to speak a non-English language at home. Thus, speaking another language with their friends may enhance the segregation of their friendships.

Although most studies have not explored gender differences in the likelihood of cross-ethnic/racial friendships, findings from our research show girls to be slightly more likely to report having same-ethnic/race friendships than boys, with approximately 78% of the girls and 67% of the boys reporting same-race/ethnic friendship networks (Way & Chen, 2000). Qualitative interview data from our research reveal boys to be more flexible regarding friendship selection than girls. Such patterns may be the product of boys more active engagement in sports which puts them in contact with adolescents from different ethnic/racial groups. However, despite these gender and ethnic/racial differences in the likelihood of having cross-ethnic/race friendships, substantially more than half of the girls and boys from all ethnic/racial groups in our research have been more likely to report same-ethnic/race friendships than cross-ethnic/race friendships.

The research on the characteristics of ethnic minority adolescent friendships has also shown context-specific differences in the source of friendships. DuBois and Hirsch (1990), for example, found Black adolescents to be more likely than their White peers to report having a large network of neighborhood friends while White adolescents reported having more school-based friendships. Supporting this finding, Clark and Ayers (1991) showed African American adolescents as having more contact with their best friends outside of school, whereas White adolescents' best friendships were more likely to take place within the school context.

In our own research, we find that although most adolescents report having school-based friendships, less than half, particularly in the first 2 years of high school, indicate having best friends who attend the same school. In the ninth grade, for example, only 25% of the Black students, 40% of the Latino students, and 38% of the Asian American students reported having best friends who attended the same school (Way & Chen, 2000). Such findings are consistent with previous research that suggest that the friendships of ethnic minority youth are not necessarily school-based and underscore the importance of examining the diversity of friendship characteristics among youth and of distinguishing between types of friendships (e.g., school vs. neighborhood, closest vs. general friendships).

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