Washington: A study has revealed that race is no longer the strongest predictor of friendship between two people, at least not on Facebook.
"Sociologists have long maintained that race is the strongest predictor of whether two Americans will socialize," said Andreas Wimmer, a sociologist at UCLA.
"But we’ve found that birds of a feather don’t always flock together. Whom you get to know in your everyday life, where you live, and your country of origin or social class can provide stronger grounds for forging friendships than a shared racial background," he added.
In fact, the strongest attraction turned out to be plain, old-fashioned social pressure.
"If I befriend you, chances are that you’re going to feel the need to balance things out and become my friend, and often even the friend of my friends,” said Kevin Lewis, a Harvard graduate student in sociology.
Other mechanisms that proved stronger than same-race preference included having attended an elite prep school (twice as strong), hailing from a state with a particularly distinctive identity such as Illinois or Hawaii (up to two-and-a-half times stronger) and sharing an ethnic background (up to three times stronger).
Other routine similarities, such as sharing a major or a dorm often proved at least as strong, if not stronger, than race in drawing together potential friends.
The researchers were trying to go for a stronger measure of friendship than just clicking a link and connecting with someone over the Web, so followed the 736 freshmen who posted photos of fellow classmate-friends and then took the additional step of "tagging" the photos.
"They’re an echo of a real interaction that students also want to have socially recognized. They’re not like some online communication that only occurs over the Web,” said Wimmer.
Much of what at first appeared to be same-race preference, for instance, ultimately proved to be preference for students of the same ethnic background, Wimmer and Lewis found.
Accounting for the pressure to return friendships and to befriend friends of friends, same-race preference dropped by one-half for Latinos and a whopping two-thirds for African Americans.
Their study exemplifies a new trend in social science research to mine data from social networking sites to study human behavior, including relationships, identity, self-esteem, popularity and political engagement.
The findings appear in the current issue of the American Journal of Sociology.