Relationships: What Factors Affect the Occurrence of Interracial and Interethnic Relationships among Adolescents? Social Demographer Kara Joyner Is Focusing on This and Related Questions, Paying Close Attention to the Social Structure of Schools

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What factors affect the occurrence of interracial and interethnic relationships among adolescents? Social demographer Kara Joyner is focusing on this and related questions, paying close attention to the social structure of schools.

Remember the scene from the musical West Side Story where Tony and Maria first meet during the dance at the gym, where their eyes connect from across the room and through the racial barriers that separate them? If Kara Joyner had been there, she would have been taking copious notes, and she might have pulled them aside for an interview.

Joyner, an assistant professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management, is studying interracial and interethnic friendships and romantic relationships among teenagers. She and a colleague at the University of Pennsylvania just received an $825,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct a four-year study.

Joyner began studying interracial relationships as a postdoctoral student at the Carolina Population Center, a research institute affiliated with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"I was trained as a social demographer," she says. "Social demographers are concerned about the relationship between demographic and sociological factors. I am particularly interested in how demographic factors, such as the composition of a population, influence the development of different types of relationships and how those relationships, in turn, influence individual well-being."

Joyner first began studying relationships while doing her Ph.D. work at the University of Chicago, writing her dissertation on social exchange and the stability of married and cohabiting relationships. It was there that she met Grace Kao, a fellow doctoral student, who was doing work on racial and ethnic identity. Joined by their overlapping research interests, they stayed in touch when Kao began her position in the Sociology Department at the University of Pennsylvania and Joyner joined the Sociology Department at McGill University in Canada, and they started a proposal together to study interracial relationships among adolescents. When Joyner came to Cornell in 2000, they submitted their proposal to the National Institutes of Health, and this past summer they were awarded the grant. She and Kao are the co-principal investigators.

Most of Joyner's recent studies on relationships among adolescents have been based on data collected from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (1994-95), a nationally representative sample of schools from across the country. Richard Udry, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, was the director of the study, known as Add Health, and Joyner worked closely with him during her postdoctoral studies. The data in the national study were collected from 134 schools all over the country--from large city schools with diverse populations to rural schools, large and small, with very homogenous student populations--and from almost 100,000 students ages 12 to 18.

Joyner found that nearly a fifth of all surveyed students had a romantic relationship with someone of a different race during the previous year and a half, and the rate was just about equal for the fraction of students who had a current close friendship with someone of a different race.

In examining the data, Joyner says she first comes up with what the estimated likelihood of interracial dating and friendship would be if it were left to pure mathematical chance. "Then I compare it with the actual likelihood," she says. "What I consider particularly interesting is how much our friendship and relationship choices are constrained by our social structure. One of the very first things that we found is that a major determinant of whether you have a friend or romantic partner of a different race is the size of your racial group relative to the size of other racial groups. …