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Towards a Networked Contact Theory: Adolescent Friendship, Intergroup Contact, and Attitudes Towards Sexual Minorities

Partially supported by a NULab Seedling Grant

Allport’s (1954) contact theory posits that equal-status, intergroup contact should reduce prejudiced views and discourage the formation of negative, disliking ties those from disadvantaged groups. Inspired by Allport’s classic theory, a body of previous empirical work evaluates whether ties between sexual minority and heterosexual adolescents can decrease the homophobic attitudes of straight actors, with studies finding mixed results. In this project, McMillan and her team reconsider the potential benefits of intergroup contact by applying a network perspective to study how friendships between youth of different sexualities can impact homophobic attitudes.

Most prior research on intergroup contact overlooks the fact that opportunities to establish cross-group connections do not occur randomly. This oversight is unfortunate because we know that the structures of our relationships are guided by various social processes. Social networks tend to be segregated according to individual-level demographics, and those who identify with certain traits are more likely to send and receive social ties than others. For example, adolescent girls are more likely to hold accepting attitudes about sexual minorities when compared to their male peers. Girls also tend to report greater numbers of friends than boys, which given the sheer numerical difference, should increase girls’ odds of reporting a sexual minority contact. Thus, the individual- and network-level processes that correlate with gender may be responsible for the positive association between sexual orientation and contact, rather than the influence of an intergroup tie itself. 

To illustrate the importance of developing a networked contact theory, McMillan and colleagues are applying computationally-intensive network methods to a unique sample of panel data on Dutch adolescents from the Peers and the Emergence of Adolescent Romance (PEAR) study. After evaluating whether friendships between sexual minority and straight youth can reduce straight adolescents’ homophobic attitudes, they will test if this association is mediated by several network processes, including popularity, homophily, reciprocity, and transitivity. Furthermore, since sexuality is best understood as a constellation of identity, attraction, and behaviors, they are also considering whether patterns vary across different operationalizations of sexuality. In addition to making theoretical contributions to our understanding of intergroup contact, the findings of this study will have potential to inform policy makers and school personnel as they aim to encourage pro-social, intergroup relationships.

Principal Investigator

Cassie McMillan, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminology & Criminal Justice

Research Assistant

Brandon Criag, PhD candidate, School of Criminology & Criminal Justice

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