Contact Theory Extended: The Effects of Prior Racial Contact on Current Social Ties



Objective. We address methodological limitations in tests of contact theory. Just as importantly, we extend its theoretical focus to behaviors. Linking insights from social and cognitive psychology with contact theory, we hypothesize that prior racial contact will have significant effects on the racial diversity of contemporary social ties. Methods. Using the 1999–2000 Lilly Survey of Attitudes and Social Networks, we conduct univariate and multivariate analyses to test our hypotheses. Results. Those who had experienced prior interracial contact in schools and neighborhoods were more likely, as adults, to have more racially diverse general social groups and friendship circles. They were more likely to attend multiracial as opposed to a uniracial religious congregations, and to be interracially married. In general, these findings applied not only to all Americans, but to whites, African Americans, and Hispanics separately. They did not apply to Asians. Conclusions. Contact theory can and should be extended, rendering it more fruitful for studying race relations. Except when groups are an extremely small percentage of the population, even limited prior contact in multiracial settings appears to have important effects on contemporary social ties. These findings have important policy implications.