A new study uncovered how informal segregation persists in public playgrounds in multiethnic neighborhoods in Helsinki, Finland. The research, made public in the Social Psychology Quarterly journal, highlights that daily norms and parenting practices can limit interaction between ethnic groups, reinforcing societal divisions.
Previous studies have often focused on controlled settings to examine how ethnic or racial groups interact, overlooking real-world complexities. In particular, these studies have centered on individual attitudes — while largely ignoring the impact of daily routines and national norms.
Playgrounds are a national norm in their importance as a public space for families. In Helsinki, Finland — playgrounds offer a unique setting to study ethnic and racial interactions, as they tend to come equipped with instructors providing early childhood education, making them a significant part of Finnish family life.
Researchers chose to study public playgrounds in Finland to understand why informal segregation persists even in environments that should naturally encourage interethnic interaction. They aimed to provide insights into why such divisions occur and why they are maintained — despite existing policies to promote inclusion and anti-racism.
By focusing on playgrounds, the study intended to uncover how “invisible barriers” formed by norms and parenting practices affect social interaction among diverse groups.
The ethnographic study was conducted over a period of 11 months, primarily focusing on two adjacent centrally located playgrounds in two multiethnic neighborhoods in Helsinki. Selecting these locations was done by using the following criteria:
- At least a third of children under four had a foreign mother tongue.
- Over 100 children with a foreign mother tongue lived in the area.
- Finnish / Swedish was the main mother tongue.
- The area had good local services for families with children, like a health care clinic and a playground.
- The socioeconomic status of the population similar to the average status the entirety of Helsinki.
Observations were made for approximately 90 hours, focusing on interactions among mothers, who form the majority of adults present. Follow-up interviews were conducted with 24 mothers, 10 of whom were from migrant backgrounds. Data was systematically categorized and themes were developed to analyze informal segregation.
The study found several key points:
- Time Mismatch: Daily routines, often set by Finnish cultural norms, led to fewer interactions between Finnish and migrant mothers.
- Avoidance of Direct Contact: Situations like queue-jumping during lunchtimes further emphasized divisions between groups — leading to either silent disapproval or hostile comments.
- Ingroup Preferences: Mothers often prefer to interact within their ethnic or cultural groups, perpetuating segregation.
- Unspoken Rules: Informal segregation became normalized through repeated behaviors, which solidified the divisions between groups.
- Role of Cultural Norms: Cultural expectations around “good parenting” also acted as a barrier to interaction between different ethnic groups.
While the study offers significant insights, it is important to notice possible caveats in the overall research— such as a restricted sample size focused on specific playgrounds. Additionally, the study predominantly involved mothers, overlooking the potential role of fathers in shaping these interaction patterns. Language barriers and the absence of a class-based analysis were also noted as areas for future research.
“To conclude, the evident informal segregation on the playground among mothers of different ethnic/racial groups was (re)produced through asynchrony in their physical presence in the space—partly derived from cultural norms—and in fine-tuned normative interactional processes of avoiding outgroup contacts and staying among other ingroup mothers when present in the same space,” the researcher wrote. “Thus informal segregation is not just (re)produced by discriminative behavior or avoidance but also through everyday normative practices that often lead to self-segregation by both groups.”
The study, “Keeping Apart on the Playground: Construction of Informal Segregation on Public Playgrounds in Multiethnic Neighborhoods”, was authored by Paula Paajanen, Tuija Seppälä, Clifford Stevenson, Reetta Riikonen, and Eerika Finell.