"I believe that the friendship with Italian people is the only way to integrate in this society. Together with Antonio, my buddy, we do things of everyday life like having a walk or eating a pizza."  Shabbir, a migrant to Italy – testimonial for UNHCR Italy

Social exclusion hurts psychological well-being. We all certainly know this, as episodes of social exclusion are rather common in everyone's everyday life. For instance, imagine—or remember—when you moved to that new town without knowing anyone to hang around with who could make you feel welcomed and included in the new community. That can be really hard!

Now think about how difficult it can be for migrants, in particular asylum-seekers and refugees, who face a lot of social exclusion in a new society. Immigrants have limited political rights that prevent them from fully participating in the community's social and cultural life. They experience discrimination in the housing and job market. They are often victims of prejudice and hostility. They may struggle to form new connections with the locals, while at the same time suffering due to separation from loved ones in their country of origin.

As a result, migrants might feel rejected, lonely, and uprooted, with the feeling of not belonging to anyone or anywhere. Social exclusion can be a serious issue, particularly threatening to the psychological health of already vulnerable social groups like immigrants. But can there be any circumstances or specific social connections that help immigrants cope with social exclusion and its detrimental impact on their psychological health?

The Power of Social Connections

In our research, we investigated whether immigrants' social connections with native people from the host society, and with other migrants, might impact the immediate emotional cost and the long-term psychological effects of social exclusion. Immigrants face the challenges of both forming new relationships with the local communities and maintaining and reinvigorating their in-group bonds. Both these bridging and bonding kinds of relationships are important for immigrants' well-being and their cultural and social integration.

We examined how immigrants' connections in their new communities influence the impact of social exclusion. In the first study, we asked immigrant participants (asylum-seekers, refugees, and voluntary migrants) to report the number and quality of social connections with native people and other immigrants. Then, we showed them a set of stories relating to social exclusion and inclusion. For instance, one of the exclusion stories described an immigrant riding on a bus where no one sat next to them. One inclusion scenario told the story of an immigrant being warmly invited to a party by their neighbors. Then, we asked participants to imagine themselves in the story and report how they would feel.

The emotions they reported feeling after imagining social exclusion were more positive if they had stronger connections with the native people rather than other immigrants. Oppositely, the emotions were more negative for those who had more connections with other migrants than native people.

In the second study, we surveyed asylum-seekers and refugees three times over six months. We asked them about their feelings of social exclusion, the number and quality of connections with native inhabitants, and their "psychological resignation"—a mental state characterized by chronic depression, alienation, unworthiness, and helplessness (which is thought to be the major long-term effect of persistent social exclusion). Thus we asked about actual, not just imagined, social exclusion.

More social exclusion had a less detrimental impact in terms of psychological resignation if the person had more frequent and closer connections with native people, compared to those who had fewer connections with the locals. Oppositely, immigrants who stayed more within their migrant in-group suffered from more psychological resignation induced by social exclusion over time than those with lower connections with other migrants.

These studies suggest that being segregated within immigrant niches without an appropriate network of native people can worsen the harmful psychological effects of social exclusion. Additionally, social connections with people from the local communities can provide a powerful sense of acceptance, reducing the harm of the episodes of social exclusion immigrants deal with on a daily basis.

While highlighting the risk of segregation, the findings underline the importance of social connections with the native people to foster immigrants' well-being and integration into the host societies.

For Further Reading

Marinucci, M., & Riva, P. (2021). How intergroup social connections shape immigrants' responses to social exclusion. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations24(3), 411-435. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430219894620

Marinucci, M., Mazzoni, D., Pancani, L., & Riva, P. (2022). To whom should I turn? Intergroup social connections moderate social exclusion's short-and long-term psychological impact on immigrants. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology99, 104275. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2021.104275

Williams, K. D. (2009). Ostracism: A temporal need-threat model. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 41, 275–314. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065–2601(08)00406–1

Marco Marinucci is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Milano-Bicocca, Milan, Italy. He is part of the Social Connections and Technology Lab (https://connectlab.psicologia.unimib.it/), where he conducts research on marginalized social groups like immigrants, prisoners, and homeless people.