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More Than a Sorting Machine: Ethnic Boundary Making in a Stratified School System1

This article examines the structural conditions that shape ethnic boundary making in the school setting. While previous work has focused on the ethnic composition of student bodies, this study places schools in their institutional and local contexts. The authors argue that the formation of identities and networks varies across local areas depending on the extent of ethnic stratification across schools. Empirically, the authors turn to the case of Germany, where the role of schools as producers of categorical inequalities is particularly obvious. The analysis links large-scale survey data on adolescents’ identification and networks with administrative geocoded information on local stratification across secondary schools. The authors find that minority students in schools with identical ethnic compositions show different inclinations to identify as a majority group member and to form friendships with majority peers, depending on the local extent of ethnic stratification across schools. To place these findings in a cross-national perspective, the authors identify scope conditions of these mechanisms of boundary making and discuss their presence in other countries and school systems. The results support recent theories of immigrant incorporation and offer a more contextualized understanding of ethnic boundary making in schools.