No, nationality is not a mechanism

This post might serve as a reminder to myself and others doing research on immigrants and their descendent that nationality is not a mechanism. Put differently, if you discover that people with nationality A differ from people with nationality B in a given characteristic, you have not explained anything at all.

It feels rather obvious when put this way, but it’s usually harder when it comes to multiple regression models. So often we throw in a control variable like “foreign national” or “foreign born” without thinking why we do so, what alternative explanation we think we are capturing. Obviously, a person’s passport or place of birth is used as a shorthand or proxy of something else, but what exactly?

Let’s consider the commonly used variables of migration background or migration origin. Short of calling a particular section of society different in essence (which we probably don’t want to), there are a range of concepts we might be trying to capture, like the experience of (racial) discrimination, having a different skin colour, having a different religion, holding different values, having poor language skills, being of the working class, having additional cultural perspectives and experiences, transnational ties, or a combination of these.

Knowing what we’re after is essential for understanding. Sometimes it is necessary to use proxies like immigrant origin, but we need to specify the mechanism we’re trying to capture. Depending on the mechanism, who should be counted as of immigrant origin, for example, can be quite different, especially when it comes to children of immigrants, individuals of “mixed” background, and naturalized individuals. Having poor language skills, for example, is something most likely to affect (first generation) immigrants; but likely experience of racial discrimination is probably not disappearing just because it was my grandparents rather than me who came to this country.

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