Paper on Attitudes to Immigrants in South Africa out Now

I am happy to announce that my paper on attitudes to immigrants in South Africa is now available at the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (JEMS). It all started with a literature on xenophobic violence I could not quite believe. This quote sums it up quite nicely: “All South Africans appear to have the same stereotypical image of Southern Africans.” (Mattes et al. 1999, p.2). It went across what I knew about attitudes to foreigners elsewhere, and crucially I did not come across an explanation why South Africa would be such an exceptional case. Having churned the numbers, I come to quite a different conclusion. Not only are there discernable patterns in South African attitudes to immigrants, but indeed:

When implemented to reflect the specific context, research on attitudes to immigrants appears to generalise to non-Western contexts.

So this paper serves a dual purpose. On the one hand, it shows that what we have learned in Western Europe and North America does indeed seem to apply elsewhere. This is an important test of validity. On the other hand, it presents research on an under-researched country and indeed continent! In a context where xenophobic violence is a recurring phenomenon, I demonstrate that we do not have to tap entirely in the dark.

Supplemental material on OSF, where I also linked a short summary of the research.

Workshop on Attitudes to Foreigners and Discrimination in the Labour Market, 20 March 2018 in Geneva

The workshop will take place at the University of Geneva (Switzerland) on 20 March 2018, Salle M3250, 9:00 to 17:30.


The workshop brings together researchers of the of the SNIS project Individual-Level Attitudes towards Immigrants over Time and across Contexts, the NCCR on the move, invited experts working on attitudes to foreigners and discrimination in the labour market, and members from international organizations and policy-makers. It serves as the final event of the SNIS project, to showcase cutting-edge work on these topics. The SNIS project combines theory from economics, sociology, social psychology, and political science to explain individual attitudes to foreigners, with a focus on panel data. We expect invited participants to present advanced work in progress, and provide the participants with networking opportunities. Each presenter will be asked to raise an explicit policy-relevant implication for discussion.


Eva Green (University of Lausanne), Gallya Lahav (Stony Brook University, New York), Sjoerdje van Heerden (University of Neuchâtel/European Commission), Elmar Schlueter (Justus-Liebig University Giessen), Veronica Preotu (University of Geneva), Sergi Pardos-Prado (University of Oxford), Valentina di Stasio (University of Utrecht), Bram Lancee (University of Amsterdam).


Workshop attendance is free of charge. Please send an e-mail to to register; places are limited.

Now Published: How attitudes towards immigrants are shaped by residential context

Sjoerdje van Heerden and I have just learned that our paper “How Attitudes towards Immigrants Are Shaped by Residential Context: The Role of Neighbourhood Dynamics, Immigrant Visibility, and Areal Attachment” is now available at Urban Studies. This is the first publication coming out of the SNIS project on attitudes to foreigners.

In the paper, we check whether we can find any evidence for the ‘defended neighbourhood’ thesis, using panel data from the Netherlands and fixed-effect models. It turns out, we find no evidence of such effects in the Netherlands in recent years. The analysis looks at how proportional changes in residential context are associated with changes in attitudes towards immigrants. Following the reasoning that the majority population need to perceive immigrants, we paid particular attention to immigrant visibility. What is more, the unit of analysis is the neighbourhood, as close as possible as people experience it. We have put a lot of thought in choosing the right level, and went with the four-digit postcodes in the Netherlands. From what we gather, this largely corresponds to the perception of neighbourhoods people have, and not an artificial unit that happens to be ‘available’ in the data.

Following the ‘defended neighbourhood’ hypothesis, we focus on proportional change, not absolute numbers as researchers typically do when using cross-sectional data. A larger change in the proportion of immigrant residents is associated with more positive views on immigrants among natives — not what a defended neighbourhood would look like. Indeed, it is particularly a change in the proportion of visible non-Western immigrants that is associated with changes in attitudes.

Heerden, Sjoerdje van, and Didier Ruedin. 2017. “How Attitudes towards Immigrants Are Shaped by Residential Context: The Role of Neighbourhood Dynamics, Immigrant Visibility, and Areal Attachment.” Urban Studies Online First.

Education and Attitudes — Not So Fast

It’s a very common finding that people with higher levels of formal education are less prejudiced — as captured by their answers in surveys. So common is this assumption that it has almost become an informal benchmark for studies on attitudes to immigrants and other minority groups. If you don’t find an association between levels of formal education and lower prejudice, some will doubt your data or analysis.

There are, however, reasons to doubt that this association is the end of the story. First of all, levels of formal education are not a well specified mechanism. In our IMR article, Marco Pecoraro and I write:

While an association between low levels of education and negative sentiments toward immigrants can be found across countries, the underlying mechanism remains poorly specified.

Most studies use education as a proxy of skills levels, which is a very narrow definition of human capital when we consider the possible competition between citizens and foreigners in the labour market. In our study, we addressed this by using skill levels:

Using these more sophisticated measures of exposure to market competition, we find no evidence that – once values and beliefs are accounted for – workers with low levels of education a priori have more negative attitudes toward foreigners than those with upper secondary education.

A simple reason may be that levels of formal education capture social desirability. An (2014) argues that the relationship between education and attitudes/prejudice is largely driven by social desirability, but others contest this (e.g. Ostapczuk et al. 2009).

There have long been reasons to think more carefully about the relationship between education and prejudice — beyond the lack of a clearly specified mechanism. For instance, Jackman (1978) showed that higher education is associated with being more tolerant on an abstract index, but not on an applied index. Studying support for minority rights in referendums and popular initiatives, Vatter et al. (2014) highlight that the ‘effect’ of education depends on the minority group considered. Similarly, Bansak et al. (2016) show that preferences for certain groups of asylum seekers are the same across levels of education. A quite different challenge came from Weil (1985) who showed that the association is weaker or altogether absent in non-liberal countries — if we want to speak of an ‘effect’, it does not appear to be universal. That’s exactly what we have seen in recent years as prejudice and attitudes to minorities are increasingly studied outside Western Europe and North America.

For instance, Bahry (2016) did not find a clear association between levels of formal education and negative attitudes to foreigners in Russia (but Bessudov 2016 did). Diop et al. studied the situation in Qatar and found no association to speak of; Barceló 2016 reports no clear association in Asia. Gordon (2016) reports that higher levels of education mean being less stereotyped in South Africa, but that there is no difference in the opposition to refugees; while Gordon (2015) highlights that xenophobia crosses the class divide in South Africa. Kunovich (2004) finds weaker ‘effects’ of education in Eastern Europe compared to Western Europe, while Dennison & Talò (2017) find no direct ‘effect’ in France — right in Western Europe.

One interpretation of education affecting attitudes to foreigners is the liberalizing effect of education. Most studies use cross-sectional data, so they are in a poor situation to test this. Hello (2002) cast some doubt on this interpretation by showing that the ‘effect’ of education seems to vary across countries. More directly, however, Lancee & Sarrasin (2015) used panel data to follow individuals through education, and they find ‘no effect’ when only modelling within-subject variation: Attitudes change little through education.

So we’ve certainly not seen the end of the story yet.


An, Brian P. 2015. ‘The Role of Social Desirability Bias and Racial/Ethnic Composition on the Relation between Education and Attitude toward Immigration Restrictionism’. The Social Science Journal 52 (4): 459–67. doi:10.1016/j.soscij.2014.09.005.

Bahry, Donna. 2016. ‘Opposition to Immigration, Economic Insecurity and Individual Values: Evidence from Russia’. Europe-Asia Studies 68 (5): 893–916. doi:10.1080/09668136.2016.1178710.

Bansak, Kirk, Jens Hainmueller, and Dominik Hangartner. 2016. ‘How Economic, Humanitarian, and Religious Concerns Shape European Attitudes toward Asylum Seekers’. Science 354 (6309): 217–22. doi:10.1126/science.aag2147.

Barceló, Joan. 2016. ‘Attitudes toward Immigrants and Immigration Policy in Asia and the Pacific: A Quantitative Assessment of Current Theoretical Models beyond Western Countries’. Asian Journal of Political Science 24 (1): 87–123. doi:10.1080/02185377.2015.1136228.

Bessudnov, Alexey. 2016. ‘Ethnic Hierarchy and Public Attitudes towards Immigrants in Russia’. European Sociological Review 32 (5): 567–80. doi:10.1093/esr/jcw002.

Dennison, James, and Teresa Talò. 2017. ‘Explaining Attitudes to Immigration in France’. Working Paper.

Diop, Abdoulaye, Yaojun Li, Majed Mohammmed H. A. Al-Ansari, and Kien T. Le. 2017. ‘Social Capital and Citizens’ Attitudes towards Migrant Workers’. Social Inclusion 5 (1): 66–79. doi:10.17645/si.v5i1.798.

Gordon, Steven Lawrence. 2015. ‘Xenophobia across the Class Divide: South African Attitudes towards Foreigners 2003–2012’. Journal of Contemporary African Studies 33 (4): 494–509. doi:10.1080/02589001.2015.1122870.

———. 2016. ‘Welcoming Refugees in the Rainbow Nation: Contemporary Attitudes towards Refugees in South Africa’. African Geographical Review 35 (1): 1–17. doi:10.1080/19376812.2014.933705.

Hello, Evelyn, Peer Scheepers, and Merove Gijsberts. 2002. ‘Education and Ethnic Prejudice in Europe: Explanations for Cross-National Variances in the Educational Effect on Ethnic Prejudice’. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research 46 (1): 5–24.

Jackman, Mary R. 1978. ‘General and Applied Tolerance: Does Education Increase Commitment to Racial Integration?’ American Journal of Political Science 22 (2): 302–324.

Kunovich, Robert M. 2004. ‘Social Structural Position and Prejudice: An Exploration of Cross-National Differences in Regression Slopes’. Social Science Research 33 (1): 20–44. doi:10.1016/S0049-089X(03)00037-1.

Lancee, Bram, and Oriane Sarrasin. 2015. ‘Educated Preferences or Selection Effects? A Longitudinal Analysis of the Impact of Educational Attainment on Attitudes Towards Immigrants’. European Sociological Review, March, jcv008. doi:10.1093/esr/jcv008.

Ostapczuk, Martin, Jochen Musch, and Morten Moshagen. 2009. ‘A Randomized-Response Investigation of the Education Effect in Attitudes towards Foreigners’. European Journal of Social Psychology 39 (6): 920–931.

Pecoraro, Marco, and Didier Ruedin. 2016. ‘A Foreigner Who Does Not Steal My Job: The Role of Unemployment Risk and Values in Attitudes toward Equal Opportunities’. International Migration Review 50 (3): 628–66. doi:10.1111/imre.12162.

Vatter, Adrian, Isabelle Stadelmann-Steffen, and Deniz Danaci. 2014. ‘Who Supports Minority Rights in Popular Votes? Empirical Evidence from Switzerland’. Electoral Studies 36 (December): 1–14. doi:10.1016/j.electstud.2014.06.008.

Weil, Frederick D. 1985. ‘The Variable Effects of Education on Liberal Attitudes: A Comparative- Historical Analysis of Anti-Semitism Using Public Opinion Survey Data’. American Sociological Review 50 (4): 458–74. doi:10.2307/2095433.

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