Theories of discrimination

Whether you’re new to research on (ethnic) discrimination or have a couple of studies under your belt, you could do worse than reading Lauren Rivera‘s review article on employer decision-making.

While I’m not entirely convinced about the ostensible lack of studies on employers, the review really shines on summarizing different reasons for discrimination. Oddly enough, most of the article s I come across seem to highlight the distinction between taste-based discrimination and statistical discrimination (yes, our meta-analysis included), and largely neglect other theories. Lauren Rivera solves this by zooming out and drawing a distinction between competency-based, status-based, and social closure–based approaches. Much of the literature focuses on competency-based arguments, in which employers are almost absent other than picking the ‘best fit’ or the ‘most competent’.

In the review, Lauren Rivera highlights important differences within these three broad categories. For instance, within competency-based approaches, we have:

  • human capital theory — disparities are the result of skills and educational mismatches
  • signalling theory — disparities stem from not using the right signals of competence
  • social capital — disparities because workers do not have the same networks and ties to organizations that are valued by the companies
  • statistical discrimination — perceptions or actual average group performance is taken as a proxy, leading to disparities

We also have status-based approaches where disparities are the result of implicit or explicit views of the characteristics of groups, like warmth or ‘worth’. I guess we could speak of stereotypes here, but perhaps this is not helpful. Whatever we call these perceptions, they act as filters that disadvantage groups with low status. In this context, I missed a clearer position on the fact that some descriptions of ‘statistical discrimination’ in the literature are rather inaccurate.

There are also theories drawing on social closure. These include the ‘taste-based’ (overt or covert) dislike of minority groups. While this theory is very often invoked in publications, I have not come across many contributions that make explicit the link to social closure. This link is useful, because it allows us to see other approaches drawing on opportunity hoarding and preservation (these arguments seem more common in the literature on anti-minority attitudes than on discrimination): the desire to keep existing privileges and resources for the in-group, so employers exclude members of minority groups.

I liked the part on emotions, and decisions by ‘similarity’ in the review, but missed a more explicit link to the comparison of theories in table 1.

Rivera, Lauren A. 2020. ‘Employer Decision Making’. Annual Review of Sociology 46 (1): 215–32.

Zschirnt, Eva, and Didier Ruedin. 2016. ‘Ethnic Discrimination in Hiring Decisions: A Meta-Analysis of Correspondence Tests 1990–2015’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 42 (7): 1115–34.

Migration and Discrimination: A Reader

I’m very happy to announce the publication of a reader on migration and discrimination by Rosita Fibbi, Arnfinn Midtbøen, and Patrick Simon. The reader comes in at some 100 pages and is completely free and open access at the IMISCOE/Springer website.

Some readers may want to skip the chapter making a case for research on migration and discrimination, but for others will find a well justified and researched overview why this topic is important!

We get an overview of key concepts, key theories, and a discussion of different measurements. All these in a more comprehensive way than what research articles can offer, yet in an accessible way.

In my view, the chapter summarizing discrimination across social domains comes in a bit short. Thinking ahead how this reader can be used in a course, though, I guess this is fine, since most course providers probably want to put a focus on the empirical evidence anyway and will pick more detailed studies of these weeks.

The reader is then completed with sections on the consequences of discrimination — again a part that could have been longer, but again a part where course providers will have their own preferred material to complement the book. The chapter on combatting discrimination is a summary of classic strategies, but does not discuss some more recent ideas how discrimination can be reduced or overcome.

Overall an excellent and nicely put together resource that many will want to use in their courses or just read themselves! Download your copy now…

Peering over the shoulders of recruiters: Hiring discrimination on a recruitment platform

Here’s an exciting new study on hiring discrimination. They got access to the behavioural data of online recruiters to find evidence of discrimination against atypical candidates: Contact rates by recruiters are 4–19% lower for individuals from immigrant and minority ethnic groups, depending on their country of origin, than for citizens from the majority group. Women experience a penalty of 7% in professions that are dominated by men, and the opposite pattern emerges for men in professions that are dominated by women.

I find it interesting that they pitch their method as an alternative to correspondence tests (perhaps not all that novel if we’re looking outside the strict focus on hiring discrimination). We’re seeing an increasing number of correspondence tests in recent years, despite important ethical concerns. Not all of them are reasonably motivated, in my view — “no recent correspondence test” in a particular country/for a particular group/occupation does not cut it for me –, but jointly these studies give us a pretty clear picture of discrimination (especially in Western countries). Access to recruiting databases may not be possible in all countries, and we’re still struggling with the blatant omission of informal labour markets and internal recruitment. On the other hand, at least in principle we could test different interfaces and see if we can reduce discrimination this way…

Correspondence Test Shows Discrimination by School Administrators

A new correspondence study from Denmark shows discrimination by school administrators against parents with ‘Muslim’ names. They sent letters to schools across the country to ask whether they could move their son to that particular school (implying that they were not happy with the current school). 25% of fathers with a ‘Danish’ name (i.e. Peter Nielsen) received a positive answer, compared with 15% of fathers with a ‘Muslim’ name (i.e. Mohammad Osman).

In addition to holding everything constant by using men only (fathers enquiring about their sons), they had a variation in whether the son was a ‘diligent’ student. An interesting qualitative detail is that ‘Muslims’ are more often subjected to additional questions by e-mail (simple questions like verifying they actually live in the catchment area), while the ‘Danes’ were more often asked to call.

I find it interesting that their point of reference were studies on discrimination by public officials (typically politicians), but did not reflect methodological innovations from other correspondence tests, like stimulus sampling (!), or considerations of unmatched designs. I find it disappointing to find that the pre-registration at EGAP leads to a “page not found” error, especially since footnote 1 contains this interesting teaser: “We diverge from the preregistration to limit our focus only to the two variables that were subject to experimental manipulation and causal inference rather than those conditional on posttreatment responses.”

Continue reading “Correspondence Test Shows Discrimination by School Administrators”

Reminder: CfP: Discrimination and Racism in Cross-National Perspective

The deadline is approaching soon: 27 November, 2020

For a long time, racism has been studied without references to discrimination and was mainly conceived as a specific expression of prejudice. The retreat from blatant form of racism that were not tolerate any more to more subtle and systemic forms of racism has paved the way for studies on ethnic and racial discrimination and inequalities.

Research on discrimination against immigrants and their descendants has grown significantly in the last twenty years, paralleling the settlement of immigrant populations and the coming of age of the second generations. Studies document differential treatment and discrimination in different markets (e.g. labour market, housing) and social spheres regulated by principles of equality (e.g. school, health service, police). Patterns of discrimination are embedded in institutional contexts and a larger societal environment, characterized not only by economic uncertainties and increasing political polarization in public debate around immigrant related issues, but also by increasing diversity and opportunities of contact. Such changes in the context are likely to affect attitudes and ideology diffusion in majority and minority members. However, studies about discrimination frequently do not refer specifically to racism, and the methodological gains in measuring discrimination did not transfer directly to the measurement of racism. How far racism and ethnic and racial discrimination are distinct, and how they relate to each other are key issues we would like to explore in this panel. In addition to these general questions, we are also interested in papers addressing the consequences of the Covid-19 on ethnic and racial inequalities in health would be very welcomed.

The panel will bring together researchers on discrimination, racism, and inequalities, tackling these issues from various disciplines, theoretical backgrounds and methods. We welcome empirical studies of discrimination patterns across a large variety of domains, theoretical perspectives on how the prevalence of ethnic discrimination and racism should be explained and conceptualized, and studies on the consequences of anti-discrimination policies and legislation, including considerations inequalities in health and racial inequalities and how these can be overcome. We also welcome papers which use and discuss theories about cross-country differences, ethnic hierarchies, and evolution over time.

Submit your abstract specifying the research question, data, methods and findings (200 words maximum) no later than 27 November 2020. For further information get in touch with Didier Ruedin ( The notification of acceptance will be made by 30 November 2020.

Organizer: Patrick Simon (INED), Didier Ruedin (University of Neuchâtel)