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…

New Publication: Do We Need Multiple Questions to Capture Feeling Threatened by Immigrants?

I’m happy to announce a new publication in ECPR’s open access Political Research Exchange (PRX).

In the article, I ask whether we need multiple questions to capture feeling threatened by immigrants. The answer is: it depends what you want to achieve. In many cases, the answers is ‘no’ — a single question or scale is enough to capture who is more opposed to immigrants. In other cases, however, we need the subtle differences in attitudes to different groups and thus ‘yes’ — multiple questions.

I use 24 different questions on potential neighbours to systematically vary the characteristics of immigrants in a representative survey in Switzerland, 2013. Respondents systematically consider immigrants from distant cultures and those more likely to receive welfare benefits as more threatening. At the same time, those who feel threatened by one kind of immigrants also tend to feel threatened by others. Questions about immigrants in the generic sense likely capture the right correlates, but they may miss differences in the level of threat evoked by different immigrants.

In some ways, this is a follow-up to my article in JEMS where I applied theories on attitudes to immigrants developed in Western countries to a non-Western country: South Africa. There I showed that research on attitudes to immigrants appears to generalize to non-Western contexts. These are validity checks for our theories, testing what we typically assume.

The article in PRX is open access and comes with open code (a.k.a. replication material) and open data.

Ruedin, Didier. 2020. ‘Do We Need Multiple Questions to Capture Feeling Threatened by Immigrants?’ Political Research Exchange 2 (1): 1758576.
Ruedin, Didier. 2019. ‘Attitudes to Immigrants in South Africa: Personality and Vulnerability’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 45 (7): 1108–26.

How to Measure the Integration (of Immigrants)

Just back from the annual IMISCOE conference, I was struck once again how often we talk about (civic) integration (of immigrants) without a clear notion what we actually mean by it. What is more, it’s become a mantra to insist on integration being a two-way process, while this is not a logical necessity. A while ago, I have written up my position in a COMPAS working paper.

I argue that integration should be understood as proximity, and suggest that we can talk about individuals being integrated as well as groups being integrated. An individual or group is considered integrated if it cannot be distinguished in relevant dimensions (the working paper is full of graphs to illustrate the argument). This is equivalent to saying that they are assimilated in relevant dimensions.

It is possible to use standard statistical methods to determine integration: it’s a matter of determining whether two groups differ in relevant dimensions, or whether the position of an individual is within the typical range of values.

By drawing a distinction between individuals and groups, we can have integrated individuals who belong to groups that are not integrated, and groups that are integrated as a whole, while some of their members are not.

Where the working paper ends is the political question: what dimensions are relevant? To answer this question, it would be necessary to map out specific visions of the society we aspire. Clearly there’s no single (objective) answer to that one.

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.