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. https://doi.org/10.1080/2474736X.2020.1758576.
Ruedin, Didier. 2019. ‘Attitudes to Immigrants in South Africa: Personality and Vulnerability’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 45 (7): 1108–26. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2018.1428086.

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.

More theory to make social sciences more interesting

Richard Swedberg urges us to theorize more to make social sciences more interesting. His recent article in BJS summarizes Swedberg’s 2014 book in a short and accessible manner. While we’re more used to seeing the article first followed by a longer book, I’m happy to see this article as Swedberg’s message deserves to be heard. Contrary to what I chose as the title of this post, Swedberg actually doesn’t call for more theory as such, but for more of the right kind of theory. Good theory isn’t abstract and empirically irrelevant (i.e. much of what passes as ‘theory’ today). Interestingly Swedberg focuses on observation and creativity, and not formal modelling as it is done in economics (which he regards as mechanistic).

Swedberg, Richard. 2016. ‘Before Theory Comes Theorizing or How to Make Social Science More Interesting’. The British Journal of Sociology, February. doi:10.1111/1468-4446.12184.

Swedberg, Richard. 2014. The Art of Social Theory. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

MIPEX Results for Switzerland

I have been writing about MIPEX quite a bit recently, not least since we published how the MIPEX scores changed over time since 1848. The latest (official) MIPEX results for Switzerland are now out (along with a new look), although it’ll be a while until all country scores are available.

New is the addition of “health”, a policy area we didn’t consider in the SPSR article. It happens to be an area where Switzerland does comparatively well — also an area where there was a great deal of effort in the past few years. The way new policy areas can be added to the MIPEX on a whim illustrates that the overall score should always be treated with a grain of salt. On the other hand, more indicators are great news for those willing to spend a little bit of time to re-combine the individual items into theoretically sound combinations, as I suggest we should do more often.