Dispatches from Chicago: The home of political science for four days every April

Published 24 April 2012 / By COMPAS Communications

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Two weeks ago (April 11-14) I was in Chicago for the annual meetings of the Midwest Political Science Association. Despite the regional moniker, this organisation with national and even international reach puts on the second-biggest annual conference in political science in the US.

There were a good number of presentations on the politics of immigration, integration, and religious and ethnic intergroup relations, looking at the US, Europe, and beyond. It seems to be a growing area of interest in political science, at least from my unscientific sampling method (eyeballing this year’s program, comparing it to memories of past years). A few items particularly caught my eye, from panels I was on or attended.

Political activity changing Swedish perceptions

Yphtach Lelkes, Stefan Dahlberg, and Paul Sniderman presented results from a fascinating experiment on majority-group reactions to Muslims’ political activity in Sweden. The authors argued that it is important to consider that minority groups have political agency, even if they are vastly outnumbered in electoral politics.

Their experiment assessed the impact of different forms of minority-group political action. They told participants about a (hypothetical) meeting of a local Muslim community organisation, and varied whether this meeting was about

a) airing grievances and organising a protest against discrimination
b) affirming loyalty to Sweden or
c) agreeing a community budget.

The unsurprising results – the planned protest resulted in more negative views of Swedish Muslims especially among the political right. The surprising results – the loyalty pledge had little impact, but the community budget led to more positive views of Muslims from both left-leaning and right-leaning participants. Apparently in Sweden this sort of civic participation is seen as quite important! An interesting discussion followed at the panel, as questioners wondered whether the same results would be found in places like the UK or Netherlands, where local Muslim political organising might be perceived more as threatening to extant power arrangements rather than as a pleasing exercise in civic participation.

Hypothetical migrants

Continuing on the theme of experiments, very good papers by Shanto Iyengar and colleagues and by Jens Hainmueller and Dan Hopkins reported on controlled experiments that varied characteristics of hypothetical migrants, and asked research participants to decide which to admit to their home country. (Hainmueller and Hopkins’ work focused on the US, Iyengar’s compared the US and UK along with Japan and South Korea, two less-frequently studied countries at least in English-speaking academia.) Both studies found, among other things, preferences for highly-skilled migrants, and relatively little direct impact of migrants’ nationality.

This work is fascinating, but also leads quickly to new questions. First, what is the relationship between attitudes toward admission of specific individual migrants and attitudes toward immigration as a large-scale political issue? In his paper Iyengar acknowledges that attitudes toward individuals are more favorable generally than attitudes toward the groups they represent. And, second, does this experimental design further underestimate the importance of nationality (and other migrant identities) by providing so much individuating information as to eliminate or curtail the role of stereotypes or other identity-based heuristics in decision-making?

Pros and cons of stereotypes

Stereotypes (or, more broadly, schemas) can function as heuristics, or short-cuts to decision-making. One way they operate is by providing a (flawed) way to fill in missing information, or to extrapolate beyond the information you are given. That’s why stereotypes are most potent in ambiguous cases. For example, a classic study of a hypothetical job interview situation in the US found that interviewers showed no racial bias in judging very highly qualified candidates or very poorly qualified candidates, but chose white applicants over black applicants much more frequently when it came time to assess borderline candidates.

Part of the strength of experiments like Hainmueller and Hopkins’ and Iyengar’s is that they isolate and vary specific characteristics of (hypothetical) potential immigrants one at a time, to see which characteristics seem to matter to people making judgements about them. But the downside might be that, with the provision of detailed profiles, migrants become more clearly qualified or unqualified for entry, and thus their identities become less relevant to judgment, in a somewhat artificial way. (Iyengar himself raised this possibility as an explanation for some of his findings and non-findings, but did not seem convinced of it compared to alternative explanations.) In contrast, when forming opinions about immigration as a large scale phenomenon, citizens may be making judgements about broad swathes of humanity, and might still use racial, ethnic, or religious identities as cognitive short-cuts.

Feeling at home

Janna Bray of Michigan had a couple of interesting papers on Muslim social and political integration in Europe, including one showing the relationship between religiosity and feelings of integration (represented as self-assessed “feeling at home”) among immigrant Moroccan Muslims in Spain. Interestingly, she found that in survey data, religious belief was negatively associated with feeling at home in Spain, but religious practice (i.e. regular mosque attendance) was positively associated with these feelings.

Although this isn’t exactly how Bray modelled it, I wondered if there might be an interaction there – people who feel religious but are unable to practice would feel more isolated and thus less at home, compared to those with an outlet for their religious views, and the opportunity to practice among a group of co-religionists. From another viewpoint, of course, this involves creating separate spheres of existence rather than fostering what some people would regard as integration with majority-group members. Integration is a multifaceted and contested concept. Still, it is notable that continuing the religious practices they brought with them is associated with feeling at home in a new country for this group of migrants.

Thinking Behind the Numbers

Finally, I’ll mention the papers I presented. The first was the academic spin-off of the survey research featured in the Migration Observatory’s Thinking Behind the Numbers report. In the paper I focus on the questions about perceptions of immigrants. I find that thinking of immigrants as asylum seekers, EU nationals, and/or permanent arrivals is associated with higher rates of opposition to immigration in general. From these data, I can only demonstrate correlation rather than causation, but I hope it was useful to introduce new survey questions and a different way of interpreting what people mean by “immigrants” when they express pro- or anti-immigration preferences.

Migrant threat to society

The second paper is co-authored with Lydia Lundgren, UC-San Diego PhD candidate and former COMPAS visiting academic. We look at the determinants of “perceived group threat”—the belief that immigrants pose a danger to valued goods and resources of the majority group in a society.

Drawing on previous work, particularly that of Sniderman and Louk Hagendoorn in the Netherlands, we find that worries about the economy can trigger feelings of threat, as can certain predispositions such as authoritarian leanings or having an “entity theory” of the world (seeing the world as basically fixed rather than malleable – this one comes from the social psychological research of Carol Dweck and her students). We add to this a normative dimension—those who wish to avoid seeing themselves as prejudiced for internalised reasons are more likely to avoid expressing “group threat”.

On the other hand, those who wish to avoid being seen as prejudiced by others are not less likely to express feelings of threat—we argue that this is because the perception that immigrants hurt the economy or threaten national cultures is commonplace in public and political debate, and seen as socially acceptable even by those who disagree. (This is in contrast with outright, blatant prejudice, which is rejected by most of society, and which might be rejected for external as well as internal motivation.)

Most papers from the conference are available for downloading at, where they are searchable by author or keyword.