Does hostility to immigration always go hand in hand with an economic downturn?

17 October

This question has an unprecedented importance in the United States and Europe, where political projects with strong anti-immigration platforms enjoy a popularity not seen since the end of the Second World War. Even in nations such as the Netherlands and Sweden – where multiculturalism has been widely celebrated as a core value and pillar of national identity – far-right parties are experiencing a new and significant electoral success. Indeed, public opposition to immigration appears to have been a significant factor in the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. In the wake of calls to follow Britain’s lead within other member states, attitudes towards immigration could bring about the EU’s ultimate collapse.

This question, therefore, could scarcely be more timely.

With respect to its phrase, “go hand in hand with”, a logical reading assigns causal priority to neither “hostility to immigration” nor “economic downturn”, suggesting rather their co-presence. As such, a strict interpretation of our question produces a simple answer: no. Hostility towards immigration is not always co-existent with recession, and vice versa. History shows us that it is possible to have one without the other.

Thus, for example, polls conducted over the last thirty years in the world’s major immigrant-receiving states show that large proportions of their publics perpetually oppose immigration – even in times of relative prosperity. In these cases, we see hard attitudes without hard times. The reverse has also pertained: hard times without hard attitudes. For instance, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt observed that in the years following the Great Depression of the 1930s, fascist movements were ascendant in Germany and Italy, but not in the United Kingdom, despite all three countries experiencing comparable economic crises.

Our question now becomes: “Do economic downturns increase hostility to immigration?” In other words, do hard times mean hardened attitudes?

Conventional wisdom tells us with no uncertainty that recession invariably intensifies hostility towards immigration. This is based on the idea that in times of economic depression, natives are more liable to ‘lash out’ against immigrants, blaming them for economic hardship – a classic example of scapegoating.

But is this conventional wisdom true?

Attempts to answer our revised question have formed the basis for research programmes in a variety of disciplines in the social sciences: from psychology and sociology to economics and political science. In this research, hostility to immigration is typically measured by people’s attitudes. Respondents answer (usually multiple choice) questions, and the results are then compared against indicators of macro-economic conditions, such as economic growth (conventionally measured as the percentage increase in real GDP per capita), the rate of inflation, and levels of unemployment. Such studies seek to determine the relationship between public attitudes and national economic performance by comparing them either (a) across multiple countries at the same time (synchronic analysis); or (b) within one country over time (longitudinal analysis).

A classic longitudinal study appeared in the 1940 article, ‘Correlation of lynchings with economic indices’, by the American psychologists Carl Hovland and Robert Richardson Sears. Analysing hostile behaviour rather than attitudes, the authors argued that in the United States from 1882 to 1930, low cotton prices (an indicator of economic depression), were associated with a higher number of “Negro” lynchings.

Thereafter, further longitudinal studies led to similar conclusions. In her 1974 book, Canadian Views on Immigration and Population, Nancy Tienhaara found that post-war Gallup polls indicated that Canadian opposition to immigration grew during periods of economic decline.

A pathbreaking synchronic study, based on a 1988 survey of twelve European countries, was conducted by Lincoln Quillian, a Harvard sociologist. Quillian found two factors that were associated with ethnic majority prejudice towards minority groups: the size of the subordinate group relative to the dominant one; and the national economy, which he measured using GDP per capita.

At that time, the orthodox scientific explanation for the impact of those factors was consistent with the conventional wisdom: that a recession increases hostility through the scapegoating of immigrants, primarily because the ethnic majority experiences an increased and unwanted competition for ‘their’ jobs. However, Quillian challenged this idea and argued that the economic condition of the nation was a stronger driver of hostility than an individual’s economic circumstances.

Quillian’s view was substantiated just two years later. In 1997, a team of political scientists led by Jack Citrin analysed data from the 1992 and 1994 US National Election Study surveys. It found that in times of recession, personal economic circumstances increased opposition to immigration by only a little. In contrast, macro-economic concerns – pessimism about the state of the national economy, and anxieties over taxes – were much bigger determinants.

This finding produces an almost paradoxical conclusion: that economic slumps increase hostility to immigration for reasons that are largely non-economic. This is because the hostility is driven not so much by individuals’ actual material circumstances, but rather by their concerns about immigrants’ impact upon the national economy. Given that these concerns are likely to be based not on respondents’ personal experience, but upon their perceived impacts upon an abstract object (‘the economy’), they are often described as symbolic.

It is this perceived form of threat, which natives believe immigrants pose, that provides a focus of contemporary research into the determinants of attitudes towards immigration.

Whilst such research confirms the relationship between macro-economic performance and public opposition to immigration, it also shows that this relationship is not an important one. Put simply, the health of the economy is a relatively weak predictor of public opinion towards immigration.

As to the variables that provide greater explanatory power, they are manifold.

First, they include several respondent characteristics, notably: occupation, age, educational level, region of residence, number of immigrant friends, and perceptions of immigration rate and stocks. Also important are pre-existing attitudes about immigrants’ effect upon the culture, values, language, and social life of the native majority. This last set of factors, termed symbolic threat, is estimated to be between two and five times more consequential for immigration sentiment than the state of the economy.

Second, the characteristics of the immigrant that is borne in mind by respondents when questioned is critical. So far, we have considered only research where respondents have been asked questions about “immigration” in the abstract. Yet studies have shown that the public’s views vary widely depending on the information they are given by researchers regarding immigrants. For example, attitudes are influenced by the indicated reason for immigrating, such as whether it is for purposes of education, work, spousal reunion, or to claim asylum. In addition, host attitudes are affected by immigrants’ ostensible social class, region of origin, and nationality. Of particular importance is the ethnic (dis)similarity of the immigrant compared to the host population. The greater the perceived difference, the greater is the cultural distance, and hence the degree of potential hostility.

Hostility to immigration thus has many causes. Academic research tells us that an economic downturn is only one such cause. Recession does indeed intensify existing hostilities. But not by much. Also, counterintuitively, this is largely for symbolic rather than economic reasons, based not on rational calculations of personal economic benefit, but concerns about the perceived impact of immigration upon society as a whole.

This finding reminds us that humans are social animals. We are not driven solely by individual self-interest. Rather, we display strong concerns for that wider community of which we are a part. An admirable trait, one might think. Yet, deriving from our tribal heritage, perhaps one that goes hand in hand with our enduring hostility to ‘outsiders’. 

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