Immigration is one of the most hotly debated political issues of the 21st century, with rhetoric about it dominating a number of recent elections (most notably during the 2016 U.S. presidential election). Certainly, some of the political salience of immigration stems from the fact that immigration itself has increased in some parts of the world. Given this trend, an important question is how immigration affects public opinion towards it.
In studies of this phenomenon, two social science theories, group threat theory and intergroup contact theory, are often pitted against each other. According to the first, the presence of an out-group heightens perceptions of intergroup competition and threat among members of an in-group, which leads to prejudice towards the out-group. According to the second theory, the presence of an out-group creates opportunities for positive social interaction, thereby decreasing prejudice. Empirical tests of these theories, which analyze the relationship between the size of an immigrant out-group and attitudes of the native-born in-group, provide mixed evidence. Some studies suggest that the presence of immigrants engenders more prejudice, while other studies find that diversity may dampen prejudice. Other research finds no relationship at all.
In a study recently published in the European Sociological Review, my Umeå University colleagues and I offer an account of why the relationship between immigration and native-born citizens’ attitudes remains unclear. Our main argument is that previous empirical research has been focused on the demographic context in the wrong time period.
The Formative Years: the Development of Social and Political Attitudes in Adolescence
Research, including seminal scholarship on prejudice, identifies adolescence as the period of time that is critical for the development of social and political attitudes. According to the psychologist Gordon Allport, “No child is born prejudiced. His prejudices are always acquired…Yet the context of his learning is always the social structure in which his personality develops.” Allport goes on to argue that it “is not until adolescence that the child is able to handle ethnic categories in a culturally approved way, and only then that his prejudices can be said to be fashioned in the adult form.” In other words, the broader social context during adolescence contributes to the development of attitudes towards immigrant out-groups.
Once attitudes are formed, are they subject to change? Almost a century ago, the sociologist Karl Mannheim reasoned that “Early impressions tend to coalesce into a natural view of the world. All later experiences then tend to receive their meaning from this original set…that even if the rest of one’s life consisted in one long process of negation and destruction of the natural world view acquired in youth, the determining influence of these early impressions would still be predominant.” Recent longitudinal research on Americans’ attitudes indicates that patterns of attitudinal change are indeed more consistent with the notion that attitudes are developed early in life rather than susceptible to persistent change throughout adulthood. These findings echo earlier longitudinal research on sociopolitical attitudes and political party identification.
The Past is an Anchor
What does this mean for attitudes towards immigrants and immigration specifically? In our recently published research, Jeffrey Mitchell, Mikael Hjerm, and I hypothesized that the relative size of the immigrant population where someone lived when they were an adolescent would matter for their attitudes towards immigrants and immigration in adulthood. Moreover, we expected that the conditions that existed during one’s formative years would be a more important predictor of those attitudes than the relative size of immigrant population where they live in the year in which they were surveyed.
To test these hypotheses, we combined data from 10 waves of the United States’ General Social Survey (GSS) between 1994 and 2016 with a unique U.S. state-level database complied from the U.S. Census Bureau and other official sources and covering a 115-year period (1900-2015). We merged historical state-level demographic and economic data with individuals’ survey responses based on variables in the GSS dataset that identify respondents’ age at time of survey and in which U.S. state the respondent lived when they were 16 years old. We also merged state-level data based on the year of the survey and respondents’ current state of residence. Using regression models appropriate for the structure of our dataset, we analyzed native-born Americans’ opposition to immigration (i.e., opinion on the degree to which immigration to the United States should be reduced) as well as anti-immigrant sentiment (i.e., perceptions of immigrants’ impact on the economy, job market, and crime rate).
Our analyses reveal a number of important things. First, we found support for the formative years hypothesis. Results indicate that state-level demographics during adolescence have a lasting impact on attitudes towards immigrants and immigration in adulthood. Moreover, our research shows that when demographic conditions during the formative years are considered along with contemporaneous conditions (i.e., the relative size of the immigrant population the year in which the adult is surveyed), only immigrant presence during adolescence is significantly related to attitudes.
Second, our analyses speak to the nature of the relationship between out-group size and prejudice during this period of time. We find that the relative size of the immigrant out-group at the level of U.S. states is inversely related to individual-level prejudice. Put simply, this means that native-born Americans who grew up in states with larger immigrant populations are, on average, more positive towards immigrants and future immigration. This finding is consistent with intergroup contact theory—not group threat theory.
Future Considerations: Media Environments and the Radical Right
Although we found an association between the presence of immigrants during adolescence and lower levels of prejudice in adulthood, this does not automatically mean that increasing immigration will inevitably lead to more hospitable and less prejudicial attitudes going forward. This is because the relative size of an out-group is not the only factor that could affect threat perceptions. For example, our models also revealed that the number of months of economic recession during one’s adolescence is positively associated with opposition to immigration, as is the current state-level unemployment rate. Other research has shown that exposure to particular media environments also matter for anti-immigrant sentiment, including TV news consumption among adolescents.
It is also worth noting that, considering our analyses end in 2016, they do not capture how the Trump presidency has complicated this picture. Indeed, the former president’s politicization of immigration and use of anti-immigrant rhetoric while in office is arguably without precedent. Studies typically find that younger cohorts and those with higher levels of education hold more positive attitudes towards immigrants, but recent cross-national research from Europe shows that these prejudice-reducing effects are weakened if voters were socialized in the context of high radical right electoral support. A recent report on bias in American schools found that incidences of anti-immigrant incidents often echoed rhetoric from Trump.
Conditions in adolescence, when attitudes are most susceptible to change, serve as an anchor and continue to exert influence years—even decades—later. More research is necessary to see whether this pattern holds across different geographical contexts and time periods, but our results nevertheless lend credence to the notion that the past casts a long shadow, affecting attitudes throughout the life course. Therefore, to limit the development of prejudice during the formative years, these findings at the very least highlight the importance of experiences that facilitate positive intergroup contact.
Dr Maureen Eger is a Senior Fellow at CARR and an Associate Professor of Sociology at the Umeå University. See her profile here.
© Maureen A. Eger. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).