CHAPTER 3: Trends in anti-immigration attitudes

Previous research

Attitudes towards immigration, immigrants and ethnic minorities have been investigated quite intensively. However, research that focuses on the evolution of anti-immigration attitudes is far more scarce (for exceptions, see [Coe98], [Coe08], [Fir88], [Qui96], [Sch97], [Sem06]). That relatively little work has been done on this topic has a lot to do with the scarcity of appropriate data. After all, studying longitudinal attitude developments entails additional data requirements. We need comparable survey measurements from different time points (see Chapter 2), and such data are rare indeed. However, the availability of several rounds of the European Social Survey has created new opportunities to study over-time attitude developments in Europe.

The lion’s share of the available research has dealt with changes in whites’ attitudes to black minorities in the USA. Since the 1950s, there has been evidence of increasing support for the principle of equal treatment among white US citizens [Fir88], [Qui96], [Sch97]. At the same time, however, support for government interventions that implement equal treatment (such as affirmative action or school desegregation programmes) does not follow the same steep upward trend. This paradox between high support for principles and low support for implementation has led some scholars to conclude that, during the last few decades, traditional negative outgroup attitudes have crystallised into new forms - such as ‘symbolic racism’ [Kin81] or ‘subtle prejudice’ [Mee97].

These observed tendencies in the USA cannot be generalised in a straightforward manner to the European situation. The attitudinal changes in the USA are, at least partly, the product of the particular historical evolution of intergroup relations from slavery to a situation of legal equality.

In many European countries, the presence of sizeable ethnic minority groups is a rather recent phenomenon, as large immigration flows into Europe only arose during the second half of the 20th century [Cas03], [Hoo08] . As a result, European researchers have only recently started to ask survey questions about outgroup attitudes, and only a couple of studies focus on European trends in outgroup attitudes.

Probably the earliest European time series of measurements of unfavourable attitudes towards ethnic minorities was reported by Coenders and Scheepers [Coe98]. This study describes how support for ethnic discrimination in the Netherlands dropped sharply between 1979 and 1986. From the mid-1980s to 1993, however, the proportion of Dutch people who support ethnic discrimination again rose substantially. In a similar study on German data, Coenders and Scheepers [Coe08] conclude that opposition to the social integration of guest workers and foreigners dropped continuously between 1980 and 2000. The only exception to this downward trend was a small surge of anti-foreigner attitudes in 1996.

A more comprehensive study of 12 European countries was carried out by Semyonov et al. [Sem06]. This study showed that ethnic prejudice increased dramatically between 1988 and 1994 in all 12 European countries under study, also including the Netherlands and Germany. However, with respect to Germany these findings contradict Coenders and Scheepers’ [Coe08] study, which found that attitudes toward foreigners grew more positive during that period. These contradictory findings might be due to the fact that both studies focus on slightly different concepts. While Semyonov et al. [Sem06] used a set of indicators measuring how people perceive the consequences of immigration, Coenders and Scheepers [Coe08] study resistance to the social integration of foreigners. Alternatively, the contradictory findings could also be caused by problems with the comparability of the measurements over time. Neither Semyonov et al. [Sem06] nor Coenders and Scheepers [Coe08] tested for measurement equivalence (as we did in Chapter 2 of this module).

While ethnic prejudice increased quite uniformly between 1988 and 1994, Semyonov et al. [Sem06] report that, from 1994 onwards, trends are less pronounced and differ strongly across countries. In some countries, such as Ireland and Luxemburg, anti-foreigner attitudes grew clearly stronger between 1994 and 2000. In other countries, such as Belgium and Spain, negative attitudes toward foreigners crumbled away. Thus, this literature review makes clear that European attitudes toward outgroups - unlike those in the USA - are not homogenous. Very diverse, country-specific patterns are found instead.

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References