CHAPTER 4: Explanations for attitude change

In the previous chapter, we observed that, between 2002 and 2007, significant and substantial changes took place in anti-immigration attitudes. We found that one can hardly speak of a uniform trend across Europe: in some countries, attitudes towards immigration became more hostile, while others experienced a significant decrease in anti-immigration sentiment. It is a pressing question to establish the origins of these very diverse patterns of attitude change in Europe. In this fourth and last chapter, we will test a number of possible explanations for attitude change.

Various explanations for attitude change have been suggested in the literature on attitudes towards outgroups. Previous research has shown that cohort replacement can explain a substantial part of long-term evolution in anti-black prejudice among white Americans [Fir88], [Sch97]. The fact that older, more prejudiced cohorts die off and are replaced by younger, less prejudiced and better educated ones can produce a significant evolution towards a more tolerant society. It is very unlikely, however, that cohort replacement is responsible for the attitude changes we observe here. Firstly, the period that we evaluate (2002-2007) is too short for large cohort replacement effects to kick in. Secondly, cohort replacement predicts a uniform trend towards less outspoken anti-immigration attitudes. This is clearly not what the ESS data show us.

Thirdly, important historical events - and the way they are presented in the media - could greatly influence trends in outgroup attitudes. A classic example of this mechanism is the impact of the Civil Rights movement on increasing racial tolerance in the USA [Qui96], [Sch97]. Nevertheless, investigating the link between historical events and attitude changes is a very difficult task. It would require summarising all events covered by the media that took place between 2002 and 2007 in 17 countries, and quantifying these events. Clearly, this falls outside the scope of this module.

Yet another possible explanation for changing attitudes towards outgroups derives from group conflict theory [Bla67], [Olz92], [Qui95]. This chapter provides an empirical test for the group conflict explanation.

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