Diversity and Perceptions of Immigration: How the Past Influences the Present

Publication Date01 August 2021
AuthorIan Paterson,Lauren McLaren,Anja Neundorf
Date01 August 2021
Political Studies
2021, Vol. 69(3) 725 –747
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0032321720922774
Diversity and Perceptions of
Immigration: How the Past
Influences the Present
Lauren McLaren1, Anja Neundorf2 and
Ian Paterson2
The question of whether high immigration produces anti-immigration hostility has vexed
researchers across multiple disciplines for decades. And yet, understanding this relationship is
crucial for countries dependant on immigrant labour but concerned about its impact on social
cohesion. Absent from most of this research are theories about the impact of early-years
socialisation conditions on contemporary attitudes. Using the British sample of the European
Social Survey (2002–2017) and two innovative approaches to modelling generational differences
– generalised additive models and hierarchical ageperiodcohort models – this paper shows that
rather than producing hostility to immigration, being socialised in a context of high immigrant-
origin diversity is likely to result in more positive attitudes to immigration later in life. This implies
that through generational replacement, countries like the UK are likely to become increasingly
tolerant of immigration over time. Importantly, however, a context of high-income inequality may
diminish this effect.
immigration, political socialisation, public opinion, cohort analysis, United Kingdom
Accepted: 5 April 2020
The large-scale movement of people across borders is one of the defining political issues
of the twenty-first century. Immigration is dividing western societies (McLaren, 2012),
disrupting established party systems (Arzheimer and Carter, 2006; Golder, 2016; Pardos-
Prado, 2015), and producing surprise referendum outcomes like the UK’s decision to
leave the European Union. We face momentous questions about the future prospects for
western democracies, most of which appear to be reliant on migrant labour for vital ser-
vices and the smooth functioning of their economies: Will anti-immigration hostility
1School of History, Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK
2School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK
Corresponding author:
Lauren McLaren, University of Leicester, Attenborough Building, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK.
Email: lm434@leicester.ac.uk
922774PCX0010.1177/0032321720922774Political StudiesMcLaren et al.
726 Political Studies 69(3)
continue to rise if migration continues to increase? Will this result in further increases in
support for anti-immigration parties and leaders? Will the issue of immigration continue
to divide western democracies for the foreseeable future, or is it possible that this issue
will eventually no longer be of great concern?
Evidence-based answers to these questions are largely elusive, as evidence on the
relationship between immigrant numbers and public attitudes to immigration is extremely
mixed. On the one hand, as would be argued by classic ethnic threat approaches, increas-
ing numbers of migrants have been shown to be associated with more negative attitudes
to immigration (McLaren, 2003; Quillian, 1995; Scheepers et al., 2002; Schneider, 2008;
Semyonov et al., 2008). On the other hand, as might be predicted by intergroup contact
theory, increasing numbers have also been shown to produce more positive attitudes to
immigration (Hewstone and Schmid, 2014; Wagner et al., 2006; Weber, 2019) or to have
no impact due to the likelihood of threat and contact cancelling one another out (Evans
and Need, 2002; Sides and Citrin, 2007; Strabac and Listhaug, 2008). Questions about the
impact of ethnic diversity on social cohesion have similarly divided social capital research
(Van der Meer and Tolsma, 2014).
Despite the fact that scholarly work has emphasised the importance of socialisation
experiences for subsequent attitudes, values and behaviours (Krosnick and Alwin, 1989;
Neundorf et al., 2013; Sears and Valentino, 1997), the vast majority of research on the
immigration numbers-attitudes relationship tends to focus on relatively contemporary
levels of (or relatively short-term changes in) diversity (see Coenders and Scheepers,
1998 for a rare exception; see also, Weber, 2019). Much of this existing research has
overlooked a crucial factor in understanding how attitudes to immigration are formed –
and change – within a population through generational replacement. Replacement of
older generations with younger ones implies that trends in immigration attitudes would
change substantially if, for example, older generations hold systematically different atti-
tudes to immigration than younger generations. The scarcity of research on this topic is
not a minor omission, as understanding generational differences in attitudes to immigra-
tion is likely to provide insight into the contradictory findings that have puzzled this body
of research for more than two decades. It also has significant effects on our ability to
provide answers to the sorts of policy-oriented questions raised above.
Until recently, data and modelling limitations made investigating the impact of early-
years macro-level socialisation experiences extremely difficult. Drawing on advances in
modelling cohort effects, this paper uses two state-of-the-art approaches – generalised
additive models (GAMs) and hierarchical ageperiodcohort (HAPC) models – to inves-
tigate whether attitudes to immigration are persistently different across birth cohorts. We
also investigate whether any potential cohort differences are related to different macro-
level diversity conditions experienced by each generation. Our model is investigated
using the British sample of the European Social Survey (ESS), rounds 1–8, conducted
between 2002 and 2017. This dataset allows us to follow groups of birth cohorts that were
socialised from 1935 to 2010. We match these individual-level data with early-years
macro-level diversity using census data, and with other early-years contextual data – in
particular, economic data – as well as contemporary contextual data, to analyse the impact
of all of these on current attitudes to immigration.1 The incorporation of economic data
allows us to examine whether any impact of diversity as a socialisation effect could be
moderated by economic conditions, as emphasised by ethnic threat theories (e.g. Golder,
2003; Quillian, 1995). In addition to the economic conditions normally incorporated in
the ethnic threat literature (unemployment and gross domestic product (GDP)), our

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