Sunday, December 04, 2011

Immigration in Ireland: just how tolerant are we?

The recent comments by the (now former) Mayor of Naas brought to the fore the issue of racism in Ireland. There was an understandable furore over the remarks and the media was alive with responses and reactions, much of it anecdotal.

So what do we actually know? There is actually some quite good data on Irish people’s attitudes to immigrants and immigration generally courtesy of the European Social Survey (ESS), a population representative survey carried out every two years since 2002. There are 4 waves currently available – the 2010 data for Ireland should be available soon.

The ESS asked respondents six questions about immigrants, three about how many immigrants should be allowed in (depending on race, country of origin etc) and three more general questions about whether the respondents thought immigration were good for the country in different domains. Using these six questions I created an overall measure of whether people were for or against immigrants/ immigration using factor analysis. This ignores variation between questions, of course, but the idea is that there is some underlying latent variable to which the answers to these questions are realizations of. This may not do justice to the complexity of the issues and to people’s attitudes but for the present purposes, it seems a reasonable start.

Using this, one can ask what is the trend in Irish people’s attitudes to immigrants and what sort of people are more or less sympathetic to immigrants. In some cases the answers might be unsurprising (though always good to know) but I was surprised by some.

Technical issue: the measure (let’s call it “xenophobia” for simplicity) is normalized to have a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1. I use linear multiple regression to see what factors predict this variable, holding the other factors constant. Using this large representative sample of nearly 6000 individuals allows us to examine a range of factors with some precision.

First question: what is the trend? There was a significant downward trend with xenophobia lower in 2004 and lower still in 2006. However this was reversed by almost the same degree in 2008. My conjecture is that we will see this reversal continued when the 2010 data becomes available.

Second question: what sort of people are less sympathetic to immigrants? Well women are for start: their “xenophobia” is higher by .17 of a standard deviation – the same size as the rise that was observed in 2008 as it happens. I had no prior about this but I have been told that this is contrary to the conventional wisdom. Let’s hear for the guys. Younger people are also very slightly more xenophobic. The very religious, by contrast, are less xenophobic (by .07 of a standard deviation). Bless ‘em.

Those who are more educated have a lower level of xenophobia (.07 of a standard deviation for each year of education). The same is true of those parents who were more educated, particularly if they were graduates. There are a number of explanations for the first of these two associations: I draw your attention to interesting work on this topic by Kevin O’ Rourke & Richard Sinnott who use trade theory to predict how attitudes to immigrants may depend on skill levels. To the extent that many immigrants are low skilled, one would expect low skilled natives to be less welcoming about the competition. An alternative explanation is that education makes people more liberal or open-minded. I suspect that it is a bit of both.

Further light on this question is thrown by an interesting question in the ESS which asks people how well they are coping financially. Those who report that they are finding it difficult to cope financially, report a higher level of “xenophobia”: by about .2 of a standard deviation. Given that the numbers in this category must have risen dramatically since 2008 it is reasonable to extrapolate that there will be increasing antipathy to immigrants, driven by greater financial anxiety.

This is not an exhaustive investigation of what predicts our attitudes to immigrants. I haven’t reported some of the other factors that I found to be significant – or any of the ones that were not significant. But it shows up, I think, some interesting patterns which deserve more thorough study. One would also need to explore the degree to which “Race” and “immigration” are distinct issues (the data permits this).

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