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The Imagined Community in Europe and the United States

- March 27, 2008

What are American and European attitudes toward immigration? Do they differ? Clearly, the centrality of immigration in “settler societies” such as the United States — both in terms of the literal populating of the country and in terms of its founding myths — is greater than in most, if not all, European countries. But does this make the United States “exceptional” in how immigrants are viewed?

Jack Citrin and I have a recently published paper in which we examine attitudes toward immigrants and immigration in the United States and 20 European countries, drawing on the European Social Survey and the Citizenship, Involvement, Democracy Survey.

Our results suggest that Americans do not stand apart from Europeans in terms of the perceived consequences of immigration, the desired qualities of immigrants, and the preferred level of immigration. There is, however, one difference: attitudes toward cultural diversity more generally.

The two survey items that speak to diversity asked respondents whether they agreed or disagree with these statements:

bq. It is better for a country if almost everyone shares the same customs and traditions.

bq. It is better for a country if there are a variety of religions among its people.

Below are plots of the percent of respondents in each country who endorse homogeneity — i.e., agree that everyone should share customs and traditions and disagree that a variety of religions is better. (See the paper for fancier plots with means and confidence intervals.)



“American exceptionalism” emerges fairly clearly. Relative to almost all European nations, fewer Americans endorse cultural or religious homogeneity, and the differences between the U.S. and these other nations are almost always statistically significant (see Figure 1 of the paper).

The paper has more discussion of these results, as well as the individual- and country-level factors underlying attitudes toward immigration. Another noteworthy finding: few of the most obvious country-level attributes — unemployment, inflation, the size of the immigrant population, the growth of the immigrant population, etc. — explain the differences among countries in attitudes toward immigrants. I’d be happy to entertain other possibilities.

Addendum: In the comments, Chris Zorn asked for a scatterplot, and I am happy to oblige.