Photo by Kevin Walsh, Flickr CC

Be it the Syrian refugee crisis or President Trump’s border wall, the debate over immigration is regularly front-page news across the globe. And while contemporary factors like current events or the national economy can certainly impact attitudes about immigration, a recent article by Wesley HiersThomas Soehl, and Andreas Wimmer argues that anti-immigrant sentiment on the national level may have more of a historical legacy than was previously assumed. While much of the previous literature focuses on individual- and country-specific factors, the authors compare global historical trends as they relate to anti-immigrant sentiments. They find that nations with high levels of past territorial loss or conflict are more likely to base their national identity around a shared ethnicity, rather than shared citizenship.

To test this, the team created a scale with which to measure past historical tensions, which may shape how national identity is formed. They then proposed that such tensions would lead to increasingly negative opinions of immigrants, creating a scale to measure these geopolitical experiences. The assessment included 33 European nations, with the researchers predicted that nations ranking higher on this scale (like Russia and Turkey) would have higher levels of anti-immigrant sentiments than nations ranking lower (like Switzerland and Iceland). Utilizing immigration questions from each country’s most recent European Social Survey, they compared responses from non-immigrants on immigration to each nation’s rank on the 6-point geopolitical scale.

Their predictions were correct. Even when accounting for individual difference (like place of residence or religion) and national factors (like changes in immigration patterns), countries with more historical conflict had higher anti-immigration sentiment. The authors note that this phenomenon may look different throughout the world, and more research would be needed to validate these findings. But their research indicates that, despite the heated political debates and flashy news coverage, history itself plays a central role in contemporary beliefs about immigration.