PhD Thesis in International Relations
07 January 2021

The Economic Basis of Political Opposition to Immigration in Europe

Interview with Dr Elif Naz Kayran about “Political Responses and Electoral Behaviour at Times of Socioeconomic Risk Inequalities and Immigration”, her PhD thesis in which she explores the effects of socio-economic vulnerability and inequality on public attitudes towards immigration and support for radical right-wing parties.

How did you come to choose your research topic?

Before starting my doctoral studies, I had already been working in the fields of migration studies and political economy for several years during my graduate studies at King’s College London and previous employment at MiReKoc. The research question and the approach in my doctoral project came from the curious lack of evidence to support a job competition motivation amongst natives when forming their political attitudes towards immigration. This observation has been the starting point of how I decided to question and reconceptualise what constitutes “economic grievances” in the domain of immigration politics amongst European citizens in the last two decades. Throughout my studies, working with my co-advisors Melanie Kolbe and Jonas Pontusson, I developed this core idea into a theoretical framework that is nested in the broader dynamics of globalisation and institutional transformation. 

Can you describe your research questions? 

My doctoral project examined the socioeconomic basis of citizens’ attitudes towards immigration and evaluated the link between welfare states and migration policy preferences. It is composed of three journal-length manuscripts addressing several central research questions: Why are some citizens more likely to become more sceptical towards immigration? What determines the politicisation of immigration policy and restrictiveness demands? Who votes for the nativist political parties running on anti-immigration platforms? 

What was your methodology?

Since my goal in this project was to study political negativity towards immigration as symptomatic of the tremendous transformation of production systems in Europe and the restructuring of existing welfare regimes, my research design covers an observation period from the 2000s until 2018. Geographically, my interest lies in advanced capitalist European democracies with similar histories of immigration, welfare politics, exposure to cultural heterogeneity, and globalisation. Identifying several limitations in earlier work, I used European Labour Force Survey (ELFS) waves from 16 countries to operationalise my specific empirical approach in capturing economic risks in this project. Matching my regional focus, I cite evidence from cross-sectional social survey and public opinion data projects such as the European Social Survey and German Social Survey. Importantly, I also relied on high-quality household panel data from Germany (SOEP) to carefully identify different potential channels altering immigration-related reactions over time.

What are your major findings?

There are, broadly, three significant findings of this project:

  1. An unequally (and unfairly) distributed economic uncertainty fuels economic grievances and backlash towards immigration amongst European citizens. In the context of welfare reforms and changing labour markets, this means that what is often acknowledged as rising cultural conflict may instead have actual economic underpinnings.  
  2. The project sheds new light on the extent to which welfare policies relate to immigration policymaking. I found that welfare state institutions can shape capabilities of immigration policymaking across a widely heterogeneous electoral base distinguished by socioeconomic risk. 
  3. Considering the electoral base of the radical right-wing parties as heterogeneous, i.e., composed of both culturally and economically motivated voters, the evidence supported the argument that it is not appropriate to assume that all radical-right supporters may be attracted to the same kinds of policies. The analyses demonstrated higher electoral potential of radical-right parties amongst voters disproportionately more exposed to economic risk.

Moving forward, it seems that striking a policy balance of appealing to the economic anxieties of citizens without relying solely on a radical-right strategy of exclusivity towards immigration may be a fruitful direction forward in the political competition in Europe.

What are you doing now?

After completing my doctoral project, I started working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Governance and Global Affairs at Leiden University on the “Citizenship, Migration and Global Transformations” research programme. With my team at Leiden, we are working on understanding governance challenges arising from immigration in the policy areas of the welfare state, social protection, and citizenship. I am specifically focusing on the relationship between trade unions, welfare institutions and immigrant rights and on the political participation gaps between immigrant and native citizens. Most recently, I collaborated on projects exploring the conditions and characteristics of voting rights for non-citizens and their political consequences in Switzerland and elsewhere. In addition, I am an affiliated postdoctoral researcher with the ERC-funded “Unequal Democracies” project at the University of Geneva. 

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Elif Naz Kayran defended her PhD thesis in International Relations/Political Science in October 2020. Professor David Sylvan presided the committee, which included Assistant Professor Melanie Kolbe and Professor Jonas Pontusson, thesis cosupervisors, and Professor David Rueda, Department of Politics and International Relations, Oxford University, UK.

Full citation of the PhD thesis:
Kayran, Elif Naz. “Political Responses and Electoral Behaviour at Times of Socioeconomic Risk Inequalities and Immigration.” PhD thesis, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2020.

Good to know: the PhD thesis is available in free public access on this page of the Institute’s repository.

Editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from an image by Ascannio/