Friday, June 29, 2007

Immigration and Identity

Given the vexatious debate about immigration policy that shows no signs of abating in this country, I was fascinated to find an article in the LSE Magazine (a quarterly for alumni) that looks at how immigrants to the United Kingdom view themselves in terms of national identity. The article is based on a longer, scholarly discussion paper.

Both authors are, as one might expect, associated with the London School of Economics and Political Science. Alan Manning is a professor of economics there and he is director of the Labour Markets Programme at the School’s Centre for Economic Performance. Sanchari Roy is a doctoral student in economics and a member of the LSE's Economics of Organisation and Public Policy research group.

In their article, "Culture clash or culture club?" -- also the title of the discussion paper -- Manning and Roy unpack some of their findings about how members different ethnic and religious groups think of themselves after they have immigrated to Britain. Their research was sparked by some of the statements attributed to the July 7 terrorists:

There is widespread belief that a growing fraction of Muslims who live (and in many cases were born) in Britain do not think of themselves as British, have no aspiration to do so and do not want their children to either; that they are subscribing instead to some other identity and creating little enclaves that resemble, as far as is possible, the countries from which they came or a model of the good society very different from what is generally thought of as ‘Britain’.

Such fears tend to be magnified by the statements by some British Muslims, which appear to explicitly reject a British identity and affirm another one. One of the 7 July bombers appeared in a video released after the London bombings and said: ‘Your democratically elected governments continuously perpetuate atrocities against my people and your support of them makes you directly responsible, just as I am directly responsible for protecting and avenging my Muslim brothers and sisters’, with the use of the words ‘my’ and ‘your’ clearly expressing the people with whom he did or did not identify. We wanted to find out how widespread this kind of identification is in the UK.
The researchers were just as surprised by their findings, which were based on a survey of more than one million participants, as their readers might be:
Among those who are born in Britain, over 90 per cent of all groups of whatever religion or ethnicity think of themselves as British. In particular there is no evidence that Muslims are less likely to think of themselves as British than other groups....

Of those describing themselves as Christian 99.1 per cent report themselves as British. But of those describing themselves as Muslim the proportion is a slightly higher 99.2 per cent to report, exceeded only by those who identify as Jewish. Percentages reporting a British identity are lower for Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus, but are above 95 per cent for all groups. It is hard to look at these figures and see grounds for concern. Of course, this does not mean that Muslims see themselves as British and not Muslim: it is just that they see no conflict in being both.
One striking discovery from the survey is this:
There is, however, one group that stands out as reporting an extremely low level of British identity – Catholics from Northern Ireland. From our research, it appears that any identity conflict among British born Muslims is an order of magnitude smaller than that among Catholics from Northern Ireland.
How about that? People born in the UK feel less "British" than people born elsewhere! But other findings are equally interesting:
This process of assimilation is faster for some immigrant groups than others, but not in the way that might be expected. For example, Muslims are not less likely to feel British than those from other backgrounds, and immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh assimilate into a British identity much faster than average, while those from Western Europe and the United States do so more slowly, with Italians standing out as the group which assimilates least into a British identity. We find evidence that immigrants from poorer and less democratic countries assimilate faster into a British identity. Part but not all of this can be explained by a greater tendency among the latter group to take up citizenship.
Manning and Roy find that the process of assimilation applies as much to the holding of political and cultural values as well as an amorphous sense of "identity":
... immigrants are very slightly less likely to have views on rights and responsibilities that are generally held by popular concensus to be ‘desirable’, but the differences are much smaller than the differences among the UK born population of different ages and with different levels of education. It is also true that the immigrant groups who emerge as having different values from the UK born population are not the ones which have become the focus of the most public concern, for example, Muslims do not have significantly different values.

These findings strongly suggest that the UK is not riven by large scale culture clash, contrary to what many people seem to believe. This is not to deny the existence of some people who are prepared to use violence to further their agenda but our evidence suggests that these are a tiny minority. For example, the 2003 British Social Attitudes Survey asked the respondents to say whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement ‘Muslims are more loyal to Muslims than to Britain’. Of the non-Muslim respondents only 9 per cent disagreed, with a further 25 per cent neither agreeing nor disagreeing. But, among the Muslim respondents (who we might expect to be better-informed on the subject) 45 per cent disagreed, a significant difference even though the survey only contained 20 Muslim respondents. And 62 per cent of non-Muslim respondents thought there was a fairly or very serious conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims in Britain, compared to 27 per cent of Muslims. Another question about conflicts in the world as a whole between Muslims and non-Muslims had 85 per cent of non-Muslims saying they thought there was a fairly or very serious conflict, but only 67 per cent of Muslims saying so.
Considering that the process of assimilation in the United States tends to be swifter and more complete than that in Britain or in Europe -- or so we have assumed for a long, long time, since American society is less socially stratified and more mobile than European and British societies are -- the research of Manning and Roy could have applications here at home. It is certainly something worth pondering during the legislative and cultural debates taking place about immigrants and immigration policy in the United States.

I recommend visiting the original articles in order to examine the illuminating charts and graphs that the authors have included with their text.

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