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  • Writer's pictureBianca Bignami

Socio-economic characteristics and attitudes towards migrants in Europe

Updated: Nov 11, 2022

The phenomenon of immigration is a very topical issue. Throughout history there have never been so many people living in a country different from the one in which they were born. The European continent has become a destination for such flows, and today it is home to the largest number of migrants in the world.

Through the following analysis, Bianca Bignami wishes to make a contribution to the numerous studies, observing the type of individuals most opposed to immigration and, specifically, controlling for the effect of a deteriorating work situation on the perception of ethnic threat.

Data, derived from the ESS questionnaires, from the 15 countries that participated in all 9 Rounds made available (2002-2018), are analysed through a multiple linear regression. Data were weighted, because they are derived from different populations and different sampling types over time and across countries. Weightings were implemented to avoid biased estimators and over-representation of smaller countries.


The assumption is based on economic theory, i.e. Group Conflict Theory, according to which those who have a similar socio-economic position to migrants and are in a vulnerable situation, perceive a greater ethnic threat. The theoretical predictions are confirmed by empirical analyses.

Typically, the economic variables used to test Group Conflict Theory are contextual variables, i.e. income level and current occupation at the time of interview. However, using retrospective variables, in which the exogenous variable is recorded at an earlier time than the endogenous variable, represents a methodological innovation for testing the predictions of economic theory.

A retrospective variable makes it possible to observe how occupation events in people's lives shape their attitudes towards migrants.

This leads to the following research hypothesis: H1 the experience of unemployment increases negative attitudes towards migrants.


Y- Ethnic threat perceived

From the original dataset, a selection of cases was made in order to have a representative sample to capture natives' attitudes. The dependent variable was constructed after exploratory factor analysis to check whether the three ESS questions on the slide were indeed part of the same construct that measures opinions towards migrants. Usually opinions towards social phenomena, such as immigration, are not measured with a single variable but with several items that cluster similar variables in dimensions and attributes. A new variable was created, called ethnic threat perceived, which ranges in a [0-30] interval, where 30 represents the most positive attitude possible.

X – Insecurity on the labour market

Insecurity on the labour market is the variable used to test the research question. Again, a target was applied to the sampling population, in fact working age people were selected. On average in Europe people join the labour market at 20 and retire at 65, in order to test the retrospective effect the sample was selected from 25 onwards.

The dummy variables were recoded into numerical variables and a new variable was computed, which has a limitation: being unemployed for 12 months has a different impact on people's lives than being unemployed for 3 months and, similarly, experiencing multiple periods of unemployment has a different impact. Therefore, in a second analysis the variables that make up insecurity on the labour market will be tested individually.

Control variables included in model

The table shows the other explanatory variables introduced in the model with the related literature and the expected effect. The expected effect is always confirmed, except for “Time Period" where the opposite effect is verified, i.e. attitudes on average improve in the post-crisis period.


As expected from economic theory X and Y are inversely related. In the second model, the index insecurity on the labour market is split to estimate the direct effect of the individual variables. For all variables, the negative response to the given question is set as a baseline. Then, the difference in perceived threat in answering "Yes" is investigated using the answer "No" as a baseline. The coefficient of the variable unemployment ≥ 3 months is positive and significant, but the sign could be explained by a correlation effect: those who have been unemployed for more than 12 months have also been unemployed for 3 months. On the other hand, the other two variables, length of unemployment period and reiteration, both have a negative and significant effect. In particular, the retrospective variable, more periods of unemployment ≥ 3 months in the last 5 years, has a greater impact on the shaping of attitudes and perceptions of threat towards migrants.

In conclusion, the analysis aimed to test whether direct events, as measured by the index insecurity on the labour market and the retrospective question, that occurred in people's past lives affected their perceptions and attitudes towards migrants.

For future research, it is relevant to include ESS10 (2022) data in the analysis to test the effect of the pandemic on the direction of ethnic threat perceptions. In addition, it is recommended to use other retrospective variables to highlight how life events affect the formation of attitudes.

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