Talking about immigration

The Dutch are renowned for their tolerance but racial tensions have been running high in the Netherlands, fuelled last year by the murder of film maker Theo Van Gogh, not long after the release of his controversial film about the abuse of Muslim women.

Now Maykel Verkuyten at Utrecht University has investigated the kind of language and arguments used by Dutch people when they talk about immigration. Seventy-one native Dutch participants (aged 22 to 71 years), most of them middle class, were interviewed.

Some participants talked of people choosing to come to the Netherlands by their own free will (e.g. “…nobody made them come to Holland…”), whereas other participants argued immigrants had no option, either because they had fled persecution or because they had been actively recruited by the Dutch authorities (e.g. “…we brought them over here…so we’ve got ourselves to blame”). Participants tended to adopt one view or the other regardless of whether they were talking about persecuted refugees, or migrant workers seeking employment. And each person’s take on the free-will issue tended to predict how they viewed multiculturalism. Those emphasising immigrants’ ‘choice’ argued immigrants should therefore respect Dutch culture. In contrast, those participants who saw immigrants as having had no choice tended to defend the immigrants’ cultural rights, arguing there was actually an onus on the Dutch to respect the immigrants’ culture.

Next Verkuyten presented 76 native Dutch students with a short factual account of Dutch immigration, ostensibly taken from the American National Encyclopaedia. The accounts were manipulated so that some students read an account emphasising the immigrants’ choice, whereas others read an account emphasising their lack of choice (e.g. either their flight from persecution or their recruitment by the Dutch authorities). Those students who read an account emphasising lack of choice were more likely to endorse multiculturalism in a subsequent questionnaire.

“This suggests that distinctions made in the media, in policies, and by politicians, between, for example, ‘real refugees’ and ‘fortune seekers’ can have important implications for intergroup relations in culturally plural societies”, Verkuyten said.

Verkuyten, M. (2005). Immigration discourses and their impact on multiculturalism: a discursive and experimental study. British Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 223-241.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.