We Do the Same Job: How Workplace Contact Can Reduce Support for Anti-Immigrant Parties

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Dennis Young, covers the new article by Henrik Andersson and Sirus H. Dehdari, Uppsala University, Sweden,  Workplace Contact and Support for Anti-Immigration Parties

Around the world, the resurgence of nationalism indicates that many people are terrified of being replaced by immigrant workers. As immigrant workers increasingly enter the Swedish workforce, it seems that more and more people are becoming interested in the ideology practiced by the Sweden Democrats, a radical right party founded on the idea of keeping Sweden Swedish. However, as more and more immigrants enter the workplace, it also becomes more likely that native born Swedish workers will have the opportunity to get to know them, and to forge meaningful relationships. But what remains unclear is how these workplace connections translate into politics. Does workplace contact affect the chances that non-immigrant coworkers will vote for an anti-immigrant party, and if so, how?

In their latest article, authors Henrik Andersson and Sirus H. Dehdari examined data on the Swedish workforce to see how and when contact with immigrant workers affects voting preferences. One major reason that the authors focus on the workplace is because political scientists have often been uncertain if support for anti-immigrant parties is linked to fears about losing one’s job to an immigrant worker. This idea, often referred to as the “ethnic competition hypothesis” is contrasted with the “contact hypothesis,” which is based on the idea that being in contact with immigrant workers and getting to know them as colleagues and possible friends can reduce prejudice against immigrants more generally. This in turn could lead to less people voting for anti-immigrant parties.

The workplace is an important site to examine this puzzle because work is one place where people who might not otherwise meet come together and get the opportunity to interact with each other. However, the mere presence of immigrants in a workplace, particularly if the workers are highly visible, might actually just remind native workers of the potential threat to their employment. To this end, the authors propose a different mechanism for understanding when contact will actually lead to political outcomes, and suggest that in order for the fear of losing one’s job to be assuaged, there must be meaningful contact between native born workers and immigrant workers. They argue that this is more likely to occur between workers of similar skill levels as these groups of workers are more likely to spend quality time together in the workplace.

“In an era where immigration remains one of the most polarizing political topics, this research highlights one of the crucial ways that these differences can be overcome.” To measure and test this idea, the authors collected data on the percentage of immigrant workers in workplaces across Sweden and linked it to data on precinct level election results. Based on this information, the authors were able to calculate average change in votes for anti-immigrant party based on the number of immigrants in workplaces. They then modified this design in alternate tests to see if different skill levels in work environments and the size of the workplace had any impact on voting for the anti-immigrant party.

The authors found that their interpretation of the contact hypothesis was mostly correct. The concerns of native workers regarding losing their jobs were mitigated by more meaningful contact with same skill level immigrant workers. However, this effect did not hold in larger workplaces, which they argue is likely due to the fact that in a larger workplace native born workers do not have the same level of interaction with immigrant workers, and so will be more likely to perceive them as a threat to their jobs, rather than colleagues. This problem was much less likely to occur in smaller workplaces. They also found that there is very little change in attitudes when immigrant and native-born workers have different skill sets. Because native workers with different skill levels do not see immigrant workers as performing the same labor, and therefore not competing for the same jobs, they do not necessarily feel threatened in the same way. In these cases, the presence of immigrant workers does not result in a change in votes for anti-immigrant party.

In an era where immigration remains one of the most polarizing political topics, this research highlights one of the crucial ways that these differences can be overcome. Meaningful interactions with people of different backgrounds broaden horizons and help provide context for why these workers may have travelled far to seek jobs. Getting to know your co-workers and understanding their struggle can also turn into meaningful political change and reshape how workers see those around them.

  • Dennis Young is a PhD student at the University of Washington. His dissertation research examines resistance to detention and deportation in the United States, coalitional organizing, and conceptions of freedom in these communities. This research operates at the intersection of American Politics, Political Theory, Public Law, and Race and Ethnicity Politics. In addition to this work he is also working on pieces about determinants of solidarity in protest movements, and the role of law in anti-detention organizing. He holds a B.A. from Whitman College and an M.A. from the University of Washington.”

  • Article details: ANDERSSON, HENRIK, and SIRUS H. DEHDARI. “Workplace Contact and Support for Anti-Immigration Parties.” American Political Science Review, 2021, 1–16.
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.