Politics, Social Science

Immigration and the Social Science Echo Chamber

The British public were recently informed on national TV that “the vast majority of people who describe themselves as belonging to the Church of England are opposed to immigration.” The BBC, which made the claim, said it was supported by a study they had commissioned. They then ran a short report filmed in an Anglican church, repeating the claim and asking what can be done to make things better.

Another BBC report later followed, this time on the radio, in which the presenter reported that a majority of Christians are hostile to immigration and the study’s lead researcher added that they are intolerant of immigrants. A number of other outlets also covered the story, including the Church Times, which repeated the claims. If any member of the public was surprised by what they had seen and heard or doubted the veracity of the study, they could rest reassured that it had been conducted at the University of Bristol’s School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies. Surely an organisation like this, which researches and aims to accurately interpret attitudes to immigration, could be relied upon for accuracy? Aren’t universities respectable institutions in which the public can trust? Wasn’t Britain’s state broadcaster, subject to rules on impartiality, merely reporting the facts? If you don’t like the truth, fair enough. But don’t shoot the messengers.

I decided to read the research for myself to understand the basis for these reports. I was dismayed by what I found. Not by the views about immigration which the study and its data reveal, but by the misrepresentation of those views which, stripped of important context, were now being portrayed in unjustifiably disparaging ways. I came to realise that the study and its coverage are emblematic of a larger problem: that much research about attitudes to immigration, rather than embodying a commitment to objectivity and fairness, becomes a vehicle for some social scientists to express disapproval, in both academia and the wider world, of opinions with which they disagree.

The study, published in February and written by students and one faculty member, is entitled Faith and Welcoming: Do the Religious Feel Differently about Immigration and Immigrants?  It analyses previous surveys, which the authors describe as “gold standard,”  and it shows that among both the religious and the non-religious a sizeable majority think rates of immigration should not be increased. The baffling question of why respondents were asked if they wanted to see immigration increased, rather than whether they were content with current levels, is one to which I will return in a moment.

The study also shows that, according to surveys of British social attitudes conducted this decade, over 70 percent of those polled expressed disapproval of future increases in immigration across all groups. The exception are Muslims, for whom the figure is 60 percent. Christians agree less than do members of other religions and atheists that immigration enriches the economy and culture. But Hindus, for example, still only give a score of 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. Buddhists, 6.5. A significant proportion across all groups do not think that immigration enriches societies. Whether these opinions are right, wrong, misguided or otherwise, is immaterial. They’re what the surveys show.

The study shows that Christians who attend church regularly are a little more in favour of increasing immigration compared to those who don’t attend regularly. It also shows that 43 percent of non-religious Black Carribean respondents neither agreed nor disagreed that immigrants are good for the economy. For Indian Muslims, the figure is 45 percent. While Christians are less in favour of increasing immigration, the general picture shows that most people, of whatever religion or of no religion, agree with them. Overall, although there are differences of degree, most people questioned don’t want an increase in the current rate of immigration and, across the board, many have doubts about its benefits.

These findings point to a consensus of unease. However, the only finding which made it onto the air was that relating to Anglicans, and the differences in attitudes between those who attend church on a regular or less-regular basis. The overwhelming message carried by the media was that Anglicans have a particular problem with their attitudes, especially those who identify with the Church of England but who don’t go to church all that much. Everything else in the study was disregarded, as if placing Anglicans’ views in a broader context was not necessary. Those Anglicans who didn’t want an increase in current levels of immigration were then said to be opposed to immigration per se, and ill-disposed towards immigrants.

Whether or not the purportedly impartial BBC journalists who reported this story were inclined to spin it as they did because of their own political beliefs is something about which we can only speculate. But perhaps they were strongly influenced by the way the study was framed and presented to the media in an article by its authors. Here, in particular, is where the selective analysis of the study began, with the focus shifted firmly onto Christians’ attitudes. There is also a disappointing conflation of concepts reflected in the imprecise and inconsistent wording used, to the point that it becomes misleading. Those not wanting increased future immigration or who are sceptical about the benefits immigration may bring, for example, are deemed to harbour an “antipathy towards immigrants and immigration.” The language used to refer to them is negative, depicting them as “hostile” and not “welcoming,” assertions for which there is simply no supporting evidence provided in the study. There are of course, in any society, those who viscerally dislike immigrants, including on a personal level. But the authors’ casual approach to terminology does no justice to those who don’t dislike immigration, but think current levels are too high.

A pro-immigration rally in the UK.

Equally astounding is that no mention is made of the far higher levels of immigration to the UK and to other Western countries in recent decades. Respondents were only asked about immigration, or about being in favour of a future increase. What may be concern about immigration at its current levels has therefore not only been overlooked, but may also have been transmuted into falsely depicting such attitudes as inflexible opposition to immigration in general. Add to this the survey’s question about attitudes to increasing future immigration rates, and it is hardly surprising that so many respondents showed unease about what the study’s authors merely refer to as immigration. There is no good reason why someone should not be asked if they agree with immigration levels being increased in future. But answers need to be understood in relation to recent history and current circumstances. It is plausible to speculate, however, that this question reflects the survey’s designers’ inability to conceive that recent levels may be considered undesirable and that insight into attitudes could therefore only be gained by asking if higher levels would be welcome.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. The report, devoid of data which could tell us anything about people’s attitudes to immigrants themselves, is entitled “Faith and Welcoming.” Overarching the whole study is the presupposition, carried by the word “welcoming,” that to fall short of unqualified agreement with immigration at any rate means one fails to measure up to some assumed, abstract standard of decency and hospitality. If those who fall short are not explicitly denounced as odious, it’s clearly implied that they bear the unmistakeable stain of bigotry.

By the time I’d finished reading the study and seen how its findings were being misrepresented to and by the media, my trust in its integrity and reliability had evaporated. Through assumption, selectivity, and tendentious language, these messengers of the public mood had got it wrong. But why? It is unlikely that the authors of the study – and indeed the TV and radio presenters, reporters, and producers – had conspired to mislead their audience intentionally, although separating dishonesty from confirmation bias is often difficult and contentious. Likewise, incompetence also seems unlikely. After all, researchers are where they are, doing what they do, partly because they’re intelligent and highly capable.

Although there has long been disagreement about the proportion of academics who are left-of-centre, it’s generally accepted that they far outnumber conservatives. Recent studies in both the US and the UK suggest that, in the last quarter century, the proportion of academics who describe themselves as politically left-of-centre has greatly increased. An American study put the figure at 42 percent in 1990, which had risen to around 60 percent by 2014. In the UK, another study suggests it’s now almost 80 percent. During the same period, left-wing thinking has moved away from its more traditional focus on class inequalities, and is now dominated by issues of group identity. Among these, sexual orientation and gender are of course prominent. But trumping those categories is an even more fervent preoccupation. An alien visitor who perused our academic output today – especially in the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts – could be excused for concluding that an obsession with ethnicity and race is now a religion which helps sustain many of our intellectuals.

Of all academic disciplines, the social sciences have perhaps the greatest capacity to be unduly influenced by their academics’ political beliefs. Left-wingers are more readily drawn into their sphere, attracted by the values and theories which underpin much of the teaching and research. This, in turn, has helped to fortify them as left-wing strongholds, the values of which – frequently dogmatic and deemed inherently good – have become normalised and assumed to be enlightened and impartial. If any aspect of such a worldview has the power to distort a researcher’s work, it is passionately-held beliefs about – some might say a fixation with – race and ethnicity, and concomitant views about free movement being natural and borders unfair, all of which have become fundamental to left-wing thought.

Any study about attitudes to immigration conducted by social scientists who believe a priori that concern about levels of immigration amounts to outright opposition and even enmity towards immigrants, risks being flawed. Each attempt can become its own perfect storm as a combination of researchers’ ideological values, their emotional stake in the topic, their assumptions and preconceptions risks disfiguring their interpretation of the available data. In this instance, these biases appear to be manifest in ill-disguised moral judgments about those who dissent.

However careful a researcher holding such views is, however committed to impartiality they may feel themselves to be, a deeply-ingrained and spiritually-sustaining outlook tends to result in research which says at least as much about researchers’ values as it does about any reality it claims objectively to describe. Consequently, until such time as viewpoint diversity in the social sciences provides a more balanced environment for research and peer review, research by social scientists into public attitudes to immigration should be treated with the scepticism it rightfully deserves.


David Hansard is the pen-name of David Johnson, an independent writer from the UK with a degree in Philosophy and a Master’s degree in IT. He keeps a blog which can be found here: davidhansard.wordpress.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @_davidhansard


  1. David Turnbull says

    Social Science … more social than science

    • Nick Kaplan says

      Indeed. In many respects the title Social Scientist would be more accurate if the space between the two words and the letters ‘Scient’ were removed.

  2. Alex says

    “It is unlikely that the authors of the study – and indeed the TV and radio presenters, reporters, and producers – had conspired to mislead their audience intentionally”.

    I’m not so sure that it’s unlikely.

    • David Johnson says

      It’s a possibility. Another comment, on the Quillette Facebook page, made a similar point and said I was too charitable. I can see their and your point and think it an understandable one to make. One way I look at it is if I’d gone down the route of saying it was highly likely to have been intentional, it would have deflected from part of what I wanted to get across, which was that confirmation bias in a researcher is worse than intentionally misleading. I was sort of holding off a bit to make another, in my view, stronger point. And, after all, at least in this specific case, it’s not possible to know if intention played a part.

  3. Greg says

    Ummm, was this article trying to ignore other obvious, objectively true negative aspects of immigration to Western Europe??? Why didn’t the author factor in terror attacks, unprecedented security concerns requring in monitoring dangerous suspects in a manner previously unseen, a rampant rise in antisemitism, etc? Would these obviously notable detriments of mass immigration NOT also be a variable in the equation of immigration skepticism? Cmon.

    • David Turnbull says

      Hmmm. Maybe because that wasn’t what the article was about?

      • Greg says

        Hmmmmm, adding context to the respondents perspectives (as well as adjusting for bias and misrepresentation) was exactly what the article was about. How can one truly offer the most contextually complete perspective on immigration skepticism without acknowledging the OBVIOUS elephant in the room. IMMIGRATION is RUINING WESTERN EUROPE. But yeah, thanks for your comment.

        • David Johnson says

          In relation to immigration, many people may indeed be concerned about the things you mention in your first comment: about terrorism, the need for monitoring and antisemitism. The purpose of the article, however, was to say that the study and its media coverage portrayed one group of people in a way which didn’t take into account the context of the study as a whole, and in a way which is not supported by evidence, for reasons which are rooted in ideology. The issues you mention, while not of course unrelated, were outside the scope of what I wanted to say.

          • Greg says

            Understood, David. It was an excellent, timely and relevant article. I just felt you were a tad remiss to not at least, anecdotally, reference the very real negatives they are experiencing as a direct consequence of immigration. Doing so would have made the purveyors of the study rightly appear even more disingenuous than they were.

  4. Jeff York says

    I have nothing original or profound to add but I’ll rant anyway. Immigration is almost always talked about in terms of the indigenous population being de facto racist if they’re opposed to it or just want reasonable restrictions and the economic impact, pro and con. I’m a WASP and I’m genuinely fond of my Celtic/Roman/Anglo/Saxon/Jute/Frisian(?)/Viking/Norman/Huguenot cousins in Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand (et al). (In 1991 I served with British & Australian troops in Kuwait and they were just the greatest guys in the world and very professional soldiers). Would I want 50-million of them moving here? At this point, no. Might I wish that the IRA of 1965 had resulted in 50-million WASPs moving here instead of the population that did? (Alexus de Tocqueville’s observation that “America is what happens when you leave an Englishman alone” was not an idle statement). I freely admit that on some level I do. “Birds of a feather” quite naturally “want to flock together.” We’re genetically hard-wired to want to live, work, marry and have our children with people who are like us racially & culturally. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, sixty years of propaganda to the contrary.

    Some years ago I read an article in which the author offered the opinion that *long-term* America can support 200-million people at what is considered to be the traditional American lifestyle. I don’t remember all the facts & figures he cited but one was that for each additional person added an average of one acre of arable ground is paved over. Perhaps we can support one-billion people if 900-million of them are willing to live in Brazil-type slums and subsist on three bowls of beans-and-rice a day but I don’t want to live like that. Do you? As an aside, for the most part, new arrivals don’t move to the mostly empty desert & mountains states.

    Societies that are homogenous tend to be harmonious. Examples include Japan and the Scandinavian countries. (Less and less true of Sweden with each passing day). Societies that are heterogeneous, i.e. diverse, tend to be chaotic. Examples include the Balkans in the 1990s, Rwanda in ’94, Darfur in the 2000s and much of the Middle East and parts of Africa today. Increasingly this is true of America, Australia, Britain and parts of Europe as well. A society can have some well-behaved minorities but there needs to be one homogenous group that’s at least 90% of the population to keep things stable.

    To anyone who is indignant that I’m not thrilled at the “browning” of America, Britain and Europe I have a question: Are you equally exercised at all the non-white countries who don’t want to be enriched & diversified (and if not why not)? Immigration & diversity are good for the receiving-country, right (according to you)? It’s no mystery to me at all. The Japanese, in particular, understand something about homogeneity & social trust/cohesion and demographics & destiny that the West collectively does not. By the way, I genuinely *love* diversity (I’ve traveled). What a boring world it would be without it. I just think that it should happen at the national level. If you mix up all of humanity into one great big amorphous brown blob then where, exactly, is the diversity?

  5. Alex says

    Unfortunately, the left masterfully tricked everyone into challenging immigration, as opposed to addressing the nature of immigration and its causes.

    Hence, whoever enters the debate has to go against the very events that made their country powerful. It’s a lost battle even before it started.

    Instead of being treated as a matter of economic or foreign policy, immigration is a domestic issue, and weighs significantly on local and national elections. To the point where even the idea of a nation state is being challenged.

    Do we have a right to historical and cultural continuity? Not historical sclerosis, or cultural paralysis. Continuity, the sort of which that adapts and welcomes changes, without throwing away its past.

    Meanwhile, in the country where I live, not a day goes by without having to endure 20ish silly pseudo aid worker, disserting at length on their current pet project. That with their literally unbearable voice fries.

    I keep quiet, it’s not like their self centered view of the world is going to have serious consequences on locals. Tourism, whichever the reasons, has positive outcomes.

    But I must say, the voice fries in the 180th poorest country in the world, I just can’t take it anymore.

    By the way, they’ll come back at one point. Obviously. Be prepared.

    • David Turnbull says

      “But I must say, the voice fries in the 180th poorest country in the world, I just can’t take it anymore.
      By the way, they’ll come back at one point. Obviously. Be prepared.”

      Sorry, but I don’t have any idea what that means.

  6. andrewcorpe@me.com says

    The fact that the BBC commissioned this ‘study’ using public money and ran such an article is the point here. Of all the pressing and more important issues out there today what was their journalistic rational in conjuring up and spinning this dubious revelation that churchgoing Anglicans oppose immigration?
    We don’t hear much of radical Anglican’s protesting immigration in the streets, attacking and murdering immigrants or insisting that they convert to anglicanism.
    There doesn’t seem to be any urgent reason, in the public interest, to commission such research and concoct such an article?
    So why did they do that I wonder?

    • L. Davis says

      Whole books have been written to illustrate the inability of the BBC and other media outlets to understand basic scientific principles and how to interpret a study but to no avail.

      • L. Davis says

        As to why – I suppose it could be that “small study shows nothing particularly interesting” is not a gripping headline.

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  8. Chris says

    This is very true of our current reality – “An alien visitor who perused our academic output today – especially in the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts – could be excused for concluding that an obsession with ethnicity and race is now a religion which helps sustain many of our intellectuals.” One of my primary concerns is the damage it is causing to society so I ask how do we peacefully stop the spread of this “religion” without violence occurring as it’s adherents and followers are increasingly gaining positions of power outside of academia (tech companies, large corporations, media, politicians)? Especially since it’s followers do not seem open to discourse as recently stated by Heather Heying:


  9. Yeah – shock horror – people are opposed to their own demographic replacement.

    What’s amazing is that there are so many useful idiots who think it would be a good idea. I suggest they spend some time in south Africa to see what awaits them.

  10. ERH says

    Without reading the study, there is one potential reason that comes to mind. The study’s results may have seemed uneventful and basic….maybe even straightforward. Perhaps the authors were disappointed that something profound did not pop out. They had to go to the media with something and they chose the path of least resistance. In this case, they chose to call out the group that is easiest to call out….the low hanging fruit in a way. They knew most would not read the whole study.

  11. Debbie says

    Two questions/comments:
    1) Why is it a “problem” to disfavor immigration?
    2) Why are journalist asking, “What can we do to make it better?” Doesn’t that question immediately transform a journalist into an activist?

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