Comparing Immigrant Political Participation

This year saw numerous episodes of mobilization by immigrants and non-immigrants alike. In Sweden, protesters mobilized against police in a predominantly immigrant neighborhood of Stockholm. Protesters in Cologne, Germany organized against the anti-immigration party, the AfD. London protesters held an event at the U.S. embassy in London against Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban.” And, protesters in the U.S. mobilized against Trump and his administration’s views and positions on immigration with “A Day Without Immigrants.”

It’s hard to believe that a widely held assumption in the literature on immigrant political participation was that immigrants, particularly non-citizens, were unlikely to become involved politically, especially in more visible, disruptive forms of collective action. Yet, immigrant citizens and non-citizens participate in a wide-range of political action – from signing petitions, to boycotts, to protest demonstrations.

This raises theoretical and empirical questions about how different immigrant political participation is from that of native participation – whether these reveal, as some scholars suggested, “unique patterns” of political participation – especially when it comes to preferences for so-called extra-institutional or more disruptive forms of action.

Indeed, my recent paper with Robert de Vries at the University of Kent draws attention precisely to the often problematic ways in which social movement scholars, political sociologists and other social scientists conceptualize and operationalize participation. We sought to link these concerns to what scholars might expect participation to be like given what we know about collective action.

Recent studies of immigrant citizen and non-citizen political participation in Europe theorized and found that citizenship makes immigrants look more like natives in their participation patterns because citizenship acts as a ticket to participation especially in more so-called unconventional or extra-institutional forms of action (like protest demonstrations).

However, studies have operationalized unconventional or extra-institutional forms of action to include within that same category activities like petition signing along with protest demonstrations –qualitatively different activities. De Vries and I found that when extra-institutional participation excludes petition signing, the story of immigrant participation changes. Immigrant citizens are not necessarily more likely to participate in so-called unconventional action compared to natives. We posited that rather than providing resources enabling extra-institutional action, citizenship may encourage more institutional forms of participation among immigrants.

Beyond that, we called into question the classification of different types of political participation into “conventional” and “unconventional” especially since it appears that other characteristics matter more in understanding participation in different forms of action – a combination of things like commitment, duration, risk, expectations about obtaining a desired outcome, not to mention how and why people are motivated to participate in the first place, and the national context within which they do so.

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Breaking down participation is a small first step in learning more about differences in preferences for different types of action. Non-citizen immigrants are less likely than natives to participate in some forms of so-called institutional action and less likely to participate in petition signing and boycotts which have been treated as “un-institutional” or “unconventional.” When it comes to boycotts, petition-signing, organizational work and contacting a politician, immigrant citizens are different than natives by the same magnitude across these activities, but this isn’t the case for non-citizen immigrants for petition signing and boycotting. We also find that the effect of being a non-citizen on participating in a demonstration is statistically indistinguishable from participation in any other type of activity, except for boycotts (see the paper for a full account of the methods, analyses and findings).

Signing petitions may reflect one-shot, short-term involvement while some institutional or conventional activities like working for a party or movement group require longer-term commitments. Some so-called extra-institutional forms of action like a protest demonstration may require as much effort and commitment as working for a party if the protest event and the individual’s participation endures. But, an individual can also briefly participate once in a protest event which may require as much commitment as signing a petition or contacting a politician, although it may involve more risk. Our findings indicate that by and large, immigrant preferences are stronger for one-shot activities that may be coordinated (although not necessarily) but acted on privately over activities that are more public requiring more extensive organization and coordination.

Immigrant citizens and non-citizens will continue to participate in a wide array of political activity and in order to shed light on their activism, it is all the more critical to gain a better understanding about the ways in which access to social and political institutions and resources increases or decreases participation in short or long term, public or private, high or low cost and confrontational or non-confrontational political action.


See: Pettinicchio, David and Robert de Vries. 2017. “Immigrant Political Participation in Europe Comparing Different Forms of Political Action across Groups.” Comparative Sociology 16: 523-554.

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