Project Project
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Ethnic Discrimination on the Labor Market in Comparative Perspective

Research Fields
Migration, Integration, and Intercultural Conflicts
Prof. Dr. Bram Lancee (Utrecht University, The Netherlands); Prof. Devah Pager, PhD (Harvard University, USA); Prof. Justine Burns, PhD (Cape Town University, South Africa)

Theoretical background and objectives

In Germany, as in most Western countries, immigrants and their offspring have higher unemployment rates and lower professional status than natives, which can only partly be explained by demographic and human capital variables. Discrimination is a possible cause of such unexplained "ethnic penalties." Ethnic discrimination is not only normatively undesirable, but also a source of social divisiveness and economic inefficiency. In order to effectively deal with discrimination we need to know more about what drives it, and what explains variation in its levels and forms across ethnic groups as well as regions and countries. Because previous studies have included only one or very few minority groups, we know even in a purely descriptive sense relatively little about differences in discrimination rates across ethnic groups. This is a major knowledge gap because discrimination is unlikely to be homogenous across minority groups. Survey-based studies show that ethnic penalties that remain after controlling for demographic and human capital variables may differ strongly across groups. Discrimination is also likely to vary across geographical and political contexts. Investigating such contextual variation requires cross-regional or cross-national comparative research designs. However, such designs have hardly been used so far.

Our research project seeks to describe and explain variation in labor market discrimination across groups, dimensions of ethnicity, regions, and countries, and to better disentangle the distinction between 'taste' and 'statistical' discrimination. For these ends, we employ an innovative research design that enables us to analyze discrimination across a large number of ethnic groups and various dimensions of ethnicity (e.g., ethnicity, phenotype, religion, language) in three countries: Germany, South Africa and the USA. The project seeks to advance our understanding of three key issues:

  1. The extent and causes of variation in discrimination across ethnic groups;
  2. The relative importance of ethnic preferences and dislikes ("taste discrimination") and information deficiencies ("statistical discrimination") in explaining variations in discrimination across groups;
  3. The extent and causes of contextual variation in levels of discrimination across regions and countries.

The study aims to expand our knowledge of variation in rates of labor market discrimination both in a descriptive and in an explanatory sense. Descriptively, our research design includes more than one minority group of immigrant origin in three countries, allowing for the possibility that ethnic hierarchies differ across national contexts, for instance because of variations in group sizes and different anti-discrimination or employment protection legislations. Studies on religion, ethnicity, and language indicate that all three play a role in explaining ethnic discrimination. We want to investigate the impact on discrimination of phenotype, religion, and language skills simultaneously and thereby assess the relative weights and the intersectionality of these sources of ethnic discrimination. This also allows us to better disentangle the major theoretical distinction between "taste" and "statistical" discrimination.

Our design allows testing hypotheses derived from the two perspectives. If preferences driven by ethnic threat and competition are behind discrimination, we should expect phenotype and religion to be associated with higher discrimination even when we control for group mean differences in productivity-related variables. By contrast, theories of statistical discrimination are preferred to the extent that effects of ethnicity, religion, and cultural distance become insignificant when we control for productivity-related group means and individual skills. The cross-regional part of the study draws on official statistics and large-scale surveys, and links differences across regions to, e.g., regional labor market statistics, the local electoral strength of political parties, public opinion with regard to immigration or ethnic minorities, and the population share of ethnic minorities.