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date: 15 January 2021

Immigration, Migration, and Culturefree

  • Victoria M. EssesVictoria M. EssesDepartment of Psychology, Western University


Migration is the movement of people from one location to another, either within a country (internal migration between cities or regions) or between countries (international migration). Migration may be relatively voluntary (e.g., for employment opportunities) or involuntary (e.g., due to armed conflict, persecution, or natural disasters), and it may be temporary (e.g., migrant workers moving back and forth between source and receiving areas) or permanent (e.g., becoming a permanent resident in a new country). The term immigration refers specifically to international migration that is relatively permanent in nature. Immigrants are those individuals who have moved to a new country on a relatively permanent basis. Of importance, refugees are a particular type of immigrant, defined and protected by international law. They are individuals who have been formally recognized as having fled their country of residence because of a well-founded fear of persecution, armed conflict, violence, or war. Until they are recognized as such, these individuals are asylum seekers—individuals who have claimed refugee status and are waiting for that claim to be evaluated. Despite the relative permanence of immigration, advances in transportation and communication mean that immigrants are able to travel to, spend time in, and communicate on a regular basis with their country of origin. As a result, what has been termed transnationalism may result, with individuals holding strong ties with, and actively participating in, both the country of origin and the new receiving country.

Migration often results in two or more cultures coming into contact. This contact is especially likely for international migration where immigrants from one national group (the society of origin) come into contact with members of a different national group (the receiving society). Culture may include specific beliefs, attitudes, and customs, as well as values and behaviors. The term acculturation refers to the changes that may occur when individuals from different cultures come into contact, with possible changes in both immigrants and members of the receiving society. Psychological theory and research suggest that acculturation is bidimensional, with changes potentially taking place along two dimensions—one representing the maintenance or loss of the original culture and the other representing the adoption or rejection of the new culture. This bidimensionality is important because it suggests that acculturation is not linear from original culture to new culture, but instead that individuals may simultaneously participate in the new culture and maintain their original culture. The two cultures may be expressed at different times, in different contexts, or may merge to form cultural expressions that have aspects of both cultures. With voluntary and involuntary migration at historically high levels, understanding the drivers of migration and its consequences for migrants and those with whom they come into contact are essential for global cooperation and well-being.

The Different Forms of Migration

Throughout history, humans have migrated, that is, moved from one location to another. This movement of people has dramatically increased in recent years, however, due to advances in transportation and communication paired with unequal economic opportunities and human security risks among locations (Castles, 2013; Lonnback, 2014; United Nations, 2016). Migration may occur within a country or between countries. Internal migration (within-country migration) is of considerable importance, yet relatively understudied (Castles, 2013). The number of internal migrants who are living outside of their region of birth has exceeded 740 million people, with potentially profound social, cultural, and economic consequences (Lucas, 2015). This number includes approximately 40 million conflict-related internally displaced persons whose numbers have increased rapidly in the past few years (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre [iDMC], 2017). In contrast, though somewhat smaller in magnitude, migration between countries has been the focus of considerable research attention across a variety of disciplines. It is estimated that in 2015, there were 244 million international migrants, including approximately 20 million refugees (United Nations, 2016). The research focus in this area has predominantly been on the drivers and consequences of international migration.

Migration may be relatively voluntary or involuntary. When involuntary, as in the case of individuals who are fleeing conflict and persecution, individuals may be internally displaced persons (IDPs) living within their home country or asylum seekers or refugees outside of their country of birth (IOM, 2017; UNESCO, 2017). When voluntary, the focus of internal migration tends to be on migrants moving for economic opportunity, and on international migration for economic or family reasons (Castles, 2013). Yet this distinction between voluntary and involuntary migration is not as clear as it may seem. For example, temporary labor migrants and migrants from developing countries seeking employment may be viewed as voluntary migrants by others but may themselves see their migration as involuntary, as they do not have the economic opportunities at home required to survive.

Why People Migrate

The question of why people migrate is multipronged, and the literature on this topic often talks about the push-pull factors of migration, that is, what conditions drive people to leave their region or country of origin, and what characteristics attract them to a particular location (Castles, 2013; Martin & Zurcher, 2008). There is also a growing literature on the personality factors that may play a role in the decision to migrate (Li & Frieze, 2013). This research has mainly been focused on international migration across borders.

The literature on the push and pull factors of internal migration is relatively limited. In terms of push factors, internal migration may be driven by poor economic conditions, including loss of rural livelihoods that drive farmers away from rural locations, and poor employment opportunities at home (Castles, 2013). Relatedly, push factors for internal migration may include environmental disasters such as drought or extreme weather, forcing people to move away from particular regions (iDMC, 2017; Lucas, 2015). Internal migration may also be pushed by factors such as conflict, violence, and war (UNHCR, 2017). Many of the individuals who move internally migrate to urban areas, which tend to be characterized by the pull of potential economic opportunity (Lucas, 2015). This pull may be deceptive, however, in that there is seldom sufficient formal employment for the large number of newcomers to urban areas, which can result in employment in insecure informal sector work and human rights abuse (Castles, 2013).

In terms of international migration, both economic and noneconomic push and pull factors may play a role. Major push factors may include life-threatening poverty, natural disasters, environmental degradation, persecution, and war, as well as safety concerns such as high crime rates. Less severe push factors may include relatively poor economic conditions in one’s country of origin such as lack of educational and employment opportunities, low wages, and poor working conditions (Castles & Miller, 2009; Martin & Zurcher, 2008). Sometimes these push factors are connected to environmental conditions such as drought or flooding that might provide an inhospitable environment per se and may depress wages through crop failure or lead to political instability and a lack of safety (Castles, 2013). Other push factors include a culture that encourages migration (such as is evident in the Philippines), low feelings of belonging, and political instability. Economic pull factors include educational and employment opportunities, a high standard of living, and labor recruitment by countries facing demographic challenges (Castles, 2013). Noneconomic pull factors include the presence of family and friends, a safe environment, and cultural and political freedoms (Castles, 2013). The recruitment of workers by what Castles (2013) has termed the “migration industry”—including migration agents, labor recruiters, housing brokers, and others—may capitalize on pull factors for migration, making their living by highlighting the pull qualities of a destination.

Global communication networks inform the international community about conditions and opportunities abroad and act as the connector between push and pull factors (Martin & Zurcher, 2008). For example, migrants may be motivated to leave their country of origin by high unemployment (push factor) and be encouraged to migrate to a country like Australia by a temporary skilled migration visa program (pull factor). Once this stream of migration is formed, it continues to grow through formal and informal networks of information sharing regarding wages and job opportunities.

Interacting with push and pull factors are the characteristics of migrants themselves. Research on the migrant personality examines why some individuals migrate whereas others living in the same socioeconomic conditions do not (Li & Frieze, 2013). This research has shown that personality and motivational factors can play a central role in the desire to migrate. The migrant personality may include resilience to anxiety and insecurity and more dismissing and secure attachment styles. A dismissing attachment style makes an individual more detached from social surroundings and thus more likely to emigrate, whereas a secure attachment style enhances psychological adjustment in the new country. Other aspects of the migrant personality are openness to experience and extraversion, which are positively related to one’s intention to emigrate. Some aspects of personality may promote decisions to emigrate when conditions in the home country are poor. In particular, research has shown that having an internal motivation to compete and achieve (i.e., achievement motivation) and an internal desire for leadership and control over others (i.e., power motivation) may be related to emigration when conditions at home block the fulfillment of these motivations. Alternatively, a desire to form and maintain relationships with others is related to choosing to stay in one’s country of origin.


Although immigration is defined as international migration that is relatively permanent in nature, it is no longer the case that migrants leave behind their country of birth and move to a new location, expecting to stay there for the rest of their lives. Instead, travel back and forth between two or more locations has become feasible and quite common, facilitated by the ease of global transportation. In addition, migrants are increasingly able to hold citizenship in more than one country and to participate in more than one political process (Bloemraad, 2004; Faist & Gerdes, 2008). As well, advances in communication technology mean that migrants can easily stay connected with individuals in their home country and with members of the diaspora in other countries (Schuerkens, 2005). This development has led to transnationalism, defined as holding strong ties to more than one nation and the ability to stay connected with and participate in both the society of origin and the receiving society (Portes, Guarnizo, & Landolt, 1999). Transnationalism is important to consider in the context of the push and pull factors of migration because it changes the immigration process. Through transnationalism, the migration process is no longer unidirectional with push factors driving people to leave their country of origin and pull factors attracting them to their country of settlement. Instead, transnationals may be repeatedly pushed and pulled back and forth between their country of origin and country of settlement. In this context, national borders are less relevant for activities and identity, and individuals can lead multisited lives (IOM, 2010).

Research on transnationalism has focused on the social, economic, cultural, and political impact of transnationalism for source and receiving countries (e.g., Ley, 2013; Satzewich & Wong, 2006; Vertovec, 2009). For example, what is the impact on immigrant identity; on perceived loyalty to the two countries; for economic exchanges; and for remittances and investment in the source and receiving countries? Do national policies need to change to accommodate transnationalism? These are only a few of the many questions being researched regarding transnationalism in a variety of fields.

Determinants of Receiving Community Attitudes Toward Immigrants and Immigration

Two important psychologically based theories that have addressed factors influencing attitudes toward immigrants and immigration are the Unified Instrumental Model of Group Conflict, proposed by Esses, Jackson, Dovidio, and Hodson (2005b), and the Integrated Threat Theory of Prejudice, proposed by Stephan and Stephan (2000). Though quite similar in their perspective on immigrant–nonimmigrant relations, where they differ is in their framing of the factors influencing immigration attitudes—more in terms of competition in the Unified Instrumental Model of Group Conflict and more in terms of threat in the Integrated Threat Theory of Prejudice. Nonetheless, both theories incorporate a variety of factors that may influence immigration attitudes, including economic factors, health and safety, cultural and value-related factors, and national identity.

Perceived Economic Competition and Threat

A recurring debate is whether immigrants contribute economically to their new society or are a drain on resources and compete for jobs with native-born individuals. A specific answer to this question may depend on the immigration policy of the receiving nation, the type of immigrants who are arriving, the form that the receiving country’s economy takes, and demographic and economic characteristics of the receiving country’s economy over time. For example, when economic times are challenging and unemployment rates are higher, the costs of immigration may be seen as greater than the benefits (e.g., Esipova, Ray, Pugliese, & Tsabutashvili, 2015; Esses, Brochu, & Dickson, 2011).

Irrespective of the actual economic contributions of immigrants, an important factor in determining attitudes toward immigrants and immigration among members of a receiving society is the perceived economic contributions and costs of immigration (e.g., Esses, Jackson, & Armstrong, 1998). Immigrants who do not do well economically are likely to be seen as a drain on social services (e.g., welfare), leading to negative attitudes toward immigrants and immigration. On the other hand, immigrants who do well economically may also be seen as a threat to the economic conditions of the receiving society because their successes may at times be seen as coming at the expense of nonimmigrants. These “zero-sum beliefs”—beliefs that the more immigrants obtain, the less is available for nonimmigrants from a pool of limited resources—lead to negative attitudes toward immigrants and immigration (Esses et al., 2005b). These beliefs mean that some members of the receiving society may perceive immigrants negatively regardless of whether immigrants succeed or fail economically. Fundamentally, it is the belief that immigrants are taking resources from members of the receiving society that drives these negative attitudes.

The belief that immigrants are a drain on receiving nation resources may be more or less likely to be part of the dominant discourse within a country, may be more or less likely to be promoted by the media, and may depend on individual difference variables, such as Social Dominance Orientation. Research has shown that individuals who are higher in Social Dominance Orientation (i.e., support inequality in society and believe in group hierarchies) are especially likely to see the world in general, and to see relations with immigrants in particular, as zero-sum in nature. As a result, they are especially likely to hold negative attitudes toward immigrants and immigration (Esses, Dovidio, Jackson, & Armstrong, 2001). There is also evidence that situational factors, such as media representations of immigration, may have profound effects on immigration attitudes (e.g., Sides & Citrin, 2007).

Perceived Threats to Health and Safety

In addition to perceptions of economic threat and competition, immigrants may at times be seen as a threat to members of the receiving nations’ health and safety. Concerns that immigrants may carry infectious diseases have influenced immigration policies throughout history and to the present day despite the fact that immigrants are no longer a major vector of disease. Nonetheless, when the association between risk of disease and newcomers is salient in the media, irrespective of whether the risk is genuine, this association may result in negative attitudes toward immigrants and immigration (Esses, Medianu, & Lawson, 2013).

Concerns about threats to safety posed by immigrants have become more prevalent since September 11, 2001, due to the salient association between immigrants and terrorists, exacerbated by the media (Hodson, Esses, & Dovidio, 2006). It is now the case that immigrants, particularly Muslims and those from Near and Middle Eastern countries, are more likely to be viewed with suspicion and hostility. Most recently, many Western nations have been resistant to accepting large numbers of refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria and Iraq because of safety concerns and receiving nations’ fear that they may be harboring terrorists and criminals. These concerns may help explain the rise in anti-Muslim refugee attitudes in various parts of the world and the rise of anti-immigrant groups and political parties.

Perceived Cultural and Value-Related Threat and Competition

In addition to potentially being seen as a threat to tangible resources, health, and safety, immigrants are at times seen as threatening the culture and values of members of the receiving society (Esses et al., 2005b; Stephan & Stephan, 2000). Just as some people may see tangible resources as zero-sum in nature, some individuals may also see more symbolic outcomes as zero-sum. As a result, they may believe that if immigrants are allowed to maintain their practices and values, then the culture and values of the receiving society are weakened. These zero-sum beliefs about culture and values are particularly likely to be held by individuals who are higher in Social Dominance Orientation (more likely to believe in hierarchy and inequality) and lead to negative attitudes toward immigrants and immigration (Esses et al., 2005b). Just as with tangible resources, the belief that immigrants threaten the dominant culture and values may be more or less likely to be part of the dominant discourse within a country and may be more or less likely to be promoted by the media. In recent years, the claim that immigrants are a potential threat to the dominant culture and values of receiving countries has become particularly prevalent within European discourse, resulting in increased support for restrictive immigration policies.

National Identity

How national identity is defined within a particular country and by specific individuals within that country plays an important role in determining whether immigrants are seen as inside or outside of the national ingroup, and as a threat. Two important forms of national identity are nativist/ethnonational and civic/cultural national identity. The nativist form is based on descent or long-term residency and sometimes on being a member of the dominant religion. This narrow construal of the national ingroup is closely tied to ethnonational identity, which is defined by kinship bonds and a common ethnic heritage. In contrast, the civic/cultural form of national identity derives from a voluntary commitment to the laws and institutions of the country and on the feeling of being a member of the national group (Esses, Dovidio, Semenya, & Jackson, 2005a). Countries with a history of promoting a nativist/ethnonational national identity (e.g., the United Kingdom) are more likely to have restrictive immigration policies and to reject immigrants as members of the national ingroup. In contrast, countries that have a history of promoting a civic/cultural national identity (e.g., Canada) are more likely to have relatively open immigration policies and to accept immigrants as members of the national ingroup soon after their arrival.

Definitions of national identity may change over time. For example, it has been demonstrated that in times of national crisis and threat, the psychological boundaries defining the national ingroup tend to narrow and nativist sentiments tend to increase, resulting in more negative attitudes toward immigrants and immigration (Hodson et al., 2006). In addition, large-scale immigration, particularly from new and unfamiliar source countries, can increase concerns about national identity and increase nativist beliefs so that negative attitudes toward immigrants and immigration become evident (Grigorieff, Roth, & Ubfal, 2016). Thus, narrow definitions of national identity and unfavorable views of immigrants and immigration may be mutually reinforcing. It is also the case that individuals within a nation may have differing views on how national identity should be defined, with those holding more nativist views especially likely to also hold negative attitudes toward immigrants and immigration (Esses et al., 2005a).

In addition to construal of national identity, forms of attachment to one’s nation also influence immigration attitudes. In particular, individuals who are higher in nationalism—believing that their nation is superior to all others—hold more negative attitudes toward immigrants and immigration. In contrast, individuals who are higher in patriotism—expressing pride and love for their nation—do not necessarily hold such attitudes (Esses et al., 2005a).

Attitudes toward immigrants and immigration among members of a receiving community are important for a variety of reasons. First, they may influence support for immigration policies within a nation, determining the levels of immigrants allowed entry each year, the stringency of immigration policies, and the type of supports offered to new arrivals (e.g., Esses et al., 2005b; Jackson & Esses, 2000). Attitudes may also influence the more general treatment of immigrants among members of the receiving population, and as a result, immigrants’ life outcomes. For example, there is evidence that prejudice against particular groups of immigrants may lead to the discounting of their skills and credentials in the labor market, resulting in their unemployment and underemployment (Esses, Dietz, & Bhardwaj, 2006). All of these consequences can ultimately affect the degree of harmony or discord within a nation.

The Dehumanization of Refugees

Despite Western nations’ stated commitment to the protection of refugees under the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, individuals seeking entry into Western countries as asylum seekers are at times viewed with hostility and contempt and are perceived as not deserving of assistance (e.g., Human Rights Watch, 2000). What role might dehumanization play in this process? Dehumanization is the tendency to regard members of some groups as less human and, thus, as less worthy of humane treatment than members of other groups (Smith, 2011). In recent years, it can be argued that the dominant discourse surrounding refugee claimants in many countries has become increasingly dehumanizing, with political leaders and the media often promoting such perceptions (e.g., Gabrielatos & Baker, 2008; Taylor, 2015). For example, refugees are at times portrayed in metaphorical terms, described as “swarms” and “marauders” who threaten to “flood” Western countries with the goal of “sponging off the welfare system.” Refugees have been portrayed as “a plague of feral humans” and as “cockroaches” and “parasites.” In this discourse, refugees are depicted as similar to animals and as a significant danger to humankind, inciting anxiety and fear. As a result, Western countries may feel justified in arming themselves with stringent refugee legislation to keep the refugee hordes away.

Recent research demonstrates that this dehumanizing language and these messages about refugees being presented by the media can lead to their dehumanization. In particular, media depictions that portray refugee claimants as bogus, and thus as a threat to the integrity of the refugee system, have been shown to lead to the dehumanization of refugees (Esses, Veenvliet, & Medianu, 2011). Of importance, dehumanization is not equivalent to negative attitudes, but instead is relatively independent. This dehumanization has a variety of consequences, however, including creating contempt for refugees and support for more restrictive refugee policies. In addition, media depictions that associate refugees with terrorists and criminals can lead to their automatic dehumanization, with those who read these descriptions becoming significantly more likely to automatically associate refugees with animals than with humans (Medianu, Sutter, & Esses, forthcoming). Of note, further research has demonstrated that this automatic dehumanization has behavioral consequences, leading to less positive nonverbal behavior toward an individual described as a refugee (Sutter, Medianu, & Esses, 2016). These findings suggest that refugees may at times be portrayed in ways that lead to their negative treatment and to justification of this treatment on the basis of the perception that refugees are not quite human.


Acculturation refers to “those phenomena which result when groups of individuals having different cultures come into continuous first-hand contact, with subsequent changes in the original culture patterns of either or both groups” (Redfield, Linton, & Herskovits, 1936, pp. 149–152). Although acculturation is often discussed in terms of the changes that immigrants undergo in a new society, acculturation can also occur in the receiving society. In addition, when considering immigrant acculturation, it is important to note that acculturation preferences involve both immigrants and members of the receiving society. That is, immigrants may have specific preferences for how they wish to fit into their new society, but it is also the case that the receiving society plays a role in terms of allowing or facilitating this acculturation.

The framework of acculturation that has likely been most influential is that of Berry (1997). According to Berry, two main issues underlie the acculturation strategies that individuals choose. The first is the extent to which individuals wish to maintain their heritage identity and culture (desire for culture maintenance), and the second is the extent to which individuals wish to have contact with those who do not share their heritage identity and culture (desire for contact). Individuals’ preferences regarding these issues result in four acculturation strategies: assimilation, integration, separation, and marginalization (Berry, 1997). When immigrants do not wish to maintain their cultural heritage but seek relationships with the receiving society, the acculturation strategy adopted is one of assimilation. On the other hand, when immigrants wish to maintain their cultural heritage but do not seek relationships with the receiving society, the acculturation strategy adopted is one of separation. When immigrants are interested in both maintaining their cultural heritage and seeking relationships with the receiving society, the acculturation strategy adopted is one of integration. Finally, when immigrants are not interested in or able to maintain relationships with either their own cultural group or the receiving society, the acculturation strategy adopted is one of marginalization (Sam, 2006).

Acculturation preferences are not static but may vary within individuals, depending on the situation (e.g., being with family vs. out in the community; Noels & Clément, 2015), and evolve over time. The acculturation preferences of immigrants may also change across generations. Within the individual, opportunities for immigrants to have contact with members of the receiving community and involvement with the receiving community culture tend to promote positive intergroup relations, leading to a desire for further contact that may increase over time (Asendorpf & Motti-Stefanidi, 2017). Although adoption of a receiving community culture may be more likely to occur in public than private domains for first-generation immigrants, this acculturation tends to converge in later generations (Noels & Clément, 2015).

The Berry model has been criticized on a number of grounds, including the measure of acculturation utilized and the uncertainty of the causal connection between acculturation and the outcomes to which it has been linked (see Brown & Zagefka, 2011). In addition, it is important to note that immigrants are not always free to choose how they relate to the receiving society and to their own cultural group. To illustrate, consider what conditions must exist for immigrants to be able to adopt the integration strategy. First, immigrants must be willing to form relationships with the receiving society. Second, the receiving society must be willing to support the participation of immigrants. For this to occur, the receiving society needs to build a climate promoting cultural diversity and low levels of prejudice toward immigrants (Sam, 2006).

Bourhis, Montreuil, Barrette, and Montaruli (2009) incorporate in their Interactive Acculturation Model (IAM) not only the acculturation orientation of the immigrant group, but also the acculturation preferences of the receiving society (see also Berry, 2008; Piontkowski, Rohmann, & Florack, 2002). According to Bourhis et al. (2009), the two main questions facing receiving community members are whether they find it acceptable that immigrants maintain their cultural heritage and whether they accept that immigrants join the receiving society. If receiving society members answer affirmatively to both these questions, then their acculturation orientation is integration. If receiving society members do not want immigrants to join the receiving culture but they do want them to maintain their heritage culture, then their acculturation orientation is segregation. If receiving society members want immigrants to join the receiving culture and do not want immigrants to maintain their heritage culture, then their acculturation orientation is assimilation. If receiving community members do not want immigrants to join the receiving culture and they do not want them to maintain their heritage culture, then their acculturation orientation is either exclusion or individualism. The exclusionist orientation reflects the belief that immigration should be prevented. The individualism orientation reflects the belief that immigrants are individuals and should be treated on an individual basis, based on their personal characteristics (Bourhis et al., 2009).

Bourhis et al. (2009) suggest that the acculturation orientations of immigrant groups must be considered in conjunction with the acculturation orientations of receiving societies. When the acculturation orientation of an immigrant group matches the orientation of the receiving society, the groups are considered to be concordant. In contrast, when the acculturation orientation of an immigrant group does not match (or only partially matches) the orientation of the receiving society, the groups are considered to be discordant. Bourhis and colleagues (2009) suggest that discordant orientations result in problematic or conflictual relational outcomes including communication breakdowns, discriminatory behaviors, and acculturative stress among members of the immigrant group (see also Brown & Zagefka, 2011). Of interest, evidence suggests that it is not only the case that different receiving societies and the individuals within those societies have different views on immigrant acculturation, but also that members of receiving communities may endorse different acculturation orientations toward different immigrant groups within their community (e.g., valued vs. devalued immigrants; Bourhis et al., 2010; Montreuil & Bourhis, 2004).


It is clear that migration, in its many forms, is having a substantial impact on the global landscape. No longer are people trapped by the circumstances of where they were born. Instead, modern technology means that more people are migrating than ever before, both within and across national boundaries. Push and pull factors play a large role in this process, as does the personality of the migrant him- or herself. Transnationalism means that individuals may lead multisited lives, repeatedly pushed and pulled across borders. Whether members of receiving communities have welcoming or unwelcoming attitudes toward migrants, and the specific acculturation strategies supported by migrants and by members of receiving societies, determine whether migrants and their receiving communities reap the potential benefits that migration poses. Thus, empirical evidence on the factors that drive migration, those that determine the attitudes of receiving communities, and factors influencing the acculturation process is needed more than ever to guide the establishment of policies and practices that ensure that migration is managed and supported effectively for all involved.


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