The Political Resocialization of Immigrants: Resistance or Lifelong Learning?

By White, Stephen; Nevitte, Neil et al. | Political Research Quarterly, June 2008 | Go to article overview

The Political Resocialization of Immigrants: Resistance or Lifelong Learning?


White, Stephen, Nevitte, Neil, Blais, André, Gidengil, Elisabeth, Fournier, Patrick, Political Research Quarterly


Theories of political socialization contain competing expectations about immigrants' potential for political resocialization. Premigration beliefs and actions may be resistant to change, exposure to the new political system may facilitate adaptation, or immigrants may find ways to transfer beliefs and behaviors from one political system to another. This analysis empirically tests these three alternative theories of resocialization. The results indicate that both transfer and exposure matter; there is little evidence that premigration beliefs and actions are resistant to change. Moreover, how immigrants adapt depends on which orientation or behavior is being considered and on what kind of political environments migrants come from.

Keywords: political socialization; voting behavior; immigrants; Canada

Immigrants are a crucial source of population replacement in advanced industrial states, where birthrates have declined dramatically in the past half century. The demographic and consequent economic effects of immigration seem to be well understood. Flows of immigrants revitalize aging labor forces and offset swelling ranks of pensioners in advanced industrial countries. Understanding the dynamics of social and political adaptation seems to be more challenging because, perhaps, large segments of new immigrants come from countries with dramatically different political cultures.

How do citizens adjust their political beliefs and behaviors upon moving to new political environments? Do they engage in the politics in their new environments, or are they bystanders, withdrawn from political life? Research on the political resocialization of immigrants is optimistic about the prospects for immigrants' adaptation, arguing that immigrants' political orientations and behaviors are quite flexible. Prevailing theories of political socialization, by contrast, are more pessimistic. The conventional wisdom is that early political learning deeply conditions later political learning, and so the expectation is that citizens have difficulty adapting to radically different political environments.

This research uses data from one immigrant-rich country, Canada, to probe two sets of questions about the adaptation of immigrants to new political environments. First, how do immigrants adjust? To what extent do their prior experiences matter? Do immigrants learn from exposure to the new political system? Or do they simply resist new political orientations and behaviors? Second, to what extent are the patterns of immigrants' adjustment influenced by the kinds of political environments in which they were originally socialized?

Theory and Empirical Expectations

Two strands of resocialization theory, the theory of exposure and the theory of transferability, contain optimistic expectations about the adaptability of immigrants to new political environments. Both are rooted in research on native-born citizens: as Converse pointed out nearly forty years ago, "significant increments of political learning are visible over almost the whole course of adult participation in the electorate" (Converse 1969, 142).1 A substantial body of cross-national empirical evidence convincingly demonstrates that levels of political interest and participation (Milbrath and Goel 1977; Teixeira 1987; Rosenstone and Hansen 1993), as well as the intensity of such orientations as partisanship (Converse 1969, 1976), continue to increase and deepen throughout the life course.

The theory of exposure focuses on how much exposure immigrants have had to their new host country's political system: the more exposure they have, the more they adapt. The evidence is that voter turnout among Latino and other immigrant groups increases with years of residence in the United States (Arvizu and Garcia 1996; Ramakrishnan and Espenshade 2001). Exposure also seems to have a significant impact on partisan attitudes: the longer Latino immigrants have lived in the United States, the more likely they are to be strong Democratic partisans, while Republican partisanship increases with length of residence for Chinese, Korean, and Southeast Asian immigrants (Cain, Kiewiet, and Uhlaner 1991; Wong 2000). …

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