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Abstract

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The articles in this collection broadly address the social psychology of immigration and explore ways to improve relationships between natives and nonnatives in the United States. In this comment, we propose the Deliberative Poll as an additional tool for the study of opinion on immigration and for improving relationships among the groups.

The articles in this collection broadly address the social psychology of immigration and explore ways to improve relationships between natives and nonnatives in the United States. In this comment, we propose an additional tool for the study of opinion on immigration and for improving relationships among the groups, after which we return to a consideration of several of the papers in the collection.

Deliberative Polling® is a technique that attempts to measure public opinion with exposure to information and deliberation over policy issues (see, e.g., Fishkin, 1991, 1996, 2003; Luskin, Fishkin, & Jowell, 2002; Luskin & Fishkin, 2005; Merkle, 1996). Traditional public opinion research on immigration suffers because the public is largely uninformed on immigration policy and often misinformed about immigrants. Deliberative Polling has the potential to provide insight into specific research questions regarding tolerance, including the dynamics of economic threat and intergroup anxiety as participants are surveyed on these particular concerns.

For decades, debate has endured about the quality of opinion research, given the level of political knowledge of respondents participating in the surveys. Research indicates that survey respondents’ policy preferences and tolerance toward outgroups would change with greater information and exposure to debate regarding policy issues, as is provided in Deliberative Polling.

As Fishkin (2003) notes, there are two primary concerns about traditional public opinion research that are addressed by Deliberative Polling. First, researchers have found the population is largely uninformed about many policy and political issues of interest to those who study public opinion (Campbell, Converse, Miller, & Stokes, 1980; Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996; Fishkin, 1991; Neuman, 1986; Nie & Anderson, 1974) and are unsophisticated in their thinking about politics (Luskin, 1987; Neuman, 1986; Page & Shapiro, 1992; Popkin, 1994; Zaller, 1992). Althaus (1998) posits that low levels and uneven social distribution of political knowledge in the mass public often cause opinion surveys to misrepresent the mix of voices in a society and that measures of collective opinion would be different if all citizens were equally well informed (p. 545). Therefore, the Deliberative Poll presents a possible solution for survey researchers to determine the true preferences of the public if it were well informed on important questions of policy and politics.

“A Deliberative Poll … attempts to represent what the public would think about the issue if it were motivated to become more informed and to consider competing arguments” (Fishkin, 2003, p. 128). Deliberative Polls have been conducted in many different contexts and with several variations.1 Yet the underlying methods remain consistent—scientific surveys are conducted (randomly) to gauge baseline knowledge and opinion; survey respondents are then invited to a deliberation event. If they indicate interest in the event, they are sent briefing documents written by a committee and overseen by a committee of experts, with every effort made to balance opinions and ideologies in content and tone. Participants then gather in person for a specified time (some meetings are as short as 4 hours, and some are as long as several days [see Luskin & Fishkin, 2005]) to deliberate over the issues. Attendees are randomly assigned to small groups, each with a moderator so as to balance the opportunities for each to speak on the issues. Groups deliberate over the issues with the goal of developing a question to pose to a panel of experts—not to agree on a solution or goal or position. All groups then gather in one room and each poses a question to the panel of experts. The experts get equal amounts of time to answer each question. Following these sessions, respondents then retake the initial survey. Merkle (1996) explains, “A deliberative poll might more appropriately be thought of as a quasi-experiment that makes extensive use of contemporary survey research methods for the purpose of measuring public opinion” (p. 588).2

Deliberative Polling presents an alternative and a complementary method for improving relationships among groups. Studies employing the Deliberative Poll find increases in tolerance toward ethnic minorities following deliberation; according to Fishkin (2003) when provided with policy-specific information, respondents’ opinions change, often “dramatically” (see also Gilens, 2001, policy-specific information can change opinion in experimental setting). Studies finding increased tolerance include a 2007 Northern Ireland Deliberative Poll examining tolerance for Catholics and Protestants; a poll in Bulgaria concerning policies toward the Roma, or Gypsies; and an international poll conducted in Brussels among people from 27 countries who became more supportive of policies toward immigrants (Fishkin, 2009a). Fishkin (2009b) finds that deliberation makes participants more aware of alternative perspectives and needs of the community. The causal mechanism between deliberation and tolerance is an enlargement of a set of choices in perspectives and information to choose from in assessing community needs. “When people share their reasons in a dialogue about public problems, everyone is sensitized to broader public concerns. They come to understand the interests and values at stake from the perspective of other members of the community” (Fishkin, 2009b, p. 141). Moreover, greater information and understanding reduces anxiety that stems from the unknown, leading to greater tolerance (see generally Marcus, Sullivan, Theiss-Morse, & Stevens, 2005).

As an illustration of how the Deliberative Poll can lead to greater tolerance toward immigrants, a Deliberative Poll was conducted at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF) during spring 2008, modeled after Luskin and Fishkin (2005). It began with a telephone survey of 710 individuals. The poll respondents who completed interviews were invited to attend the deliberative event, which was held April 12, 2008, on campus; 41 individuals returned for the day of deliberation.3

Even with a lower-than-hoped-for turnout, analysis of the data from the Deliberative Poll at CSUF showed a statistically significant increase in tolerance toward immigrants. Participants were asked a series of questions about attitudes toward immigrants and preferences for immigration policy in the telephone survey and again after the event. While there were not significant changes for all of the questions, the change in responses to several of the questions illustrates the effect of the Deliberative Poll process. One question from the survey was “Which of the following comes closer to your own views? (1) Immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents; or (2) Immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing, and health care?” After deliberation, participants were significantly more likely to say that immigrants strengthen our country. The changes were not just in attitudes, though. Participants also showed changes in preferences for immigration policy, favoring less restrictionist immigration policy after the deliberative event. For instance, one question asked, “Should police check immigration status as part of routine procedures?” Participants were significantly more likely to oppose such a policy after deliberation.

The Deliberative Poll thus offers another opportunity for understanding Americans’ tolerance for immigration and public opinion generally toward immigration, fitting with both the economic and sociological explanations that have already contributed to the field, some of which are documented in the present collection. In his article “Improving Relations Between Residents and Immigrants,” Walter Stephan (2011) recommends policies to mitigate negative feelings toward immigration. He asserts that perceived threats to the ingroup, which include both cultural and economic dimensions, are the result of distortions and failure to accurately process information that competes with existing beliefs. The media may play a role in this: Fryberg et al. (2011) found that newspaper coverage of Arizona's SB1070 (requiring local law enforcement to determine immigration status during any lawful stop, detention, or arrest) framed support for the law largely in terms of threats to the ingroup. Arizona papers primarily used threats to welfare, whereas national papers also included threats to economics and the public, as well as the inadequacy of federal law. Ideology also plays a role, with conservative papers also more likely to frame support in terms of threats.

Fryberg et al. (2011) acknowledge the media's role in shaping attitudes toward immigrants by way of framing techniques. As the media frame the issue of immigration in a particular way, the media become another potential solution for creating more positive attitudes toward immigration. In addition, Stephan (2011) makes several suggestions for reshaping the debate. At the societal level, he suggests working within institutions, particularly government institutions and civic groups to change their practices, which should begin top down with vigorous admonitions against violence and discrimination toward immigrants and immigration. At the individual level, he suggests increasing multicultural education and opportunities for contact among the groups.

Research on public opinion and immigration finds that a common thread among respondents is a perceived threat to economic well-being (Diaz, Saenz, & Kwan, 2011; Mukherjee, Molina, & Adams, 2011). The Deliberative Poll could help researchers develop a better understanding of participants’ perceived threat to economic well-being as well as the perceived cultural threat as they are asked specific questions about these very issues. Deliberative Polling can also offer researchers and community activists alike an opportunity to mitigate negative feelings toward immigration, as Stephan (2011) advocates; furthermore, the results from these surveys can help more generally with the study of opinion on immigration.

Considering the CSUF Deliberative Poll, students represent our future voters and advocates. Understanding their preferences now will help guide policy into the future. Learning how these students might differ from the opinion of the larger population gives researchers an idea of the future direction of policy, as this demographic group becomes a more important player in the political realm.

There is a need for further research into the processes in play during the Deliberative Poll. It is likely that both the additional information and the opportunity for discussion with others in the community lead to the significant changes in the opinions of participants. Greater awareness of how each of these components works to alter preferences will give public opinion researchers a better idea of the potential uses of the Deliberative Poll. With these additional insights, the method of Deliberative Polling will continue to provide a deeper understanding of public opinion and serve as a method for promoting a new framework for public debate on these important issues of immigration reform and on other matters of public policy.

  1. 1

    Nationwide Deliberative Polls have been conducted in a variety of locations including: Great Britain: 1994 exploring crime policy and in 1996 exploring European Union membership (Fishkin, 1994, 1996); Denmark: exploring EU currency (Hansen & Andersen 2004, 2007); Australia: exploring the adoption of a Bill of Rights (Luskin, Fishkin, & Jowell, 2002; Eggins, Reynolds, Oakes, & Mavor, 2007); United States: National issues convention (Fishkin, 1991).

  2. 2

    For a comprehensive discussion of Deliberative Polling®, its methods, and history, see Merkle, 1996.

  3. 3

    Additional detail concerning sample representativeness, methods, and results are available from the authors.

References

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Biographies

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  • PAMELA FIBER-OSTROW is an associate professor of American Politics and Law at California State University, Fullerton. She received her Ph.D. from Claremont Graduate University. Her research interests include the study of gender and politics, immigration, and political behavior.

  • SARAH A. HILL is an assistant professor of Political Science at California State University, Fullerton. She received her Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology. Her research interests include public policy as well as state and local government and, in particular, education finance reform.