Immigrant Political Representation and the Social Geography of Migration

This short think piece seizes on the concepts of “mobilization,” “justice,” and “democracy” in relation to the political representation of immigrant‐origin minorities in cities. Social scientists have been studying variation in the representation of minorities in city councils, with particular emphasis on African Americans in US cities. Much less is known about what explains when, where, and how immigrants get elected, both in the US and in Europe. Further, almost entirely absent is research that examines the type of immigrant‐origin candidates that enters city halls: Are immigrant‐origin politicians likely to represent the interests of the most disadvantaged sections of their communities? I suggest that understanding how the electoral landscape coincides with the social geography of migration in cities helps us answer this question.

The Political Representation of Immigrant Groups

In most advanced democracies immigrants are severely underrepresented in national and local parliaments.1 This underrepresentation occurs even in contexts where immigrants have a long-standing presence and where immigrant-origin communities are sizable. That substantial parts of the population confront significant hurdles when seeking to enter city halls and national parliaments is highly problematic for both normative and pragmatic reasons. Consistent underrepresentation hurts the legitimacy of the political system; impedes representative policy-making; suppresses minority voices; and sends a message that immigrants are not welcomed by the majority society and its elected leaders (e.g, Bloemraad 2013, Chauchard 2013, Gutmann and Thompson 2004, Karpowitz et al. 2012, Mansbridge 1999, Phillips 1995).

To explain the election of immigrant‐origin and ethnic minority candidates, existing research typically distinguishes between resource‐based and context‐based explanations. Scholars stressing the importance of resources point to differences in groups’ income and education levels or to the density of their ethnic networks as critical variables in explaining variation in electoral participation. Others draw attention to the broader political context, which can consist of party systems, electoral rules, or city‐level factors.2 Lastly, when thinking about why immigrants fare less well than natives in gaining access to elected office one has to consider the possibility of discrimination. Even if immigrants possess similar individual‐level resources and confront the same electoral context, party elites and voters may harbor reservations when evaluating immigrant candidates that are absent when it comes to the recruitment and election of natives (Brouard and Tiberj 2011, Norris and Lovenduski 1995, Terkildsen 1993).

Types of Representation

While political scientists are beginning to study variation in immigrant representation, there is, to my knowledge, very little attention paid to the types of immigrant representatives who are ultimately elected.3 Scholars have envisioned a number of institutional mechanisms whereby the political representation of minorities can be raised, but they have not proposed criteria by which minority candidates should be evaluated.4 This gap in our knowledge is especially striking given that problems of integration, particularly with respect to immigrants in Europe, are often attributed to failures in leadership. For instance, complaints of out‐of‐touch “community leaders” impeding
the representation of group interests are widespread among European Muslims.

Immigrant communities are internally heterogeneous: age, gender, economic status, religious background, and national origin are just some of the dividing lines that cross‐cut and intersect. From the perspective of justice and democracy, one important question is whether immigrant candidates are likely to represent the most vulnerable sections of immigrant communities. Here, I propose that electoral incentives may interact with the social geography of migration in cities to lead to election outcomes that underrepresent the interests of the most disadvantaged members of these communities.

To illustrate this point, I focus on Muslim women in European cities. This group faces disproportionately high levels of poverty and labor market exclusion. Compared to the majority population, survey evidence also demonstrates that Muslim women enjoy less equal gender relations within their homes. Further, the role and treatment of women in Muslim communities has been one of the most frequently discussed issues when it comes to contemporary immigration, and attacks against the continued inflow of migrants are increasingly linked to concerns about gender equality (Dustin and Phillips 2008; Langvasbråten 2008; Siim and Skjeie 2008). While dramatic events such as honor killings and illiberal practices such as forced marriage have grabbed the headlines, everyday developments that are less often covered – including patriarchal views about gender roles or Muslim women’s low labor market participation – tend to set Muslims apart from the larger society. One unanswered question is whether the electoral process, and specifically descriptive representation of Muslims, helps or harms the position of women and, by implication, the integration of Muslim immigrants more generally.

The Social Geography of Migration

Whether and how descriptive representation happens depends in part on the characteristics of the immigrant‐origin, minority electorate. Here we have to study aggregate preferences of groups as well as their distribution. Two groups may, in the aggregate, feel equally strong about prioritizing certain policy goals. However, the preferences of their members may be distributed differently in space.

It is often the case, for example, that minority enclaves are dominated by individuals with relatively traditional, patriarchal outlooks. If representatives emerge from these enclaves, they may hope to promote policies that help protect their traditions – or at least fail to support policies that would disrupt existing societal structures within the enclave. This may, in turn, be harmful to some group members. The individuals who leave these enclaves or who settle elsewhere to begin with may do so precisely because they do not share the same traditional values and want to escape the culture of the enclave. However, if the electoral system rewards group‐based, ethnic mobilization – a feature that tends to vary across systems – such individuals are less likely to make their way into politics.

The cultural constraints presented by enclaves – as opposed to of ethnicity or religion per se – are nicely illustrated by a contrast of Bangladeshi female garment workers in Dhaka (Bangladesh) on the one hand and the East End of London on the other. While, in the 1990s, these women worked in factories alongside men in Dhaka, in London norms of purdah (i.e., seclusion of women from men) prevented many Bangladeshi women from entering the formal labor market and instead compelled them to do piecework within the confines of their homes. Along this metric, Dhaka appears more progressive than does London. In both cases, women were migrants moving to cities. Within Bangladesh, women left behind their patriarchal families and the conservative village communities, pursuing gainful employment and independence. In Britain, by contrast, entire kinship groups were transplanted from Bangladesh to East London, bringing with them religious piety and patriarchy (Kabeer 2000).

Dancygier Chart 1

This type of kin‐based migration is quite common across Europe, especially among Muslim migrants. It has contributed to the formation of enclaves, typically located in cities, whose members are significantly more traditional than Muslims as a whole and also than the majority population. The above figure illustrates this phenomenon by comparing views about gender roles across Muslims and non‐Muslims, living in cities and living outside of cities in Britain, from 1991 to 2009.5 It shows that Muslims living in British cities are more conservative than Muslims living outside of cities, while the opposite pattern holds for non‐Muslims. Among Muslim city‐dwellers, only 25% disagree with the statement that a husband’s job is to earn money whereas a wife’s job is to look after the home and family. Outside of cities this share is ten points higher. Moreover, this trend does not change over time; if anything the conservative urban bias becomes stronger in later years. In other research I have found similar patterns for Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. In other words, in areas where minority political inclusion is most likely to occur, conservative norms predominate among the minority population and the value clash with the majority population is sharpest.

Concluding Questions

How liberal democracies include groups that are internally illiberal is a question that has preoccupied political theorists for quite some time.6 The contemporary social geography of migration in (European) cities should prompt researchers to answer this question empirically and to go beyond it.

To do so, research needs to pay closer attention to:

1. Whether or not the electoral system rewards ethnically‐based mobilization
2. Whether ethnically‐based mobilization is more likely to empower candidates that neglect (willfully or by omission) the interests of the group’s most disadvantaged members
3. Whether and how descriptive representation affects social and economic processes of the group. For example, is the election of conservative male leaders harmful to women’s socio‐ economic advancement, or do urban economic realities trump the effects of electoral politics? Put differently, do descriptive representatives matter?


Bird, Karen, Thomas Saalfeld, and Andreas Wüst, eds. 2011. The Political Representation of Immigrants and Minorities: Voters, Parties and Parliaments in Liberal Democracies. New York: Routledge.

Bloemraad, Irene. 2013. Accessing the Corridors of Power: Puzzles and Pathways to Understanding Minority Representation. West European Politics 36 (3): 652‐670.

Bloemraad, Irene, and Karen Schönwälder. 2013. Immigrant and Ethnic Minority Representation in Europe: Conceptual Challenges and Theoretical Approaches West European Politics 36 (3): 564‐579.

Brouard, Sylvain and Vincent Tiberj. 2011. Yes They Can: An Experimental Approach to the Eligibility of Ethnic Minority Candidates in France. In The Political Representation of Immigrants and Minorities: Voters, Parties, and Parliaments in Liberal Democracies, eds. Karen Bird, Thomas Saalfeld and Andreas Wüst. New York: Routledge. 164-80.

Chauchard, Simon. 2012. Do Electoral Quotas Affect Beliefs About Disadvantaged Groups? Unpublished manuscript, Dartmouth College.

Dancygier, Rafaela. 2013a. The Left and Minority Representation: The Labour Party, Muslim Candidates, and Inclusion Tradeoffs. Comparative Politics 46 (1): 1‐21.

Dancygier, Rafaela. 2013b. Culture, Context, and the Political Incorporation of Immigrant‐Origin Groups in Europe. In Outsiders No More? Models of Immigrant Political Incorporation, eds. Jennifer Hochschild, Jacqueline Chattopadhyay, Claudine Gay and Michael Jones‐Correa. New York: Oxford University Press. 119‐136.

Dovi, Suzanne. 2002. Preferable Descriptive Representatives: Will Just Any Woman, Black, or Latino Do? American Political Science Review 96 (4): 729‐743.

Dustin, Moira, and Anne Phillips. 2008. Whose Agenda Is It? Abuses of Women and Abuses of 'Culture' in Britain. Ethnicities 8 (3): 405‐424.

  1. See Bloemraad (2013) for a calculation of representation indices.
  2. For recent overviews of these literatures, see, e.g., Bird et al. (2011), Bloemraad and Schönwälder (2013), Hochschild and Mollenkopf (2009), and Hochschild et al. (2013). Additionally, scholars have investigated how resources and context interact; see Bird et al. (2011) and Dancygier (2013a and 2013b).
  3. For a welcome exception, see Klausen (2005) who surveys Muslim parliamentarians and other elites in several European countries.
  4. On this point, see Dovi, who argues that some representatives are preferable than others; according to her, “Preferable descriptive representatives possess strong mutual relationships with dispossessed subgroups of historically disadvantaged groups” (2002, 730).
  5. I define cities in terms of population density. Local authorities above/below the mean density level are/are not considered cities.
  6. See Shachar (2001) and Song (2007) for discussions.
About the Author
Rafaela Dancygier is an assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.