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Bridging the GapsLinking Research to Public Debates and Policy Making on Migration and Integration$

Martin Ruhs, Kristof Tamas, and Joakim Palme

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780198834557

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2019

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198834557.001.0001

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Research, ‘Experts’, and the Politics of Migration

Research, ‘Experts’, and the Politics of Migration

(p.21) 2 Research, ‘Experts’, and the Politics of Migration
Bridging the Gaps

Christina Boswell

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the role of research in immigration politics and policy-making. It starts by distinguishing between three different functions of research: as instrumental to adjusting policy interventions, as a means of substantiating preferences, and to legitimize decision-makers. It then explores the conditions influencing which of these functions prevails, notably (a) the level of contestation and political salience over the issue; (b) the ‘mode of settlement’ (democratic or technocratic) that is seen as appropriate in political deliberation; and (c) the mode through which policy-makers derive legitimacy (whether through symbolic gestures or outcomes). The chapter argues that these three factors help explain cross-national variations in patterns of knowledge utilization on immigration policy, as well as fluctuation over time and across sub-areas of immigration policy. The chapter goes on to explore how this account can help make sense of the current scepticism about expertise in debates on immigration.

Keywords:   immigration policy, politics of immigration, expertise, research, knowledge utilization, populism, political disaffection, symbolic politics


It has frequently been observed that immigration politics and policy-making are far from ‘evidence-based’ (Florence et al. 2005; Boswell 2009a; Caponio et al. 2010; Jørgensen 2011; Scholten et al. 2016). In many areas of policy—ranging from asylum and refugee policy, through to immigration control and enforcement, and immigrant integration—policies often appear to be based on somewhat simplistic, or even populist, assumptions about migration dynamics. Public political debates on immigration tend to be even less informed by expert knowledge or research, with an apparently widening gap between evidence about the dynamics and impacts of immigration, and media and political claims (Boswell 2009b; Balch and Balabanova 2011; Boswell et al. 2011; Caponio et al. 2014). Thus, while there has been huge growth in the field of migration studies since the turn of the millennium, public political debate and policies appear to be largely reactive and short-termist, often running counter to broader economic and social goals.

A classic explanation for this lack of take-up of research locates the problem in the dynamics of politics. Politicians do not base their claims on ‘evidence’ about the effects of immigration, as this is not a vote winner. Immigration is a famously emotive issue and, as we have seen recently with the surge in support for populist movements in many democracies, the most compelling narratives are not based on technocratic arguments about economic costs, skills shortages, or demographic trends. Instead, they are informed by more visceral concerns about identity, belonging, fairness, and entitlement (Sides and Citrin 2007; Brader et al. 2008).

(p.22) However, this dismissal of the relevance of research is made too quickly. For a start, research and expertise are often invoked in public debates about immigration, and most ministries dealing with immigration have their own research unit or department. Governments and international organizations have spent substantial sums of money commissioning research on immigration, and constantly reaffirm the necessity of filling information gaps about the causes, dynamics, and effects of migration (Boswell 2009a). Moreover, the politicization of migration is not necessarily correlated with a decline in interest in research. Indeed, research is often mobilized as part of political contestation; and research findings themselves can become the object of controversy (Boswell 2009b; Caponio et al. 2014; Scholten et al. 2016). Thus, expertise and research are far from irrelevant to immigration policy-making and political debate; the relationship between expert knowledge and policy in this field is considerably more complex.

In my research on the political uses of knowledge, I have shown how research is highly valued by politicians and public officials involved in policy-making. It is far from irrelevant to the politics of migration.1 However, we need to be more clear-sighted about how we understand its relevance. Research is not valued exclusively—or even predominantly—for its role in ‘problem-solving’. It is not simply invoked to make adjustments to policy with the aim of achieving particular outcomes, as most accounts would hold. Indeed, this ‘instrumentalist’ or ‘problem-solving’ account offers an overly simplistic view of the value of expert knowledge. I have shown, instead, how research can have an important symbolic function.

In my work on the use of research in immigration policy (Boswell 2009a), I distinguish between two such symbolic functions. First, expert knowledge may be seen as a resource for lending credibility to particular preferences or claims—what I term the ‘substantiating’ function of knowledge. Politicians and officials may be keen to invoke particular research findings to bolster their arguments—a form of research as ‘ammunition’ (Weiss 1979). They may do so through commissioning research from their own research department or from an external source, through drawing on existing independent research, or through setting up an expert committee or commission to produce research.

Second, expert knowledge may be valued due to its providing a source of legitimacy to the organizations taking decisions—what I call the ‘legitimizing’ function of knowledge. In this second case, knowledge provides a signal that the actor in question—whether an individual, a committee, or an organization—is competent to make well-founded decisions, as they possess epistemic authority (Herbst 2003). Policy actors may signal this authority through hosting their own research unit, or establishing mechanisms to draw on external expertise—for example, in the form of a research network, expert group, or scientific advisor. What matters in this case is not so much the (p.23) ability to invoke particular findings but, rather, the fact that policy-makers are in a position to mobilize and deploy authoritative research, implying that their decisions are sound.

When we seek to understand the role of research in immigration politics and policy-making, we need to bear this three-way distinction in mind: is research valued for its instrumental, substantiating, or legitimizing function? Each of the three different uses of knowledge is associated with somewhat different conditions. In the discussion that follows, I shall explore three sets of conditions that influence the extent to which research is used and for what purpose. These three conditions are:

  • the level of contestation and political salience over the issue;

  • the ‘mode of settlement’ (democratic or technocratic) that is seen as appropriate in political deliberation; and

  • the mode through which policy-makers derive legitimacy (whether through symbolic gestures, or through outcomes).

I suggest that these factors help explain cross-national variations in patterns of knowledge utilization on immigration policy, as well as fluctuation over time and across sub-areas of immigration policy. The chapter goes on to explore how this account can help make sense of the current scepticism about expertise in debates on immigration.

Understanding the Political Uses of Expert Knowledge

Expert Knowledge and Political Contestation

A number of studies on the use of research in immigration policy have shown how political salience and political contestation can influence the extent and nature of knowledge utilization (Scholten et al. 2016). Here, political salience refers to the level of attention devoted to the issue in political debate (as measured by, for example, mass media coverage and political claims-making), as well as the importance of the issue for voters. Political contestation implies the existence of conflict over the nature of policy problems, or how best to address them through state interventions. Where both conditions are present—where an issue is seen as important to the public and is the object of competing policy claims—then we would expect political actors to be keen to mobilize resources to bolster their rival claims.

Expert knowledge is frequently one of the resources invoked by those engaged in political debate. Protagonists may be keen to deploy research findings and expert knowledge to bolster their claims. Such expert knowledge often takes the form of quantitative data, such as statistics on levels of (p.24) immigration, estimates of the economic impact of migration, or projections of future migration flows. Quantitative data are often favoured due to their presumed authority: they convey objectivity, precision, and rigour, and such data are compact and portable across contexts (Espeland and Stevens 2008).

Such research utilization can be characterized as ‘substantiating’ research. Research findings or statistics are selectively deployed to underpin claims or preferences that are contested. Thus, political salience and a high level of contestation are likely to generate a strong demand for substantiating knowledge, providing political actors with resources to support their pre-given preferences.

This form of substantiating research use can also be identified in more technocratic policy-making settings. Civil servants may draw on research findings to reinforce the case for pursuing a particular policy, or adopting a preferred programme. Again, this is more likely to be the case where the issue is seen as politically significant, but where the preferred course of action is contested. Knowledge may be deployed in this way in wrangles between departments or ministries, or in attempts to justify particular approaches or spending decisions to the core executive.

Modes of Settlement

There is a second important condition that influences modes of knowledge utilization in political debate and policy-making: the ‘mode of settlement’ that is seen as appropriate for adjudicating between claims. By this, I mean the sorts of claim that are considered legitimate or authoritative in weighing up the desirability of different policy options. We can distinguish between two main modes of settlement. The first comprises what can be termed ‘democratic’ modes of settlement: a procedure through which contestation is legitimately resolved by deferring to the interests or preferences of voters. In this case, we could expect the views of each participant to count equally—each voter or participant in the debate is equally qualified to give their (non-expert) assessment, based on their interests or values. Such contestation is often associated with more normative debates about justice, shared values, and identity. Many areas of immigration policy meet this description: debates over multiculturalism and diversity, citizenship, or distributive aspects of asylum policy are often seen as legitimately resolved with reference to popular notions of fairness, or by invoking the national ‘interest’.

The second procedure for assessing rival claims is what can be termed a ‘technocratic’ mode of settlement. According to this mode, expert claims have particular authority in settling contestation. This may be because the nature of the policy problems requiring resolution are viewed as highly complex and technical: decision-making is thus dependent on expert methodologies or (p.25) empirical knowledge, so that the impacts of different interventions may be gauged. Indeed, as sociologists studying risk have argued, expert knowledge is more likely to be invoked in political contestation where the future implications of decisions taken now are difficult to predict. In such contexts, experts and their claims have greater weight than those of ‘lay’ or non-expert participants. Such modes of settlement are also associated with ‘post-ideological’ debates (Fischer 1990), in which the fundamental orientation of policy has already been agreed (for example, the importance of reducing unemployment or improving health care); what remains contested is the most appropriate means of achieving these goals.

In the field of immigration policy, technocratic modes of settlement are most typically associated with debates on labour migration. Here, economic and demographic analyses are often seen as having particular authority in political debate and policy-making (see also Chapter 10 in this volume). This is in contrast to more value- or interest-based issues, such as integration and diversity, which may be more appropriately resolved through democratic modes of settlement. It should be noted that the technical complexity of an issue does not determine its mode of settlement. Issues that are extremely complex may be settled through value- or interest-based debates (the UK’s debate on leaving the EU being a prime example of this). The mode of settlement reflects dominant views about the legitimate basis for settling political conflict, rather than an ‘objective’ assessment of what types of considerations are most valid in settling the matter. Thus, for example, although the issue of managing asylum is immensely complex, in many national debates it has been discussed in terms of values and interests, with little consideration of specialized or technical knowledge about how best to reduce asylum flows.

Political debate will rarely—or, perhaps, never—be resolved exclusively by technocratic modes of settlement. Different value judgements and interests will invariably have a role in shaping preferences. Indeed, recourse to expert knowledge and statistics as a mode of settlement is often largely ritualistic. Politicians have already fixed on their preferred course of action and are deploying expert research to bolster their claims; also, their political rivals may feel equally compelled to draw on research to substantiate their counterclaims. Where this happens, expert knowledge may become discredited. Once it is clear that protagonists are selectively marshalling data to support political claims, evidence may lose its scientific authority, effectively becoming contaminated or ‘politicized’ (Weingart 1999) (see also Chapter 9 in this volume).

However, even if such technocratic modes of settlement are ritualistic, they still imply that expert knowledge is seen as a relevant resource in political debate. This is in contrast to democratic modes of settlement, in which expert knowledge may be seen as irrelevant, out of touch or even elitist: this will be (p.26) discussed more fully later on in this chapter. Thus, while political salience and political contestation imply that participants in policy debates will be seeking resources to strengthen their claims, it is not necessarily the case that expert knowledge will be seen as an appropriate resource to marshal. This will depend on the second condition: which mode of contestation is seen as appropriate for weighing up rival claims. This, in turn, may vary over time, across policy fields and across different countries.

Modes of Legitimation

Thus far, we have concentrated on how expert knowledge may be drawn on in political debate. But our third condition is more relevant to knowledge utilization in public administration: the ministries and agencies involved in elaborating and implementing immigration policy. Following literature on organizational institutionalism, I understand organizations in the public administration as preoccupied with securing legitimacy from their environments (March and Olsen 1983; DiMaggio and Powell 1991). They are keen to meet expectations about appropriate behaviour through ensuring their rhetoric and actions meet the approval of key actors on whom they are dependent for support. However, as Scott and Meyer (1991) have argued, organizations may go about seeking legitimacy in two distinct ways, depending on the type of ‘sector’ in which they operate.

First, where organizational outputs have tangible effects on the objects of their intervention—in other words, where policy interventions are monitored on an ongoing basis—then organizations will need to adjust their interventions to ensure they achieve the right outcomes. Thus, they will need to draw on resources to ensure the policies they adopt have the desired effects, in order to meet the expectations of voters or stakeholders. Their mode of legitimation is based on tangible outputs or outcomes. Examples of such areas may include numbers of asylum seekers or net migration figures, which are measured through reliable bureaucratic data on a regular basis. Voters are likely to reward incumbents based on how far they are able to influence these measured outcomes.

Yet, in many areas of policy the effects of organizational interventions are diffuse, difficult to measure and may not be easily attributable to particular policies. There may be limited information about social problems or dynamics, or the effects of policy interventions may only be felt in the longer-run, or be difficult to attribute (Boswell 2012). In this second type of case, organizations cannot derive legitimacy through their outputs. Instead, they fall back on rhetoric and symbolic actions to derive support (Scott and Meyer 1991; Brunsson 2002). This is what can be termed a ‘symbolic’ mode of legitimation. (p.27) Typical areas where this is likely to be the case include policies on immigrant integration and diversity, or on irregular migration. Policy is often symbolic in the sense of comprising cosmetic adjustments. Such gestures substitute for adjustments that achieve substantive change, given the difficulties in monitoring the effects of such interventions (Slaven and Boswell 2018).

These two different modes of legitimation are also linked to distinct patterns of knowledge utilization. As shown in previous work (Boswell 2009a), where policy outcomes are observable and attributable, policy-makers are more likely to draw on expert knowledge to adjust policy outputs. Thus, they are likely to use knowledge instrumentally, to adjust their policy interventions. By contrast, where they derive legitimacy through symbolic adjustments, they are more likely to use knowledge symbolically. Indeed, they may well deploy expertise to signal that their department or government is taking sound and well-grounded decisions—in other words, we are likely to see expert knowledge being used as a source of legitimation.

As discussed in the previous section, we should note that expert knowledge or research is not always deemed an appropriate resource for adjusting policy, or for signalling commitment to certain goals. Such resources are likely to be most relevant where the policy area is associated with a technocratic mode of settlement. And, indeed, even in bureaucratic decision-making, not all forms of expertise will be valued as authoritative. My research on the Home Office suggested that officials working in the operational wing of the Home Office often felt their practical understanding of immigration and asylum dynamics was more reliable than research studies based on small samples or more abstract theoretical presuppositions (Boswell 2009a). So, again, the mode of settlement will shape what sorts of knowledge are considered pertinent, and these may vary across issues or countries, even in more specialized decision-making venues.

Bringing these three points together, we can summarize the conditions shaping different forms of knowledge utilization.

  • In public debates and policy-making, expert knowledge is most likely to be used as a resource where the issue is salient and contested.

  • The degree to which expertise and evidence is seen as relevant to such debates also depends on the mode of settlement: how far expertise and research is seen as an appropriate resource for evaluating competing options.

  • Knowledge utilization also depends on how policy-makers derive legitimacy. Where support is contingent on observable outputs, expert knowledge is likely to be deployed to inform policy interventions. Where support is derived from rhetoric or cosmetic adjustments, it is more likely to be marshalled to signal authority and commitment.

(p.28) Immigration, Expert Knowledge, and Populism

I initially developed this theoretical approach in the 2000s, in an era when many industrialized immigration countries were keen to marshal research about the economic benefits of immigration, especially with regard to highly-skilled workers. Debates on labour migration in particular were characterized by a technocratic mode of settlement, with economic and demographic research exerting influence in framing debates and justifying policies to recruit labour migrants. Debates on immigration in many European countries and the United States appear to have shifted since then, as illustrated most strikingly by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the UK campaign on the EU referendum and the ensuing ‘Brexit’ vote; the campaign and election of Donald Trump in the United States; and rising support for populist anti-immigration parties in a number of European countries, including Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Sweden.

One common feature of the claims-making strategies of populist anti-immigration movements is their eschewal of expertise. Populist movements mobilize support through claiming to articulate the interests of ‘the people’ as opposed to established institutions and elites (Taggart 1996; Canovan 1999; Mudde 2004). Frequently, their claims are targeted at a discredited ruling elite and its values: not only those seen as part of the political and economic establishment, but also the media, academics, and other experts (Canovan 1999). While populism does not necessarily imply the rejection of technocratic measures (Mudde 2004: 547), populist styles of mobilization tend to reject complex, technical arguments in favour of simple claims and spontaneous action. Unlike other ideological movements that may sideline evidence that runs counter to their claims, for populist movements, the rejection of expertise is a core part of their political identity and strategy of mobilization.

This has interesting implications for the conditions set out earlier in this chapter. On the one hand, populist parties are keen to put immigration issues at the centre of their political claims-making strategies. They tend to achieve electoral success in contexts where immigration issues are salient, and they advance policy proposals that are often highly contested by other political parties. Through their rhetoric, populist parties may also play an important role in expanding and consolidating anti-immigrant sentiment, thus increasing the salience of such issues in political debate. Thus, populist anti-immigration movements are clearly associated with the politicization of immigration issues, implying that rival political parties will be keen to marshal resources to bolster their claims about immigration.

However, populist narratives do not derive credibility from being backed up by expert knowledge; indeed, such narratives are often premised on a rejection of the methods and claims of experts. This implies that populist claims are not (p.29) typically backed up with ‘evidence’ or specialized experience. Part of their appeal may derive precisely from their defiance of such expertise. As Michael Freeden puts it, populist claims are characterized by their simplicity and urgency, and should not be ‘adulterated by reflection and deliberation’ (2017: 6). Part of this is what Clarke and Newman describe as a different ‘sense of time’, evident in populist campaigns. While the knowledge claims underpinning conventional mainstream politics rely on expert analysis and economic forecasts, acknowledge complexity and some degree of uncertainty about the future, and factor in temporal delays to implementation, populist claims effectively efface time. They promise immediate fulfilment—a capacity to dispense with planning and negotiation, to achieve instantaneous results. And the knowledge they appeal to is often experiential, harking back to a ‘celebrated and imaginary past’ (Clarke and Newman 2017: 12).

This could imply that populist parties are shifting debate away from technocratic modes of settlement. They are the defenders par excellence of supposedly ‘democratic’ modes of settlement. They want to let ‘the people’ decide. Yet, moderate parties do not necessarily embrace this purely democratic mode of settlement. They may continue to evoke more technocratic or expert sources to substantiate their claims. In this sense, the ‘mode of settlement’ may not be settled: there may be a co-existence of rival understandings of what constitute relevant modes of evaluating competing claims. In other words, there may be a divide between protagonists who continue to invoke expertise as relevant to deliberation on immigration policy issues, and those who see it as irrelevant. This type of fracture appears increasingly evident in public political debates across liberal democratic countries experiencing a rise in populist parties. It implies that political contestation goes beyond substantive claims about appropriate policies, to more radical disagreement about what constitutes legitimate and appropriate modes of settling political debate.

This is not just a challenge for public political deliberation. It also creates a number of challenges for policy-making. As I argued earlier, incumbents are likely to use research to adjust outputs where they anticipate their performance will be appraised and rewarded by voters. Yet, one of the features of populist claims-making is that it is not constrained by evidence or expert knowledge about the causes and dynamics of social problems, or about the sorts of interventions that may be effective in steering them. Thus, the populist rejection of expertise creates an awkward gap between the types of claim grounding pledges, and prevalent modes of knowledge use within the administration. Populist politics invokes varying causal stories about policy problems and responses, drawing on quite distinct sources of knowledge (such as anecdote, public myths, or dystopian scenario-mapping). The gap is likely to be especially pronounced where populist movements offer up specific pledges, or commit themselves to precise outcomes which can (p.30) be measured. Incumbents seeking to mobilize support through signalling commitment to populist goals will face substantial challenges when it comes to implementing them.

This clearly creates political risks for populist parties that achieve political power. In many ways, such movements will be more comfortable in opposition than as incumbents. Once in power, they risk being exposed as unable to deliver their simplistic and overly ambitious pledges. This creates what I have termed a ‘populist gap’—a discrepancy between what opposition parties may claim, and what they can feasibly achieve once in government (Boswell 2003). Indeed, this is a well-rehearsed issue in political science studies of immigration. How populist-oriented governments manage this risk depends in part on how far they can sustain their narratives about policy problems and their government’s performance to address these, in the face of contradictory evidence. Where the impacts of interventions are diffuse and difficult to measure and attribute, populist governments may evade exposure—and this may well be the case in areas such as immigration control and immigrant integration, where there is a lack of reliable data on government performance. But where their performance is subject to observation and measurement, then they may be exposed as unable to achieve their goals—as may be the case with, for example, reducing asylum or immigration inflows. In such areas, voters are likely to be disillusioned at the failure of governments to deliver. Thus, the unfeasibility—and potentially damaging effects of—populist immigration policy may be more evident in some policy areas than others, depending on how easy it is to measure policy impacts.

The gap between populist narratives and more expert and technocratic narratives also creates serious tensions in the relations between political leaders and their public administrations. Bureaucratic modes of reasoning are firmly grounded in technocratic modes of settlement, which employ a well-established repertoire of rationales, methods, and modes of appraisal. The implication is that the internal modes of constructing and responding to problems within bureaucracies will be starkly out of kilter with the narratives emanating from populist politics (Boswell and Rodrigues 2016). Where this happens, populist policy goals may simply not be translatable into meaningful courses of action for the bureaucracy.


This chapter has explored the conditions under which expert knowledge is deployed in political debate and policy-making. It started by distinguishing between the different ways in which research and expertise can be used: instrumental, substantiating, and legitimizing. It then set out three conditions (p.31) influencing the extent and function of expert knowledge utilization in political debate and policy-making: political salience and contestation, mode of settlement, and mode of legitimation. In the second part of the chapter, I explored what this theoretical approach could tell us about the current rise in populist movements across liberal democratic countries. I suggested that while populist movements are associated with the greater salience of, and contestation over, immigration issues, they also eschew technocratic modes of settlement. Yet, rather than shift debates to wholly democratic modes of settlement, political contestation in such settings may well be characterized by second-order contestation: conflict over what types of claim constitute legitimate grounds for assessing policy options. Thus, current debates on immigration involve not only contestation about the nature of immigration dynamics and impacts and appropriate policies to address these, they also involve contestation about what sorts of knowledge or other claims are appropriate resources for settling such debates. This partly explains widespread observations about how fractious and divided polities appear to be in such settings.

Finally, I explored what the rise of populist, anti-expertise political movements implied for modes of legitimation. The eschewal of research and expert knowledge by populist movements exposes them to a number of risks once in government. It implies that their policy interventions are likely to be based on popular and often simplistic narratives about social problems, and appropriate modes of steering them. Given this, populist governments are likely to try to sustain legitimacy through rhetoric and symbolic interventions. But where the effects of their policies can be monitored and attributed, voters are likely to be disappointed in their failure to deliver. At the same time, the pronounced gap between such populist narratives, and the more technical forms of deliberation and reasoning that prevail in public administration, are likely to create acute tensions between political leaders and their civil servants.

The implication is that we are likely to see serious rifts not just in terms of claims-making in the arena of public debate, but also between different logics of deliberation in politics and public administration. The rise of populist parties does not just threaten progressive approaches to immigration policy, it also fundamentally questions the role of knowledge in public debate and policy-making, which raises serious challenges for governance.

(p.32) References

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(1.) See Boswell (2009a) for the fullest exposition of this research. The first part of this chapter draws on the theory developed in this work.