The What and Why of Xenophobia 2

Part Two: What makes people xenophobic?

Reuters/Dominick Reuter

In my last post, I described xenophobia as a kind of sociological phenomenon – almost as though it’s something that we are naturally programmed to feel. But if that’s the case, then why doesn’t it affect everyone in the same way? Why are some people One Nation voters while some are refugee sympathisers? Why did 61% of Brits in one survey say they think all further immigration should be halted, and 39% didn’t? Why were Jewish people persecuted in such brutal ways in Nazi Germany, not just by the powerful and militaristic government, but also by a huge number of Germans themselves at the time, while anti-semitism is now viewed in most Western societies as one of the most abhorrent things to be accused of?

Let’s take a look at some theories about personal circumstances as well as wider socioeconomic and political factors that social scientists have used to explain xenophobic trends.

One of history’s most renowned philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, developed the concept of ‘ressentiment,’ and many scholars have since applied this concept to understanding xenophobia. Ressentiment is a feeling of envy that results from the marginalization of individuals in society and their inability to seek explanation for or resolve this feeling. These individuals take an ‘imaginary revenge’ on the group that they blame for their suffering. They do this through irrational collectivist (i.e. group) stereotyping and moral condemnation.

In other words, the theory is that people who are experiencing hardship, and are therefore feeling ‘hard done by,’ blame immigrants for this because they can’t seem to find another explanation for it. Finding someone else to blame is easier than admitting that you are at fault yourself (we’ve all been there) but it can also seem like the only solution when it is not in fact your own fault, or the fault of anything immediately obvious. You are angry and see no avenue to fix things. Someone offers you an explanation – better yet, a solution. It’s these people, these horrible people. They are coming here and ruining it for all of us. And no one is doing anything about it. That’s a cause to get behind!


Blaming minority groups for societal problems is also known as ‘scapegoating’. Scapegoating is a powerful tool used by politicians with particular agendas. But we will cover that in a later post.

What makes this a sociological rather than an individual psychological issue is that this blaming or scapegoating is often done collectively. That means that one person or a group of people will incite others to feel the same way, and the story becomes more convincing, and each individual’s feelings become stronger, the more people talk and hear about it. This is called ‘group polarisation.’ It means that people will likely take more extreme views (and actions) when they are doing so as part of a group, supported by others. In fact, you might see here how the same mechanism is at work for xenophobia as for terrorism…

So what kinds of situations cause people to turn to ressentiment? And if migrants (or indigenous groups, or other minority ethnic groups in our community) aren’t really to blame, then who or what is?

There is some evidence that the popularity of xenophobic political parties coincides with economic downturn. In other words, people might be more likely to look for someone to be angry at when they are struggling financially. Scholars Mann and Fenton use this to explain why there is such strong anti-immigration sentiment among Britain’s working class. Poor economic conditions have a disproportionately high impact on the working class in the form of unemployment, poor housing, and cuts to the benefits system. People who bear the brunt of this are likely to be angry about it, and when offered an explanation for this situation, i.e. rising immigration, they might be likely to welcome this as an outlet for their anger.

The actor who posed for this poster turned out to be an Irish immigrant…

But there is also evidence that xenophobic and racist sentiments are increasingly held by the middle and upper classes. So what is it that is making these people look for someone to blame, if their lives are reasonably comfortable already?

Being middle class in today’s globalised, post-modern, neoliberal world doesn’t necessarily mean having security. In fact, today’s world is characterised by instability. The technological age means our lives are constantly and rapidly changing. Not just the way we live them, and the ways in which we interact with others, but the values held as acceptable by society. More and more things are being commodified, streamlined, digitised – whole industries are being overhauled by these changes. Job security can no longer be ensured in ways it was before. It’s difficult to depend on anything at all.

The reasons for this are complex. They cannot always be adequately explained without a specialist knowledge of economic, political and geopolitical factors. Some scholars argue that the cultural racist ideology that underlies xenophobia can provide people with a convenient explanation for this complex social and political reality. It would alleviate their fear and anxiety in this period of rapid social change. This would certainly explain why there are high numbers of anti-immigration supporters among middle-aged and older people. These people are more likely to be anxious about change.

Xenophobia is also about nationalism. Immigration, which may change the cultural fabric of a nation, is depicted as a threat. ‘Protecting’ the nation from this threat is seen as patriotic. A scholar named Ghassan Hage coined the term ‘paranoid nationalism’. This means the kind of ‘patriotism’ that manifests itself when citizens feel like they can no longer trust their government to provide them with their fair share of ‘hope.’ In a globalised world, governments are often faced with the need to prioritise a city’s appeal to multinational investment and tourism, and citizens’ needs can appear to be sidelined. People then cling to their motherland or national identity as their last vestige of hope – it gives them a sense of comfort and security that they can no longer find in their political leaders, their job, or their neighbourhood. These paranoid nationalists become jealous of anyone they see as being cared for by the nation that won’t care for them, and project their anxieties onto such groups.

This is seen for example in the demonising of migrants as ‘welfare tourists,’ who claim benefits that are ‘rightfully for British/Australian/American/Canadian/Japanese people.’ We hear these claims everyday. Just this evening Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in the news for welcoming with open arms the first cohort of Syrian refugees arriving for resettlement in Canada. Online, somebody had commented, ‘Trudeau cares more about foreigners than he does about Canadians.’ Classic paranoid nationalism. We can wonder: what gripe did this man have with his life that he decided was the fault of his government abandoning him?

Of course these are just some of the theories that have been put forward to explain xenophobia. And no one theory can explain everything. Every situation is different, with a variety of factors involved. In the next installment we will look at the role the media plays in xenophobia, including social media and the wider internet.


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