Penn Researcher Studies Immigrant-Native Relations in Philadelphia and Atlanta

Research by Michael Jones-Correa might aptly adopt the title of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Jones-Correa, Presidential Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, is studying intergroup immigrant-native relations in the 21st-century United States by examining the populations of two large metropolitan areas: Philadelphia and Atlanta.

“We still know very little about immigrant-native relations and their effects on trust and civic engagement among immigrant and native communities,” he says. “Existing intergroup contact research rested largely on a black-white paradigm and needed to be broadened to consider how multi-group contexts, especially those marked by racial differences, socio-economic status and national origin, can reveal distinct patterns.”

Jones-Correa began the research project in 2011, when he was at Cornell University. Along with a group of scholars from across the country, including Helen Marrow of Tufts University, Dina Okamoto of the University of Indiana and Linda Tropp of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, he wanted to find out if contact enhanced or inhibited trust and civic engagement.

The researchers examined perspectives from each group regarding contact with the others, including the ways in which those experiences were shaped in workplaces, neighborhoods and public spaces and how these various contact experiences predicted trust and civic engagement among immigrants and natives alike.

Not only did the researchers study the interactions between blacks and whites born in the U.S., they also looked at how these native-born Americans interacted with immigrants from Mexico and India.

“South Asian Indians, Mexicans, blacks and whites were purposely selected to consider how broad differences in socioeconomic status, legal status, religion and skin tone shape the nature and quality of contact between immigrants and the U.S.-born,” Jones-Correa says.

In this particular study, immigrants from India were generally of high socio-economic status while immigrants from Mexico arrived with lower socio-economic status.

“There’s a long-standing debate in the social sciences,” Jones-Correa says. “The political-science perspective says that, when different people come into contact with each other, it generates competition and conflict. The contrary view, held by some social psychologists, is that contact, under the right circumstances, has the potential to lead to trust and civic engagement.”

Jones-Correa’s research into the four groups included a large-scale survey in 2013, when the research team surveyed 2,000 people in Philadelphia and Atlanta.

The following summer, in 2014, they had extended conversations with sub-samples of respondents to further study their perspectives.

The research helped Jones-Correa and his colleagues gain an understanding of the contact experiences across all four groups, as well as how these interactions impact trust and civic engagement. It provided the researchers with a stronger grasp of the ways contact can motivate, enhance or hinder feelings of trust.

“Findings from this research can assist receiving communities design programs to ease immigrant incorporation by indicating where intergroup contact takes place and to what effect,” Jones-Correa says, “but, more importantly, how interventions can be tailored to maximize their effectiveness.”

In the end, Jones-Correa says the psychologists are right and connections do create a positive downstream effect.

“Contact really does matter,” Jones-Correa says. “The frequency of contact has positive correlations with people’s perceptions of trust. When we’re more trusting of other groups, then that trust is positively correlated with civic engagement. It’s all inter-related.”

On July 1, Jones-Correa became the founding director of Penn’s newly established Center for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Immigration.

Housed in the School of Arts & Sciences, the Center will bring together scholars, visiting researchers, graduate students and undergraduates across disciplines to address common interests in the study of race, ethnicity and immigration. Its goal is to support and encourage cutting-edge research and collaboration at Penn and beyond.

Tale of 2 Cities