Centre News

Ben Knoll's research reveals hidden support for immigration reform among conservatives


August 1, 2013 By Mariel Smith        
Centre College, Benjamin Knoll "My research suggests that certain members of Congress might
be making important decisions without fully accurate information.
This is a big deal in a democracy, where our elected officials
are tasked with acting on our behalf," says Dr. Knoll.
Photo by Kevin McCoy.

Immigration reform is a hot-button issue these days, and Assistant Professor of Politics Ben Knoll just added fuel to the fire with his latest research suggesting that support for immigration reform is more prevalent among Republican voters than often believed.

"In my research, I try to better understand American attitudes toward immigration policy and especially nativism, or cultural threat—the feeling that our unique American culture and way of life is being threatened by foreigners or foreign influence," he writes. "I suspected that I might not get an accurate response to this question if put directly on a survey, so I turned to a method called the 'list experiment.'"

The list experiment method split survey respondents into two groups. The first group received a survey listing four different elements of society and was asked to indicate the number of elements that made them worried or anxious.

The second group of respondents was given the same survey but with one additional item listed: "Our American culture and way of life being threatened by foreign influence." These respondents were also asked to list the number of items that made them worried or anxious.

The most important characteristic of this experimental method is that it does not require participants to directly indicate which specific elements of society make them anxious or worried; they simply list the total number of worrisome items, which, Knoll explains, "allows them to say it without really saying it."

The researchers averaged the number of worrisome items in both groups; the difference between these two averages reflects the number of people who included the fifth option, "threat from foreign influence," as something that was worrisome to them. These results indicated that 45 percent of respondents felt that American culture is being threatened by foreigners.

"What was more interesting, though, was that later in our survey, respondents were asked to answer the fifth question directly," Knoll writes. "Here, 64 percent of respondents said that they either completely or somewhat agreed with the foreign threat to American culture. This suggests that almost 20 percent of respondents were saying that they felt threatened from foreign influence, when, according to the list experiment, they didn't consider it something that made them worried or anxious."

Knoll concludes that this over-statement of anxiety about foreign influence suggests that being pro-immigration is associated in some circles with being un-American, which is why some people may overstate the importance of taking an anti-immigration stance.

"One out of every three self-identified conservatives is saying that they're worried about foreigners when they're not really overly concerned," Knoll writes. "I also found similar results for people over 65 years old and Republican partisans—the exact groups that make up the bulk of a GOP primary constituency in any given congressional district."

For Knoll, the results of this research could not have come at a better time.

"This is important right now because there are members of Congress deciding whether or not to support the Senate immigration reform bill based on what they think their districts feel about the immigration issue," he says. "This research suggests that certain members of Congress might be making these important decisions without fully accurate information. This is a big deal in a democracy, where our elected officials are tasked with acting on our behalf."

Centre College Dr. Knoll (right) and research assistant Benjamin Yeager ’14 are
working together to more accurately understand public opinion
on immigration policy.

Aside from its real-world application, this research has been an invaluable opportunity for Knoll's research assistant, Benjamin Yeager ’14, who has been instrumental in gathering data from online sources, coding data from surveys and completing initial literature reviews.

This summer research opportunity has both expanded and deepened Yeager's knowledge of the complexities of immigration policy. He hopes this research contributes to a re-evaluation of immigration policy in the U.S., particularly in its ability to debunk some immigration stereotypes.

"For example, Hispanic immigration to the United States has actually been falling since 2007," says Yeager. "In fact, more Hispanics are leaving than entering the U.S. as of 2013. I hope my work this summer will shed some light on these and other realities."

Aside from furthering his understanding of immigration, this summer experience has allowed Yeager to learn the finer points of academic research, a valuable step towards his future plans.

"I hope to go to graduate school after finishing up at Centre," he says. "The kinds of skills I'm picking up this summer—researching, organizing sources and communicating with a research advisor—will all be invaluable in grad school."

Knoll also recognizes the benefits of summer research, particularly its ability to sharpen students' academic skills as both pupils and scholars.

"When undergraduate students have the opportunity to participate in the research process, it is a transformative learning experience," says Knoll. "It gives them the opportunity to take more ownership of their learning and to become more critical consumers—and creators—of knowledge."



To read Dr. Knoll's Huffington Post blog on his research, click here.






Centre College, founded in 1819, offers its students a world of opportunities, highlighted by the nation's premier study abroad program. Its faculty is ranked #5 in the nation for "Best Undergraduate Teaching" by U.S. News & World Report. Centre graduates go on to enjoy extraordinary success, with entrance to top graduate and professional schools, prestigious fellowships for further study abroad (Rhodes, Rotary, Fulbright), and rewarding jobs (on average 97 percent are employed or in advanced study within 10 months of graduation).


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