Polarized democracy

– the impact of threat on anti-immigrant sentiments in western Europe. A research project within the research program migration and integration.

Project leader: Emma Renström (former name Bäck) External link.

Period: 2018 - 2021

Seat of learning: University of Gothenburg

Project title: Polarized democracy. The impact of threat on anti-immigrant sentiments in western Europe

What is the project about?

Social unrest all over the world has led to that many people have had to flee their countries and that immigration to Western Europe has increased. At the same time, right-wing populist parties and politicians have reaped success. A common theme in right-wing populist campaigns is to point to immigration as something threating that challenges both the economy and the national values and traditions in a country.

A psychological aspect of perceived threat is that it elicits emotional reactions like fear or anger. This project investigates in what way different kinds of threat that are presented in relation to immigration contribute to anti-immigrant sentiments and polarization. The project is multidisciplinary in its nature and takes its point of departure in a combination of social psychology and political science.

The project focuses on political polarization and how different populist groups use immigration to create experiences of threat among the citizens. When people experience threat, they react with either fear or anger. Since fear and anger affect cognitions and behaviors differently we want to explore how different kinds of threat that are presented in relation to immigration leads to different kinds of emotional reactions, and how these different reactions lead to anti-immigrant sentiments and polarization.

Research questions

The overarching aim of the project is to understand the relation between perceived threat from immigration, anti-immigrant attitudes and the emergence of political polarization. The project asks questions such as:

  • By what mechanisms do anti-immigrant sentiments emerge?
  • What kind of perceived threat leads to anger or fear against immigrants?
  • What role do different personality traits play for how an individual reacts to threat?
  • How does anti-immigrant sentiments affect polarization between groups in society?

We use several different methods and materials to answer the research questions. On the one hand we use text analyses of social media data and comparative, international surveys, and on the other we use experimental methods.

Project participants

  • University of Gothenburg
  • Lund University
  • Essex University

Participants in the project are leading scholars within the multidisciplinary field political psychology and have previously worked successfully together.


Renström, E. A., & Bäck, H, & Carroll, R. (2021). Intergroup threat and affective polarization in a multi-party system. Journal of Social and Political Psychology (forthcoming).

Renström, E. A., & Bäck, H. (2021). Polariserad demokrati. Hur uppfattade hot påverkar främlingsfientlighet och spänningar mellan olika grupper i samhället. Delmi Policy Brief 2021:9. https://www.delmi.se/publikationer/policy-brief-2021-9-polariserad-demokrati/ External link.

Renström, E. A., Bäck, H., & Schmeisser, Y. (2020). Vi ogillar olika. Om affektiv polarisering bland svenska väljare. In U. Andersson, A. Carlander & P. Öhberg (Eds.). Regntunga skyar. University of Gothenburg. SOM-institute. https://www.gu.se/sites/default/files/2020-08/427-444%20Renström%2CBäck%2CSchmeisser.pdf External link.




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