Refugee status and political attitudes

Posted: September 22, 2010 by Rex Brynen in refugee attitudes

One of the surprising things about research on the Palestinian politics is that although we have an unusually rich amount of data on Palestinian public attitudes, there has been surprisingly little sophisticated quantitative work done with this. Oh certainly, pollsters and analysts quote various poll results, and even do simple breakdowns of how attitudes appear to vary across social groups. However, they almost never do any robust multivariate or regression analysis to tease out what underlying variables have what significant effects. One major work that does Amaney Jamal’s excellent Barriers to Democracy, which combines quantitative analysis of survey data with a rich qualitative exploration of the complex effects of social capital in Palestine and the Arab world. Her book, however, remains very much an exception to the general rule.

The same holds true of data on Palestinian refugee attitudes. We have a great deal of data from the attitudinal and living conditions surveys done by PCPSR, NEC, JMCC, Fafo, and others. However, few analysts ask whether the relationships that appear in simple descriptions of the data are due to refugee status per se, or rather other variables like locale, socio-economic status, education, and so forth.

Because of that, I was particular pleased to get the following note from my McGill colleague Mayssun El-Attar. Mayssun recently authored a paper for the Centre for Microdata Methods and Practice entitled Could education promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?, in which she attempts to tease out the effects that education has on Palestinian attitudes to negotiation concessions and longer-term political reconciliation with Israel:

The goal of this paper is to measure Palestinians’ attitudes towards a peace process and their determinants. One novelty is to define these attitudes as multidimensional and to measure them carefully using a flexible item response model. Results show that education, on which previous evidence appears contradictory, has a positive effect on attitudes towards concessions but a negative effect on attitudes towards reconciliation. This could occur if more educated people, who currently have very low returns to education, have more to gain from peace but are less willing to reconcile because of resentment acquired due to their experience.

From that same data analysis Mayssun is also able to pull out some specific findings on the effects of refugee status, which she’s kindly offered for the PRRN blog. I’ve posted her email below, and emphasized her major findings: 1) controlling for other socio-economic and demographic characteristics, refugees in the occupied Palestinian territory are somewhat less willing to make concessions (although this effect is rather modest); and 2) refugee attitudes to reconciliation do not differ from those of other Palestinians.

As also she points out, there is much more that can be done in analyzing survey data of this sort, including out developing a more sophisticated understanding of what shapes attitudes (by refugees and non-refugees) to the refugee issue itself.

* * *

Hi Rex,

I’ve been reading your blog and I would like to share some of my research results with you. I’ve been analyzing Palenstinians’ attitudes towards the peace process. I’m particularly interested in how attitudes differ across demographic groups.

There is a lot of information on Palestinians’ attitudes in a series of surveys conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR). The surveys contain many very precise questions on detailed issues like e.g. “After reaching a peace agreement between the Palestinian side and Israel and the establishment of a Palestinian state, that is recognized by Israel, would you support opening borders to free movement of people and goods” and, under these same conditions of peace, “Would you invite an Israeli colleague to visit you in your home?”. This is a lot of detail, so I used some recent statistical techniques to create two indices: an individual’s attitude towards making concessions and the attitude towards reconciling with Israelis.

In my paper, I focus mainly on the role played by education. There has been quite some controversy about it in the previous literature. My findings shed some light on why these results appeared contradictory in previous work.

More related to your blog, I also find an interesting result about attitudes of refugees. Taking into account the effect of differences in family income, education and place of residence, refugees are less willing to make concessions. The difference to non-refugees is about as large as that for men (relative to women) or for people who attended only elementary school (relative to those with higher educational attainment); characteristics that are also associated with lower willingness to make concessions.

As one of the questions used to measure willingness to make concessions concerns the right of return of refugees, they might feel more directly personally affected by potential concessions. Whether the difference is only due to this one factor warrants further investigation.

Importantly, I also find that refugees’ attitudes towards reconciliation do not differ from those of other Palestinians. In contrast to this, women, more religious people or more educated people are less willing to reconcile. (Again, this result takes into account the effects of other differences such as family income.)

Differences between the attitudes of refugees and others thus appear only in some aspects of the peace process, and even there are not larger than those among other demographic groups. It would be interesting to investigate further which facets of the experience of being a refugee, which may also differ across refugees, contribute to their attitudes. There are data for doing this, so hopefully we will see more results soon.

Mayssun El-Attar


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