It’s called the progressive’s dilemma. Progressives are usually pro-immigration, accepting of refugees, and support a generous welfare state. However, higher levels of immigration are often seen as a threat to the solidarity required to support redistribution of wealth in European welfare states. “The basic idea is you want to share resources with people who are like you. And if you perceive that people are less like you, you’re not going to be as willing to share,” explains Clara Sandelind, a Leverhulme Early Career Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield. When Clara decided to do a PhD, she knew immigration would be the focus, as well as nationalism and identity. “From a personal point of view, I’ve always been interested in those questions because my grandmother was a Jewish refugee of the Holocaust from Hungary. I’ve always had an interest in refugees and identity from my own being a minority identity as well.”
Her postdoc project is on the concept of solidarity in the welfare states of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. She is exploring whether there a contradiction between solidarity with refugees and national solidarity within the welfare states. There is an argument that if societies become too diverse people will become less solidaristic, undermining the welfare state’s principle of redistribution. As a political theorist, Clara looks at this argument from a normative—or ethical—point of view to see what it means for our moral obligations to our co-citizens and to refugees, if such a trade-off exists.
You would expect the similar Scandinavian welfare states to react the same way towards immigration, but historically this hasn’t always been the case. Denmark has more restrictive immigration policies. Norway has been quite restrictive of labour migrants, but more open to refugees, while Sweden has also been more open to refugees and recently quite open to labour migration. Clara has found that the welfare state is a big part of national identity in all three Scandinavian countries, but different concepts of national identity contribute to the different approaches to immigration. Sweden has a top-down view of social solidarity where as long as everyone is included in the welfare state, then their national values will be transmitted and diversity won’t be an issue. But Denmark has more of a bottom-up approach, a term coined (along with top-down) by researcher Karin Borevi. National solidarity stems from the people being culturally connected to Danish culture and by extension Danish heritage or ethnicity. This makes it harder for Denmark to achieve a sense of national cohesion with people who are diverse because it relies on a homogenous culture.
While these national identities have historical roots, they are always reimagined through politics. “That’s what I’m focusing on,” says Clara. “What sort of politics are involved to create identities? I’m interested in what political mechanisms make it possible to combine a generous welfare state and solidarity with refugees more so in some places than in others. We have a duty from an ethical point of view to think about how we can actually construct societies that can better facilitate a combination between the two.” As part of her postdoc, she’s going to do an experimental survey with a professor of sociology in Sweden to see if they can change the way people think about combining immigration and the welfare state.
Their work could offer solutions for immigration in other mixed model welfare states like the UK, where Brexit has created uncertainty about immigration policies. Clara says the University of Sheffield has been quite supportive of EU staff like her. “I really love Sheffield,” she says. “It’s such a great place to live. At the moment, I would be quite sad to leave Sheffield.” Clara does know though that wherever she ends up, she wants to stay in academia. “There’s a lot of talk about impact in academia. It gets a bit of a bad rap in a sense because it’s seen as an imposed-from-above, bureaucratic thing, but it would be strange if you didn’t want your work to have an impact. Why do you do this work if you don’t want it to change the world?”