Political institutions and the challenge of diversity

Political institutions and the challenge of diversity

Karen Schönwälder
Christiane Kofri
Cihan Sinanoglu

Alex Street
Daniel Volkert


How do the political institutions and the political lives of countries, cities, and supranational units, reflect the diversity of their populations? What does an immigrant or an ethnic minority background mean for the ability to participate politically and to aspire to political power? While immigrants and their descendants are in many ways politically active, they are frequently – if foreign citizens - excluded from key political rights. Political organizations, including parties but also many NGOs, rarely have a membership that is as diverse as the population. And elected bodies, on different levels and in different countries, typically have few members with an immigrant or ethnic minority background. These phenomena are attracting renewed interest, partly because the immigrant population with citizen rights is growing, e.g. in Germany.

MMG research aims to contribute to an improved theoretical conceptualisation of the mechanisms that produce higher or lower participation and representation, that accelerate or retard its development, and to a broader empirical knowledge of the levels, patterns, and conditions of immigrant political involvement.

In 2011, the first broad empirical study of immigrant representation in Germany’s big cities was completed (Vielfalt sucht Rat or: Diversity seeks Council). Based on a detailed analysis of the official lists of candidates and of the official election results, we investigated to what extent the immigrant population is represented in the councils, how the different political parties fare in this respect, and what differences exist between regions and cities. This is the first comprehensive and detailed analysis for German cities. On the basis of a survey among such ‘immigrant councillors’ and about 30 detailed interviews, their motivations, backgrounds and experiences were assessed. Results have by now been presented in many German cities and published in different formats.

A preceding study evaluated in more detail the situation in Nord­rhein-Westfalen, Germany’s largest regional state, and the electoral campaign during the 2009 local elections.

As one part of this, a population survey was conducted with around 1000 respondents.

In 2014, building on the earlier study, another population survey and a candidate survey among all candidates for major parties or lists in the local elections were carried out in four cities of Nordrhein-Westfalen. The data sets comprise of about 1000 responses in the population survey (half non-immigrants, half with migration background) and about 700 responses in the candidate survey. They provide the unique opportunity to investigate differences, and interactions, between electorate and activists, and to compare expectations and political preferences of immigrants and non-immigrants. Results have been presented at conferences, and publications, co-authored by Alex Street and Karen Schönwälder, are forthcoming.

In 2013, symposia in two leading political science journals were published, co-edited by Karen Schönwälder and Irene Bloemraad. They offer comparative analyses of immigrant representation in European states and cities as well as theoretical reflections on its peculiarities.

Two doctoral dissertations have been completed. Daniel Volkert’s study (defended in November 2015) „Zwischen Parteibuch und Wahlurne: Parteipolitische Inkorporationsprozesse von EinwanderInnen am Beispiel der Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands und der Parti Socialiste in Frankreich“ (Between membership card and ballot box: The incorporation of immigrants into political parties as exemplified by the German Social Democrats and the French Socialist Party) compares the German Social Democrats and the French Socialists with regard to patterns of immigrant incorporation. The study by Cihan Sinanoglu (defense in 2017) is the first empirical investigation of the political practice of local politicians with immigrant backgrounds in Germany and is entitled “Das Dilemma der BrückenbauerInnen: LokalpolitikerInnen mit Migrationshintergrund” (The dilemma of the bridge-builders: local politicians with migration backgrounds).

Ongoing work broadens perspectives to include other forms of political incorporation, beyond parliamentary representation and political parties. The department’s project on urban responses to diversity (‘CityDiv’) analyses diversity representation in governance networks.