Contacts between Natives and Migrants in Germany: Perceptions of the Native Population since 1980 and an Examination of the Contact Hypotheses

For decades, migration to Germany has led to an increasing share of Germans with migration background. Since 2015, Germany has experienced a substantial increase in immigration, particularly from those seeking refuge and asylum from war, economic and environmental catastrophes, etc. With these developments, one can assume an increase in interaction between Germans and foreigners, known as intergroup contact. We investigated this phenomenon by analyzing the development of intergroup contact experiences of Germans with foreigners in various areas of life – specifically while detailing the diverging contact experiences of those with and without migration background as well as those from East and West Germany – and by examining the longitudinal processes between positive intergroup contact with foreigners and attitudes towards foreigners while focusing on the differentiation of between person effects – the measure of differences between people/groups – and within person effects – the measure of how much an individual tends to vary over time.

Die Zuwanderung nach Deutschland führt seit Jahrzehnten zu einem steigenden Anteil von Deutschen mit Migrationshintergrund. Seit 2015 ist in Deutschland ein deutlicher Anstieg der Zuwanderung zu verzeichnen, insbesondere von Flüchtlingen vor Krieg, Wirtschafts- und Umweltkatastrophen etc. Bei diesen Entwicklungen ist von einer Zunahme der Interaktion zwischen Deutschen und Ausländer*innen, dem so genannten Intergruppenkontakt, auszugehen. Wir untersuchten dieses Phänomen, indem wir die Entwicklung der Intergruppenkontakterfahrungen von Deutschen mit Ausländer*innen in verschiedenen Lebensbereichen analysierten – und zwar unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der divergierenden Kontakterfahrungen von Menschen mit und ohne Migrationshintergrund sowie von Ost- und Westdeutschen. Wir untersuchten die Längsschnittprozesse zwischen positivem Intergruppenkontakt mit Ausländer*innen und Einstellungen gegenüber Ausländer*innen, wobei wir uns auf die Differenzierung zwischen Personeneffekten – dem Maß der Unterschiede zwischen Personen/Gruppen und innerhalb von Personeneffekten – dem Maß, wie stark ein Individuum im Laufe der Zeit zu Schwankungen neigt – konzentrierten.

DOI: 10.34879/gesisblog.2020.11

According to the contact hypothesis, association with individuals from other social groups tends to improve positions towards, and respect for, said groups.[1] However, this is usually only the case when positive contact occurs.[2] In such instances of prejudice towards other groups being present in people, it is often the case that these individuals simply avoid contact with said minority groups.[3] These hypotheses were integral to guiding our research into these contacts between natives and migrants in Germany.

Study 1 – Growing Contact and Changing Landscapes

In our first study using the ALLBUS data, we found that the amount of respondents with some level of migrant background, that is to say, respondents who were themselves not born in Germany or had a parent/grandparent that was not, had increased by about ten percent from 1996 to 2016. This was accompanied by major differences in the amount of non-German respondents between Eastern (0.3% in 1996, 2.4% in 2016) and Western (8.7% in 1996, 8.1% in 2016) German states.

When personal contact with migrants was considered, we found that almost every group experienced an increase in contact between 2006 and 2016 (the exception was the group whose contact was in the family and who only had grandparents born outside of Germany), which is in line with the increasing immigrant population in Germany (for those interested, see Das Bundesamt in Zahlen 2018.). With a more comprehensive inspection, we found that roughly 80% of Western Germans and 60% of Eastern Germans had some contact with foreigners in 2016. As a means of comparison, these numbers were up from 67% and 25% respectively in 1994. This does make sense when the geographical location of migrants is considered, since only about 5.8% of foreigners in Germany live in the Eastern German States as of 2018; for comparison, this percentage was closer to 3.6% in 2005 (see Migration und Integration). For those interested in a closer inspection of the percentages, we have included Table 1 and 2.

This analysis highlighted a large social change in the life of the German population in the last decade. Not only has the composition of the society changed through migration, but also the everyday encounters with people from other nations have generally become frequent. With such developments in contact between native Germans and foreigners, the question of how these contacts are perceived becomes essential to understanding the relationships between natives and foreigners in Germany. Once these relationships are better understood, the effects of such contact can be explored with regards to outgroup attitudes.

Study 2 – Positive Contact does not change Attitudes?

For this study, we examined the effects of positive contact between native Germans and foreigners using data from the GESIS Panel. In particular, we used data from four waves (from spring and autumn of 2016 and 2017 respectively). This allowed us to see changes over time between and within respondents. For the analysis, questions regarding the respondent’s assessment of and feelings towards foreigners in Germany as well as questions on how often they experience positive contact with said foreigners in their neighborhoods and place of employment were included.

As previous research has found, those respondents that had neutral stances on foreigners in the first wave recorded a relatively high stability in the final wave; the same was also found for respondents with negative views.[4] This, however, was not found among those with positive stances, though positive experiences also remained quite stable.

Based on these findings, we first analyzed a cross-lagged panel model (CLPM for short; put simply, this is a model used to examine data collected at two or more points in time and to assess causal relationships between at least two constructs) to examine the effect of positive contact experiences with foreigners on attitudes towards these, as well as the reversed effects from attitudes to positive contact (see Figure 1). Here, we found high stability for both intergroup contact and attitudes over time, implying that Germans maintained fairly equal levels of intergroup contact and attitudes over the 1.5 year period.

Surprisingly, and contrary to the literature, we found that positive contact with foreigners predicts attitudes towards them at later waves only to a very small and non-significant degree while simultaneously controlling for the stability of attitudes. Thus, we found no empirical support for the contact hypothesis. This contrast to previous literature might be explained through differences in research and survey design as well as the used time lag.

Recent methodological developments allowed us to disassemble the findings into stable between-person difference factors and distinct time-specific situational within-person processes by applying a random-intercept cross-lagged panel model[5] (RI-CLPM for short; see Figure 2).

Model Comparison – Outgroup Attitudes Not Explained by Positive Contact, discrepant variance distribution

When comparing the two models, it was clear that the RI-CLPM has a substantially better model fit, meaning it should be preferred over the CLPM in Figure 1. We found that, in the within-person model, most stability coefficients were reduced and became non-significant. The same applied to the cross-lagged coefficients, which remained non-significant and very small. These findings might be explained by the distribution of variance: We also found that for positive contact, more variance was allocated on the within-person level (roughly 58.83%-62.73%) than on the between-person level (37.33%-41.09%). For attitudes towards foreigners, the reverse was true (between-person level: 56.55%-80.64%, within-person level: 19.36%-43.43%). This might be an indication of the role of stable characteristics, such as right-wing authoritarianism or social dominance orientation, in predicting outgroup attitudes.

In other words, the findings of both the conventional CLPM and the RI-CLPM are highly informative: both failed to indicate effects of positive contact on outgroup attitudes or vice versa. Nonetheless, it demonstrates the high importance of the examination of such longitudinal data, which present a stricter test of the contact hypothesis and the underlying causality.


While the growing presence of those with migration background and intergroup contacts is worthy of further research in and of itself, the need for further examination of the contact hypothesis and its relation to integration of societies through the lens of new methodologies and through the use of longitudinal data is of the upmost importance. That said, the findings from this article highlight three areas of research that need further development: How are contacts perceived and within which time intervals do they truly effect attitudes? To what extent are stable characteristics, e.g., right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation, responsible for attitudes towards foreigners and also for the amount of contacts? What reasons may lead to the absence of effects as predicted by the contact hypothesis?  

[1] Williams, R. M., Jr. (1947). Reduction of intergroup tensions. New York, NY: Social Science Research Council.

[2] Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley.

[3] Pettigrew, T. F., Tropp, L. R., Wagner, U., & Christ, O. (2011). Recent advances in intergroup contact theory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 35(3), 271–280.

[4] Schmidt, P., Weick, S., & Gloris, D. (2019). Wann wirken Kontakte zwischen Migranten und Mehrheitsgesellschaft? [When do contacts between migrants and the majority of society have an effect?]. Informationsdienst Soziale Indikatoren, 61, 24–29.

[5] Hamaker, E., Kuiper, R. M., & Grasman, R. (2015). A critique of the cross-lagged panel model. Psychological Methods, 20(1), 102–116.

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