The populist National Front in France, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and the German movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) are propagating powerful visions of their respective nations. In many ways, however, these visions do not match people's local views and experience. In each country, there is a considerable perception gap between local and national perspectives surrounding issues like immigration and the place of Muslims in society. But this perception gap does not stop many people from supporting these political movements and adopting their visions - indeed, the gap fosters it. How can we understand the local-national perception gap that allows individuals to override their own everyday knowledge and experience?
Across Europe, social scientific research and opinion polls show three things about local perceptions surrounding immigrants. First, based on their daily observations and notwithstanding a variety of social traits, people typically have a pretty good estimate of their own neighborhood's ethnic diversity. Second, especially in dense urban areas, the frequency of people's local inter-ethnic contact - sustained or fleeting conversations in workplaces and schools, parks, stores and public transportation -- is often rather high. Such contact, moreover, is usually valued favorably. Social psychologists demonstrate that, under the right conditions, this kind of social contact generates positive attitudes toward other groups. Third, people tend to describe the state of ethnic relations in their own neighborhood as good, and they generally don't regard immigration as a problem locally.
Turning to perceptions of what's happening on the national level, however, the same people tend to describe things very differently. Levels of immigration, and the size of specific populations such as Muslims, are highly overestimated. Polls in France indicate members of the public believe that immigrants comprise 28 per cent of the national population (actually immigrants are 10 per cent) and Muslims 31 per cent (actually 8 per cent). British people estimate that immigrants account for around 24 per cent of the total UK population (actually 13 per cent) and Muslims 21 per cent (actually about 5 per cent). Meanwhile, Germans think 23 per cent of the population are immigrants (actually 13 per cent) and Muslims 19 per cent (actually about 5 per cent). In each country, such overestimates contribute significantly to the public's worries surrounding immigration, social cohesion, Muslim integration, and so-called Islamicization.
Why don't local experiences and perceptions inform people's perceptions of the national level? What actually fills the local-national perception gap? Once answer is: imagination. Benedict Anderson famously described the nation as the 'imagined community'. The nation is a concept too broad and too general to be extrapolated from face-to-face experiences like the local neighborhood can. People are only able to construct a vague mental picture of the national level, and imagination is the tool for doing this. To say the nation is imagined does not diminish its force; on the contrary, this often makes the concept more powerful, more motivating, since it becomes thick with meaning. Yet it is within the imagination of the nation that fear, ignorance and negative visions can run rampant.
This is certainly the case among many Europeans now, exemplified by the Pegida movement. When its members describe their views regarding the plight of Germany, we see vivid imaginations at work: they picture the stealthy colonization of the country by Muslims, the coming imposition of Sharia law, and German girls being forced to wear headscarves. These figments of imagination should not simply be dismissed as far-fetched; rather, they should be engaged and replaced with perceptions that more closely reflect describable realities and local experiences. Here, facts, figures and research findings offered by academics usually do little to alter national perceptions or fire public imagination. Evocative and positive media images (such as the massive, multi-ethnic and multi-religious gathering in Paris) and language by politicians (such as Angela Merkel's condemnation of Pegida) have far more potential to change minds.
Unfortunately over the past weeks, the disturbing images from Paris and Dresden together with an intensifying 'us vs. them' rhetoric across the public sphere are the phenomena mostly fuelling the public imagination and filling the local-national perception gap. Now more than ever, politicians, the media and researchers should do all they can to make sure the public imagination of the nation is more grounded in evidence and aspiration, rather than fantasy and fear.