Making Sense of Imagined Immigration

Kirill Zhirkov, winner of the Angus Campbell Scholars Fund Research Award and the Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion is looking for answers to timely questions.

by Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder

Kirill Zhirkov believes that among all the vast mysteries in the world humans are the biggest one. “I am among those people for whom knowledge represents possibly the largest motivation in life,” says the 32-year-old Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Michigan. “If my research can improve the understanding of how humans behave in politics and why they behave the way they do, even by a tiny bit, I’ll be happy.” The international student (who is pursuing a dual M.A. degree in the Department of Statistics) has had many reasons to be happy recently. And at least two of those reasons are related to help he has received towards his research – last summer Zhirkov won the Angus Campbell Scholars Fund Research Award and this past summer he received the Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion.

Before landing at the University of Michigan (U-M), Zhirkov worked as a junior fellow at the Laboratory of Comparative Social Research in St. Petersburg, Russia. He earned an M.A. in social psychology from Utrecht University in the Netherlands and a B.A. in economics from Russia’s St. Petersburg State University. “The story of how I ended up studying in Michigan spans almost 10 years, three countries, and thousands of kilometers,” he says. “It also features multiple U-M and Institute for Social Research (ISR) professors who helped and inspired me along the way,” he adds. The short version includes a couple of important details: Zhirkov enjoyed a semester as a visiting scholar for the ISR in 2013, returned to Russia afterward and by 2014 he knew that he would be doing his graduate studies at U-M. “I was so impressed with the university. When I was first here in 2013, I could approach almost any faculty member and they would take time to talk to me. Sometimes for as long as 20 minutes,” he says. “I hadn’t experienced that in Russia or the Netherlands. I wasn’t even technically their student, but they were willing to support me.”

Speaking to the more recent support he has received via the two awards, Zhirkov recalls that both times when he was notified that he won, he quickly cycled through the same thought processes. “First I was surprised. I knew these were very competitive awards. Then I got excited as I started thinking about how I could improve my research using the awards’ money,” he says. Essentially, Zhirkov studies how people think about politically relevant categories (such as partisans, welfare recipients and immigrants). He says that these categories tend to be abstract and complicated. “Most people don’t possess a ton of knowledge about them,” he explains. “So, they link these categories to ones that are relatively simple and familiar.” He illustrates what he means with an easy-to-recognize example. “A popular stereotype here in the United States links welfare recipients and African-Americans. I attempt to measure such stereotypes and apply them to study anti-immigration attitudes both in the U.S. and in Europe,” he says.

Zhirkov’s dissertation is about “imagined immigration.” His aim is to develop a generalizable theory of public opinion formation with regard to group-related policies, using immigration as an example. “It is well-known in behavioral political science that people are never perfectly informed about the policies that they have to form opinions about in order to participate most effectively in the democratic process,” he says. Zhirkov’s most important findings so far: people have essential misperceptions about the composition of the immigrant population; misperceptions come from both over-generalization of personal experience and the media; misperceptions are consequential for public opinion about immigration, and attempts to correct misperceptions seem to backfire.

As he pushes forward with his work, Zhirkov doesn’t take for granted for the support he’s received. “I have so much gratitude to the donors for the opportunities they offer to graduate students generally, and especially to international students, like myself, who are often ineligible for many other popular sources of funding,” he says. For Garth Taylor, the retired pollster who created the Garth Taylor Dissertation Fellowship in Public Opinion in 2013, it’s gratifying to assist students like Zhirkov. “My commitment is to the topic of American public opinion research,” he says. “The fact that a non-American is in a position to provide top-quality work does not surprise me, and it pleases me to be able to provide a resource that will make this work possible.”

Zhirkov has started putting the Taylor award money to good use. He happily reports, “I ran the key pilot study for my dissertation that effectively pretested the measurement instrument – just as described in my award application.” The results of the pilot were presented at professional conferences this year both in the United States and Europe. Zhirkov says that he plans to spend the rest of the funds to access diverse samples of respondents, beyond popular convenience samples such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. “That would be impossible without the award money,” he confides.

The money from the Angus Campbell Scholars Fund Research Award has had an equally beneficial impact on Zhirkov’s research. He shares that it opened up new possibilities for his dissertation in terms of data collection that were almost unthinkable before. With this fund, Zhirkov was able to collect data and spend almost a month as a visiting scholar in GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences. “The institute is a major center of quantitative social sciences and survey research situated in Cologne, Germany,” he says. “Overall, my research benefited enormously during my time there.”

One person who is very satisfied to know all this Carol Welsch, Angus Campbell’s daughter. Her father enjoyed a distinguished career at U-M as a professor of psychology and sociology and held directorships at the university’s Survey Research Center and the ISR. “The Angus Campbell Scholar’s Fund began after the death of my father in 1980. It was my mother’s effort to honor my father with a funded scholarship program in his name,” she explains. “I love that Kirill’s dissertation work in understanding political changes in Europe and the U.S., relates to main areas my father’s work: political behavior, quality of life, and social change.” Welsch was also struck when Zhirkov told her of the importance of the scholarship to his future career. “He mentioned that the affiliation to ISR and the Campbell Scholarship could make a difference, above and beyond the monetary value, to his success, she says. “I hadn’t thought of the scholarship in that way at the outset, and it was a reminder that my father’s legacy is enlivened, and my mother would be pleased.”

The support that Zhirkov has received has indeed made a difference to his life and he hopes that his research will make a difference in the lives of others and society in general.
He strongly believes that immigration represents the focal point in the profound transformations that occurred in politics of developed democracies over the last two decades. He explains that in western Europe, the political landscape was completely reshaped by the rise of the anti-immigrant right parties and the decline of the traditional social democratic left. “In U.S. politics, the most recent manifestation of anti-immigrant attitudes has been the successful presidential campaign of Donald Trump,” he says. “Political science still needs to fully understand the origins of mass policy preferences that underlie these developments, and I hope that my research will provide at least some answers in this regard.”