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Parental ethnic identity and educational attainment of second-generation immigrants


A lack of cultural integration is often blamed for hindering immigrant families’ economic progression. This paper explores whether there are in fact long-term consequences by investigating intergenerational effects of parental ethnic identity on the next generation’s human capital accumulation. Results based on longitudinal data from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) indicate a positive role of both parental majority as well as minority identity. I find differential parental roles with impacts of majority identity working through mothers and minority identity effects being specific to fathers. While the positive effect of maternal majority identity appears to be closely related to language skills, the beneficial effect of paternal minority identity is consistent throughout various robustness checks and likely to be related to higher levels of children’s feelings of self-esteem. Overall, the results point at integrated, rather than separated or assimilated family environments to be most conductive for educational success of the second generation.

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  1. Following Phinney and Ong (2007), ethnic identity is defined as a part of social identity, which in turn is defined by Tajfel (1981) as “that part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from [his] knowledge of [his] membership of a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to that membership” (p.255). Unlike ethnicity, ethnic identity is thus chosen by individuals themselves. Ethnicity, on the other hand, is assigned to an individual either by birth or by others on the basis of ethnic background or phenotype (Phinney and Ong 2007).

  2. Special issues of the Journal of Population Economics (Volume 20, Issue 3, 2007), Research in Labor Economics (Volume 29, 2009) and The Economic Journal (Volume 120, Issue 542, 2010) document this increasing research interest.

  3. After an extended debate on how to define a German leading culture that immigrants would need to assimilate to, the discussion on how to deal with Germany’s immigrant population was again accelerated in 2010 with the publication of the controversial book ‘Deutschland schafft sich ab’ (‘Germany Does Away With Itself’) by Thilo Sarrazin promoting anti-immigrant attitudes.

  4. These are mainly the children of ‘guestworker’ immigrants who arrived during the 1960s and 1970s from Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, and other southern European countries, including Greece, Italy and Spain, and more recently immigrants from Eastern Europe.

  5. The design of the German school system places pupils into different secondary schooling tracks at around the age of 10 years. Immigrant children in Germany are generally over-represented in the lowest secondary schooling track and relatively few are found in the academically oriented school type (Riphahn 2005).

  6. The previous literature concerned with how measures of ethnic identity are related to economic outcomes has acknowledged the difficulty to address the potential inherent endogeneity issues in the absence of appropriate instruments for an individual’s self-chosen identity. Casey and Dustmann (2010), Nekby and Rödin (2010) and Pendakur and Pendakur (2005), for example, argue that although their findings cannot be interpreted as causal, plausible assumptions about the direction of bias can be made. This allows for an interpretation of results as lower and upper bounds.

  7. Concerning the naturalization of the children themselves, the evidence of a positive naturalization-effect is unclear. While Riphahn (2005) finds the association between citizenship and second-generation outcomes disappear after controlling for socioeconomic background, Gang and Zimmermann (2000) reported a significant and positive effect.

  8. Earlier versions of this study employ probit models, which lead to very similar results (Schüller 2011).

  9. Exceptions are the East German federal states of Berlin and Brandenburg, where primary school generally covers six grades. Also, in a few West German federal states, such as Hesse, Bremen and Lower-Saxony, some schools exist in which tracking is postponed for two years.

  10. Besides these three traditional secondary schooling types, there exists an alternative more recent school type, called Gesamtschule or comprehensive school, which combines all three tiers. Numerically, however, this type is not significant.

  11. Exceptions are currently Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia, in the east, and Baden-Württemberg (until 2012), Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia (2007–2011) in the west.

  12. Changing tracks after the initial school placement is in principle possible but rare in practice (Autorengruppe Bildungsberichterstattung 2008).

  13. A somewhat similar approach is taken by Spieß et al. (2003) and Haisken-DeNew et al. (1997), who examine 7th grade pupils at age 14 years.

  14. Pupils attending nonstandard schools such as Gesamtschulen (integrated schools) are excluded from the sample.

  15. One single observation for the federal state Bremen is dropped throughout the analysis due to collinearity.

  16. Note that children with mixed foreign backgrounds, e.g. one native and one immigrant parent, as well as single parents are thus excluded from the sample. This results in the loss of 46 observations of mixed native-immigrant background and six single-parent observations. In the 11 cases where parents stem from different immigrant backgrounds children are assigned to the ethnic group of the household head.

  17. Since questions on ethnic self-identification are not available for every survey year, I include observations of the respective previous year, which correspond to the parental identity when the child was 8 years old.

  18. The main results remain, however, robust when employing binary variables indicating above- or below-median parental identity instead of quasi-metric measures.

  19. Adjusted monthly net household income deflated by 2008 CPI.

  20. Based on the previous empirical literature (e.g. Constant and Zimmermann 2009), one might expect parents’ ethnic identification to be associated with their labor force participation, which is why I choose not to include these variables in my preferred specifications. However, the inclusion of parental labor force status does not alter the empirical results. Household income is included since it contains pensions, unemployment benefits, welfare subsidies etc. and is thus rather seen as a measure of the families’ financial resources than parental labor market success.

  21. The sample is restricted to ethnic groups from the major guestworker countries Greece, Italy, Spain, Turkey and the former Yugoslavia.

  22. Note also that interaction terms between mothers’ and fathers’ identity as well as between parental minority and majority identity turn out to be not significant (results can be obtained from the author upon request).

  23. These main findings are somewhat contradictory to Casey and Dustmann (2010), who study the transmission of ethnic identities across generations. Although they are not looking at child education, their results indicate that mothers transmit the minority identity more strongly and that fathers play a more important role with respect to the transmission of the German identity, whilst I find maternal majority and paternal minority identity do matter for a child’s educational attainment. One possible reason for these seemingly different results might be that, as discussed more extensively in Sections 1 and 2, the impact of parental ethnic identity on child education is not solely due to intergenerational transmission of feelings of belonging, particularly not early in the child’s life. Parental ethnic identity at this stage might rather directly affect the ability and the way parents invest in their children’s educational development.

  24. Literature on the migrant-native gap in education outcomes in Germany attributes the Greek academic success to the availability of alternative Greek-language schools in Germany (e.g. Alba et al. 1994).

  25. Neither do parental years since migration appear to matter significantly when included separately for mothers and fathers (results not shown here but available upon request).

  26. Unobserved characteristics that are common to siblings also include contextual factors of the neighborhood such as school quality. The baseline specification controls for federal state fixed effects. Additional analysis employing fixed effects at more disaggregate geographical levels suggests that, if at all, contextual factors seem to introduce a negative bias (results are available from the author upon request).

  27. Note that the predicted measures of parental identity represent time-averaged fixed measures, hence the family fixed effects approach cannot be employed here due to insufficient variation in parental identity among siblings.

  28. The findings of this exercise are very similar when including all immigrant groups (results are available upon request).


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The survey data used in this paper were made available by the Socio-Economic Panel Study (SOEP) at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin). Financial support from the German Research Foundation (DFG) for the project “Ethnic Diversity and Labor Market Success” in the DFG-Priority Program “Flexibility in Heterogeneous Labor Markets” is gratefully acknowledged. I thank the three anonymous referees for their help and guidance. This paper has further benefited from insightful comments and helpful suggestions by Costanza Biavaschi, Tanika Chakraborty, Alexander Danzer, Martin Fischer, Gianna C. Giannelli, Corrado Giulietti, Julia Lang, Michele Pellizzari, Enrico Rettore, Ulf Rinne, Ingrid Tucci and Klaus F. Zimmermann. I thank participants of the 2nd OECD Immigration Workshop, AIEL 2012, SIE 2012, EALE 2012, the 8th IZA Annual Migration Meeting (AM 2), the 8th Young Scholar SOEP Symposium, ESPE 2011, IWAEE 2011, the Norface Migration Conference 2011, the FBK-IRVAPP Brownbag Seminar, the FamIne Brownbag Seminar and the BeNa Seminar. All remaining errors are my own.

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Correspondence to Simone Schüller.

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Schüller, S. Parental ethnic identity and educational attainment of second-generation immigrants. J Popul Econ 28, 965–1004 (2015).

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  • Ethnic identity
  • Second-generation immigrants
  • Education
  • Sibling fixed-effects

JEL Classification

  • I21
  • J15
  • J16