Immigration and the Economy: An Interdisciplinary Subject

Immigrant Diversity and Economic Development in Cities: A Critical Review

By Thomas Kemeny (London School of Economics)

Abstract: This paper reviews a growing literature investigating how ‘immigrant’ diversity relates to urban economic performance. As distinct from the labor-supply focus of much of the economics of immigration, this paper reviews work that examines how growing heterogeneity in the composition of the workforce may beneficially or harmfully affect the production of goods, services and ideas, especially in regional economies. Taking stock of the existing literature, the paper argues that the low-hanging fruit in this field has now been picked, and lays out a set of open issues that need to be taken up in future research in order to fulfil the promise of this work.


Revised by: Anthony C. Evans (final year graduate Business Studies & Marketing, Bangor University – Wales)


Kemeny’s paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2013-12-06 and it seeks to understand the relationship between immigrant diversity and economic performance, primarily by considering the effects of “interactions among a diverse populace” (p.1).

The review is motivated by the theory that “immigrant-diverse individuals could simultaneously improve economic outcomes by bringing together different perspectives and heuristics, and reduce performance by making co-operation more costly.” (p.2) This additional cost of co-operation is associated with Tajfel’s (1974) Social Identity theory, and is supported by the quoted findings of Richard et al. (2002), Bandiera et al. (2005) and O’Reilly et al. (1989); that teams who share few commonalities find it hard to integrate and suffer from reduced co-operation and higher staff turnover. Empirical studies by Hoffman and Maier (1961) and Joshi and Roh (2009) are cited, and display a modest positive economic impact of workplace diversity.


Kemeny quotes Ottaviano and Peri’s (2006) findings that a 0.1 increase in the Fractionalization index increased native wages by 13% and rents more so within the US. Kemeny (2012) and Spaber (2010) find similar results, as does Bellini et al.’s (2013) European work. Alesina et al.’s (2013) global study finds birthplace diversity is positively related to GDP per capita and total factor productivity, with the strongest association in rich countries for high-skill workers.

However, Kemeny notes that many studies, including Suedekum et al.’s (2009) study of Germany and Nathan’s (2011) study of the UK, have demonstrated a negative economic effect of immigrant diversity, especially upon those in lower skilled jobs.

Citing empirical studies by Stephan and Levin (2001), Bosetti et al. (2012) and Hunt and Gauthier-Loiselle (2010), immigrant diversity is found to be positively linked to the number of research papers published and to the number of patent applications for highly skilled industries.

Kemeny finds that there is inconsistent evidence as to the link between immigration and entrepreneurship in Mariano et al. (2012), Audretsch et al. (2010) and Cheng and Li’s (2011) extant work.


Through his review Kemeny identifies a number of stylised facts across the relevant literature. Some of these follow.

The paper refers to a growing body of work supporting Bakens et al.’s (2013) findings that the individual’s characteristics emerge as the primary determinants of variation in wages and rents. Kemeny proposes individual heterogeneity may overstate diversity’s positive impact upon productivity, as immigrants may self-select areas based upon higher wages, personal interests and their skill level. The validity of the shift share instruments used to address reverse causality rely upon initial waves of immigrants having chosen locations based upon extra-economic concerns, which likely may not be the case.

Kemeny’s (2012) previous work finds that wages in areas with high levels of social capital, often promoted by regional institutions, are typically 7% higher than those living in equally diverse areas with lower levels of social capital, a consideration not accounted for by other authors.

Overall the paper finds little consensus as to the impact of team diversity within the organizational literature.

Several issues with the measurements currently used are highlighted. Productivity gains for lower-skilled labour may not necessarily result in wage increases, and process innovation within this segment may not be patented. Kemeny cites Alesina et al.’s (2013) findings that skin colour or language spoken at home are less likely to result in production complementarities than social values are. Their research finds ethnic fractionalization and birthplace diversity are largely unrelated, whilst birthplace also fails to capture the importance of second-generation immigrants. Under Roback’s (1982) Spatial Equilibrium, higher wages may either reflect greater productivity brought about by diversity, or compensate workers for the disutility of living in a diverse area. Because of this paradox one cannot determine from wages alone how productivity and diversity may be linked.

Kemeny condemns an inherent assumption of urban studies; that “bio-diversity reflects intellectual diversity” (p.35) and contends “the idea that national culture shapes heuristics and perspectives ought to be subject to empirical validation.” (p.37)

Kemeny argues, that based upon the literature reviewed, diversity is generally positively related to wages, and either rents, productivity or cultural amenities, with least square analysis’ demonstrating the direction of causality is from diversity to economic gain. It is reasoned that this indicates the productivity augmenting effects of immigrant diversity outweigh the cost of transacting across cultures.

Kemeny proposes that further work into the role of institutions, the relative importance of city specific manifestations of diversity and the differing impact of diversity between skill levels and industries would advance this modern field.



Value and Implications of the Research

Kemeny provides a useful viewpoint by combining the findings of both economic geography and organizational theory. In identifying limitations in the methodologies of both fields, future work can seek to address these issues and generate a better understanding of the relationship between immigrant diversity and economic development. This understanding may help inform frequently inaccurate (Economist, 2013) popular debates on immigration, which argue that immigration results in fewer jobs for natives (Kemeny, 2013) and a drain on state welfare (Economist, 2013). Furthermore greater understanding of how immigration affects the economy should result in better-informed immigration policy. The finding that institutions can augment economic gains may be beneficial to both immigrants and natives, and represent a pragmatic way to enhance the quality of life for both parties.

Limitations and Future Research

By omitting the level at which quoted results were found to be statistically significant, the paper makes it difficult to interpret the frequently contradicting results of the various research cited.

One issue Kemeny fails to address is whether mild racial or cultural preferences can produce extreme segregation in urban areas, as is illustrated by Schelling’s (1978) famous checkerboard model. Becker (1971) observed that the economic penalty to employers who display taste-based discrimination increased as the size of the group being discriminated against increased, therefore larger populations of immigrants should experience less discrimination and thus higher wages than smaller populations. Further discussion of the link between immigration and discrimination, and the economic impact of the latter may provide valuable insight to public policy debate and formulation.

Whilst Kemeny addresses the fact that many studies fail to acknowledge that individual competencies play a significant role, an issue the research does not expand upon is difference between immigrants of different cultural backgrounds. Immigrants from nations with similar language and cultural values will experience lower transactional costs (Rokeach, 1979), which correspond with Hofstede’s (2001) organizational research findings. Goodhart (2013) finds significant differences in economic prosperity between immigrants of different national origin in Britain during the 20th Century.

Whilst a controversial topic it must be noted that the recent consensus in psychology research is that there is a strong heritability of “intelligence” (Bouchard, 2004). As measures of “intelligence” have been shown to be linked to wage differentials (Benjamin et al. 2012), then it should be considered that the economic prosperity brought by immigrants may be related to their genetic makeup and enhancing genetic diversity (Ashraf and Galor, 2013; Ager and Bruckner, 2013). There is a growing body of work in this field of genoeconomics, broadly covered in Benjamin et al. (2012) and Navarro’s (2009) reviews of the existing literature, which could further enhance Kemeny’s spatial economics paper.

An additional source of heterogeneity is the individuals’ decision to emigrate. Ruiz and Vargas-Silva’s (2013) work finds that forced migration produces different economic effects to that of voluntary migration. An improved understanding of the reason for immigration may help explain the differences between skilled and unskilled labour, as one could hypothesise that those in skilled segments may be moving due to prearranged employment. The effect of capital stock brought by immigrants is also not considered, which would increase the steady state under the Solow (1956) model.

With the growing economic importance of Asia and Latin America (Mpoyi, 2012) future research considering immigration from the West to these nations would be of value to this field.


Ager, P.; Bruckner, M.; (2013) Immigrants’ Genes: Genetic Diversity and Economic Development in the US. Munich Personal RePEc Archive. Paper No. 51906

Ashraf, Q. and Galor, O. (2013) The ‘Out of Africa’ Hypothesis, Human Genetic Diversity, and Comparative Economic Development. American Economic Review. Vol. 103(1) pp.1-46

Becker, G. (1971) The Economics of Discrimination. 2nd Edition. University Of Chicago Press. Chicago.

Benjamin, D.; Cesarini, D.; Chabris, C.; Glaeser, E.; Laibson, D.; Guðnason, V.; Harris, T. et al. (2012) The promises and pitfalls of genoeconomics. Annual Review of Economics. Vol. 4 pp.627-662.

Bouchard, T. (2004) Genetic Influence on Human Psychological Traits: A Survey. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol. 13(4) pp.148-151

Goodhart, D. (2013) The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-war Immigration. Atlantic Books. London.

Hofstede, G. (2001) Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations. 2nd Edition. Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks, CA.

Kemeny, T. (2013) Immigrant Diversity and Economic Development in Cities: A Critical Review. Spatial Economics Research Centre. London School of Economics. Discussion Paper 149

Mpoyi, R. (2012) The Impact of the “BRIC Thesis” and the Rise of Emerging Economies on Global Competitive Advantage: Will There Be a Shift from West to East? Journal of Applied Business & Economics. Vol. 13(3) pp.36-47

Navarro, A. (2009) Genoeconomics: Promises and Caveats for a New Field. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Vol. 1167 pp. 57–65

Rokeach, M. (1979) Understanding Human Values. The Free Press. New York. NY.

Schelling, T. (1978) Micromotives and Macrobehavior. Norton. New York, NY.

Solow, R. (1956) A Contribution to the Theory of Economic Growth. The Quarterly Journal of Economics. Vol. 70(1) pp. 65-94

The Economist (Dec 21st 2013) British immigration. You’re Welcome.

The Economist (Nov 9th 2013) Little England or Great Britain.

Zhang, J. (2009) Tipping and residential segregation: a unified Schelling model. IZA Discussion Papers. No. 4413


2 thoughts on “Immigration and the Economy: An Interdisciplinary Subject

  1. Anthony Evans

    Dear Korinna,

    Thank you for your reply and interest in my comment. Your work on this topic looks to be exactly the kind of work I have been looking for and highly relevant to the areas I have been studying and my own interests, I shall be sure to read a copy of it!

    Kind regards and thanks again, Anthony


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