Surveys, Race and Symbolic Violence Van der Pekbuurt in Amsterdam. Once relatively poor and dilapidated. Now that it has been renovated, it is gentrifying rapidly, becoming increasingly white and middle class. Photo by Bart Boeijen

Surveys, Race and Symbolic Violence

This blog argues that the inhumane and racist treatment of non-white citizens in the Toeslagenaffaire, while shocking, draws on common racist logics we also encounter in seemingly innocuous surveys and research reports.

The recent hearings in the Toeslagenaffaire show how racial prejudice and a desire to hunt down welfare fraud resulted in the inhumane treatment of non-white recipients of child support subsidies, who were selected for extra scrutiny through the proxy of dual citizenship. In this blog, we argue that some surveys and research reports reproduce similar racist logics, and thereby perpetrate an insidious form of symbolic violence.

Racist questionnaire

Over the last few years, Wiebe has participated in a large scale, survey-based research on child development and family relations carried out by researchers of a university in the Netherlands. It usually takes about forty to fifty minutes to complete the questionnaires. In keeping with standard research ethics, Wiebe’s time is financially compensated and one of the researchers always gets in touch to personally explain the research procedures.

In the most recent questionnaire, Wiebe was also asked about his political attitudes. He was asked to “completely disagree”, “disagree”, “neither agree or disagree” “agree” or “completely agree” with statements like “ethnic minorities are generally not to be trusted”, “ethnic minorities come here to benefit from our social security”, and “ethnic minorities contribute to the prosperity of our country”.

Wiebe was appalled. He thought the questions were racist and perpetuated stigmatizing imagery that saturates public debates in the Netherlands. After completing the questionnaire, he sent an e-mail to let the researchers know how he felt about the questions. Wiebe first asked them whom they were referring to with the label “ethnic minorities”, Frysians? He wrote that the questionnaire hardly seemed designed with the people whom they labeled as ethnic minorities as possible participants in mind. He asked them whether they had considered asking about experiences with discrimination in the education system and the job market. He added that, for him, the worst part was the normalization of stigmatizing images of non-white citizens – because of course they were implied in the label “ethnic minorities” – as untrustworthy profiteers. He concluded by asking them to withdraw the questionnaire, and critically rethink their use of categories.

A week later, Wiebe received an email, thanking him for his feedback. It said the research team understood that some questions could engender surprise or annoyance, and confided that they too found the questions ‘heavy’ (heftig). But, the email explained, they were interested in how their participants function in society and how they think about polemic issues. They assured Wiebe that these questions corresponded to validated questionnaires used in research in the Netherlands and across Europe. The message concluded by stating that the research team tried to not let their personal opinions influence the development of the questionnaire.

The answer reduced Wiebe’s critique to a matter of (misplaced) political opinions and ignored his emphasis the research’s complicity in reproducing a conceptual world in which parts of the population are always already framed as outsiders. It echoed the claims to objectivity by immigrant integration researchers who, in fact, adopt a deeply ideological frame that posits society as a unified, homogeneous whole, while measuring how well or badly immigrants and their offspring ‘fit’ (Schinkel 2018). The email only confirmed Wiebe’s observation that the use of such questions is deeply normalized.


Wiebe’s recent experience parallels Anouk’s earlier experiences with a survey from the Amsterdam statistical office about livability and urban blight (verloedering) in Amsterdam East, where she lives. Anouk received the survey three years in a row between 2011 and 2013. The survey consisted of three sections. The first, relatively short section asked about her perception of her neighbourhood’s livability, with questions ranging from the maintenance of public space and social cohesion among neighbors. The second, much longer section, asked about experiences with nuisance, petty crime, and forms of anti-social behavior, including catcalling. The final section focused on how she experienced “living together with different people”, with difference defined as descent (afkomst) and faith, purportedly as a way to go beyond assumptions in the media regarding living with difference. To zoom in on “different people” after a long list of all things possibly wrong in the neighborhood already felt tricky, but the statements with which to agree or disagree were harrowing. In the 2013 version, which Anouk saved, they varied from “the presence of population groups with other norms and values in this neighborhood gives me an unpleasant feeling” to “I am satisfied with the population composition in this neighborhood”, and “Nuisance from young people from other population groups causes tensions in this neighborhood.”

Anouk was infuriated by these questions. In the comment section she pointed out that these questions were leading and dubious. They draw on and reproduce a negative narratives about the problems with “other population groups”, in which white Dutch residents never figure as a source of nuisance or trouble. These questions were, moreover, useless since the survey did not ask the respondents how they identified in ethnic terms. It would be hard to know how to interpret answers to a question like the one about nuisance by young people from “other population groups”.

In a 2009 publication, Justus Uitermark noted that the national livability index takes the share of residents with non-western migrant backgrounds, then still known as niet-westerse allochtonen, as an important negative indicator for livability (along with the share of social housing and low income households). Anouk’s own ethnographic work in Amsterdam (De Koning 2015) showed how such racialized visions of the desirable city shaped housing policy and other aspects of urban governance to the detriment of non-white Dutch residents. In 2019, during a discussion on neighborhood-based policies at the Ministry of Interior Affairs, Anouk was shocked to find that the latest version of the livability index still included the percentage of “non-western” residents as a criterion that negatively impacted livability (see Uitermark et al 2018). No wonder that the Bijlmer colors dark red on Amsterdam’s livability maps, declaring this prominent black urban area to be the most unlivable in the entire city. Anouk used her presentation time to ask how policy makers could even think about gaining the trust of non-white Dutch citizens if their instruments and reports reproduced such racialized narratives in which these same citizens always already figured as problems.

Racist violence

What all these surveys and indices have in common is that they convey and reproduce a racialized narrative of who is valued, and who is trouble, in the guise of an innocent pursuit of knowledge or the public good. These seemingly neutral, technical artefacts seem to assume a white Dutch respondent, whom they can poll about “other ethnic groups” and whose answers about the right social mix in the neighborhood can only mean that there are too many of them. When, in the 2013 survey, Anouk was asked whether she was happy with the composition of her neighborhood, we doubt her negative answer was taken to indicate that she would prefer a more diverse, less white neighborhood.

That such implicitly racist lines of questioning are part of ordinary, everyday surveys and calculations indicates that they are considered normal. They, in turn, further normalize such racialized thinking in terms of white Dutch and their others (Yanow et al. 2016), who are always those who are presumed not to fit the imagined norm, and represent trouble or lack (Schinkel 2018). Such thinking directly impacts policy making and, thereby, people’s lives.

These surveys and reports harm in other ways as well. They are a form of government and scholarly communication that conveys its biased, skewed view of the world in loud and clear terms to those “other” citizens. Such surveys pull you into their conceptual and moral world, and make you complicit in their ideas. This is the conceptual and moral world in which officials at the tax office thought of non-white parents as more likely to commit fraud, and considered it ok to hunt them down, in what became a horrifying example of systemic racism in the Netherlands. As well-educated, middle-class Dutch citizens, we are interpellated as citizens who belong, and not as potential problems. What if you, as a non-white respondent, find out that by simply living somewhere, you bring down the neighborhood’s livability? What if you are asked to answer questions about youths from “other population groups”, and you know they are in fact talking about you?

We consider such surveys an insidious form of state-sanctioned symbolic violence. As social scientists, we ask ourselves: What can we do to stop such symbolic violence in the cloak of neutral science or good policy practice? What are our moral, ethical obligations, and what power and authority can we wield to affect change?


Brionna Crooks

This article contains a wealth of information that is both practical and insightful. The author's research and analysis provide a deep understanding of the topic, and I look forward to reading more from them in the future.
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Anna Loppacher

Thank you so much for writing about this topic, and for sharing relevant literature! The situation you describe is appalling, yet unfortunately not surprising. In Norway, we have the same situation, some weeks ago, academics all over the country received a survey about freedom of speech in academia. I eagerly clicked on the link, as I expected questions about limited scope of research funding, business-oriented universities, and the policy-research nexus. I was completely shocked when I found that the questions were a collection of statements very much in line with the discursive climate you and Schinkel describe. This angle of formulating research questions implies that criticisms from anti-racist organisations and in some (very) seldom cases disciplinary action by the faculty or department in cases of blatantly racist utterances (I have never heard of disciplinary action relating to research within frameworks of systemic racism, the cases I know about were related to racist comments made by university employees in teaching/supervising situations) were somehow a limitation to academic freedom. And of course, the answer upon complaints was that the purpose of the study was to see how different ways of formulating the questions would affect the answers; seeing only one questionnaire could therefore be harsh. I have serious ethical and methodological concerns about research on linguistic nuances in such hurtful terms. Furthermore, linking blatant racism to a question of freedom of speech in the way the researchers did, is a position only right wing populist party representatives and right wing extremists voice in public. Pointing that out, however, leads to the exact same reactions you describe.

I think part of what we as social scientists can do about this, is to contribute to spreading theoretical approaches that critique notions such as integration in stead of taking them for granted, and comment on colleagues using categories that are part of political discourses, in their analyses (since it all too often happens that social scientists hear about a perspective, say ‘yes, this is important and interesting’ and then go on doing their research as usual, without taking the time to reflect around possible impact of said perspectives on their practice). On a more structural level, I think lobbying towards less policy-oriented research funding is key. Here, organisations like EASA can play a role, but also board members of universities/faculty. In the past years, Norway has seen a campaign towards revaluing the Humanities, which has led to funding for multidisciplinary projects involving e.g. philosophers and health researchers. Such funding programmes have so far yielded interesting results, among other a book discussing the use of statistics in health research with contributors with diverse backgrounds, from philosophy, medicine, health researchers, and as patients (https://www.springer.com/gp/book/9783030412388#aboutBook). Similar projects investigating the use of categories and statistics in social scientific research would strengthen discussions about systemic racism in research contexts, and make such discussion reach further than within specific subdisciplines.

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