A Day Without Immigrants, Washington, DC (Photo: Ted Eyton/Wikimedia Commons)

When political discourse in the U.S. turns to immigration, “us” and “them” are categories bandied about with little thought paid to their definitions. It’s implied: “us” often refers to white, English-speaking Americans, who may only be a generation or two removed from a family history of immigration themselves.

This type of rhetoric, or “boundary rhetoric,” creates categories of belonging and exclusion between the in-group “us” and the out-group “them.” Over time, boundary rhetoric in political discourse may affect who is accepted, who is marginalized, and who receives access to important resources.

A new project, funded by the Russell Sage Foundation and led by Santa Fe Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Tamara van der Does, alongside SFI Professor Mirta Galesic and Indiana University Professor Dina Okamoto will analyze around 500,000 congressional speeches from Senate and House proceedings to create a larger picture of the use of boundary rhetoric over nearly the last century of American political discourse.

By examining boundary rhetoric in the congressional record, the researchers seek to contextualize the relationship between the identities that define people’s lived experiences and how policy makers discuss and shape those identities as they make laws.

“I was talking to my colleague Vicky Chuqiao Yang* and she mentioned this data set on congressional speeches,” explains van der Does, “and I thought it would be interesting to see how policy makers discuss different groups and create these categories. After World War II, boundary rhetoric was used to justify the internment of Japanese Americans by categorizing them as un-American. Boundary rhetoric is used to justify policies that exclude people.”

Although the research uses computational methods, it will be guided by a deep understanding of the sociological theory underlying symbolic boundaries around immigration.

“This approach offers the opportunity to computationally test sociological theories in a large data set over a long period of time,” says Galesic. “[We can ask] what kinds of social and economic circumstances create a perceived threat for the majority group? How does that contribute to the in-group/out-group rhetoric?”

The researchers hope that gaining a new perspective on boundary rhetoric in policy, and its source within changing demographics and political shifts, will contribute to a more nuanced picture of the U.S. as a “nation of immigrants.” 


*Yang is an SFI Omidyar Fellow and Peters Hurst Scholar.