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US versus Them: Mass Attitudes toward Offshore Outsourcing


Economists have argued that outsourcing is another form of international trade. However, based on a representative national survey of Americans conducted in 2007 and 2009, the distribution of preferences on these two issues appears to be quite different. This article examines the origins of attitudes toward outsourcing, focusing on the extent to which it reflects (1) the economic vulnerabilities of individuals; (2) the information they receive about outsourcing, including their subjective understanding of what constitutes outsourcing; and (3) noneconomic attitudes toward foreign people and foreign countries. The findings emphasize the importance of variations in understandings of the term, as well as the highly symbolic nature of attitudes toward this issue. Individuals who believe the US should distance itself from international affairs more generally, who are nationalistic, or who feel that members of other ethnic and racial groups within the US are less praiseworthy than their own group tend to have particularly hostile reactions to outsourcing. The informational cues people receive are also important influences on their understanding of and attitudes toward outsourcing. Experimental results further emphasize the symbolic nature of attitudes toward outsourcing. Taken together, the results strongly suggest that attitudes are shaped less by the economic consequences of outsourcing than by a sense of “us” versus “them.”