Progressive Futures

The division bell

17 October 2017

When it comes to politics, are we just talking to ourselves?

Ralph Scott

Politics has always been about divides: it’s no coincidence that parliamentary votes in the UK are called ‘divisions’.

So the contemporary concern over political divides has the potential to be a fuss over nothing: in a liberal democracy, there will always be different competing interests. The point of politics, as Bernard Crick described, is to reconcile these without resort to coercion or violence.

Yet, there appears to be something different and more entrenched about the current divisions in British society, and consequently our politics. More frequently, criticisms across the divide have a moral component, with opponents cast as enemies, and therefore of questionable, sometimes treacherous, motives. The differences are more essential, with those on either side seeming not to share experiences or a common language.

Discussion of these divisions and their roots has been fuelled by the vote to leave the EU in 2016 and to a lesser extent by the general election earlier this year. Analysis by Will Jennings and Gerry Stoker argues convincingly that these results are expressions of a longer-term political trend (since at least 2005) propelled by socio-economic changes, including those wrought by globalisation and the expansion of participation in higher education.

There are also changes in how people acquire their political information and engage in political discussion – an arena where social media increasingly play a significant role. Analysis of Twitter data by the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos has found that in terms of political affiliation, social media users often operate in ‘echo chambers’, while researchers at NYU, influenced by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, found that tweets using moral-emotional language (such as ‘wrong’, ‘attack’ and ‘hate’) were overall more popular with users, albeit within partisan networks, and not across political divides.

It was in this context that we at The Challenge, the UK’s leading social integration charity, decided to carry out research into social integration and political attitudes.

As an organisation, we define social integration as the extent to which strong social ties, maintained through a web of relationships and interactions, inspire bonds of trust, reciprocity and solidarity between people from all backgrounds.

Our previous research has demonstrated that, on average, Britons interact socially with someone of a different ethnicity less than half as often as would be expected if their social circles reflected the demographic makeup of their local area.

So it is not uncommon for people to live peacefully alongside others from different walks of life but to meet, mix and connect almost exclusively with people from similar backgrounds, with deleterious consequences for integration, and in turn for trust, civic participation and social capital.

Our latest research finds that this self-segregation is also found in our political networks.

As part of the British Election Study, pollsters asked over 16,300 people if they could think of anyone they ‘sometimes talk to about politics’. They were then asked for more information about these people, such as their ethnicity and social class.

Our analysis of this data found that of those who named at least one person with whom they discussed politics, 89 per cent did so only with people of the same ethnicity, and 80 per cent with people of the same social class.

We also found significant differences across social groups, particularly in terms of cross-ethnic discussion. Young people are three times more likely than older people to report discussing politics with someone of a different ethnic group. The North-West is the British region least likely to report doing the same, striking given its relative ethnic diversity. And White British people are by far the least likely to have someone of another ethnicity in their network. This is the case even controlling for the demographics of their area.

This matters, as perhaps the most reliable finding in the history of social psychology – repeatedly demonstrated since Gordon Allport described it in The Nature of Prejudice – is that positive contact with someone from a different background to yourself (or an ‘outgroup’ member to use the technical term) leads to a reduction in prejudice and a more positive estimation of that outgroup.

This appears to be the case regardless of the setting: in neighbourhoods, schools or workplaces in countries across the world; and for all kinds of possible divisions, whether ethnic, social class, sexuality or disability.

We see this all the time in our practice, as a charity that has provided more than 150,000 young people with the opportunity to meet, mix and connect with those from different backgrounds, and play their part in a more socially integrated society.

However, there is less information on the consequences of this kind of integrated contact for wider social and political attitudes. This is what our study is now going on to examine, by exploring the relationships between social integration and nativism, authoritarianism and political participation.

Hopefully, this will provide some answers as to how our tendency to self-segregate influences our ability to negotiate across differences and reach a settlement, and therefore how it affects our politics.

Follow Ralph at @ralphascott

Image credit: f11photo / Shutterstock.com