Brexit and Belonging (Part 1)

Brexit and Belonging (Part 1)

Brexit and Belonging: An interview with Katharine Tyler (Associate Professor in Anthropology, University of Exeter) and Cathrine Degnen (Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Newcastle University) about their anthropological research into Brexit, by Andrew Whitehouse (Lecturer in Anthropology, University of Aberdeen).

I recently interviewed Katharine Tyler (Principal Investigator) and Cathrine Degnen (Co-Investigator) about their new interdisciplinary project on Brexit, identity and belonging in England. The first part of their answers to my questions are below. Part two will follow soon.

The title of our project is Identity, belonging and the role of the media in Brexit Britain. We are a team of researchers based at the University of Exeter and Newcastle University. More details about the research and the team can be found at:

Why did you develop the Brexit and Belonging project and how does it build on the previous research you’ve done in Britain?

This project has a long history. We have both worked as social anthropologists of Britain for two decades, conducting in-depth place-based ethnographic fieldwork in different locales in England. Katharine Tyler (University of Exeter) has worked with a focus on critical race and ethnicity studies, the formation of white racial identities, social class, nationhood, racism, articulations of everyday multiculturalism and postcolonialism; Cathrine Degnen (Newcastle University) has focused on the lived experience of social transformation, later life, self and personhood, social memory and place.

In the summer of 2016, after the referendum on whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union, we were completing a two-year project of writing for and co-editing a volume on ethnographic perspectives on contemporary Britain (Degnen and Tyler eds. 2017  Reconfiguring the Anthropology of Britain: Ethnographic, Theoretical and Interdisciplinary Perspectives). The contributions of the authors to that volume, in parallel with our own long-term interests in the socio-cultural contours of British lives, places and identities, sharpened up our thinking about how the referendum outcome was being interpreted. We could see how a model was shaping up in the media, political discourse and in the academic commentaries we were reading, one that sought to clarify the vote outcome. Indeed, this explanatory model still informs the story that is told today, whereby the British nation is described as deeply polarised along class, geography, race, migration identities, generation and profound economic shifts that have not been equally distributed. Underpinning this image of a divided nation is the contested idea that the ‘white working class’, and particularly older generations of people, living in post-industrial areas of Britain were motivated to support the Leave camp because they were anti-immigration and dissatisfied with the loss of national sovereignty; this is contrasted to the younger white middle class ‘cosmopolitan elite’ that reside in the southeast of England and who are thought to represent the pro-Remain camp. Some commentators also argued that Asian and Black Britons supported the Remain camp due to the xenophobic undertones of the Leave campaign. This model draws heavily on the analysis of aggregate electoral data on a macro-level scale. We felt that this analysis strips away much of what we know, ethnographically, about contemporary Britain. It erases and flattens profoundly contextualising aspects of British history and culture, such as issues of immigration, of Empire, of nationhood, of generation, of social transformation, of post-industrialism, of multiculturalism and of senses of belonging (to what? for whom? by whom?). All of these also inform lived experience in Britain, and what motivates and frames people’s perspectives, but were not properly accounted for in the analyses of this era of Brexit that we were reading.

Additionally, in learning about Brexit and watching the narratives of Brexit Britain unfold, we gained a deep sense that the media was in some ways inseparable from the current political and social processes. With this in mind, we sought out our colleagues in political science and with expertise in media analysis (co-investigators Professor Susan Banducci, Dr Travis Coan and Professor Dan Stevens, University of Exeter) to bring their powerful insights based on large scale quantitative analysis of narratives about Brexit circulating in the media, and to see what purchase that would permit us when wedded to our fine-grained ethnography. Thus, together with the project’s  postdoctoral researchers, Dr Laszlo Horvath in politics and Dr Joshua Blamire in anthropology at the University of Exeter, the Brexit and Belonging team is working ethnographically across diverse  field-sites in England spanning the northeast (Newcastle, Northumbria and Sunderland), midlands (Leicester and Boston) and southwest (Exeter and Devon) with people on their views and experiences of Brexit, and simultaneously via quantitative media analysis, mapping large sets of media coverage for tone and narrative. This mixed methods approach permits us new insights into how it is that people across diverse places in England in terms of socio-economic and multicultural profiles are “living Brexit”, how they are making sense of both their everyday experiences and media coverage, and indeed, how it is that they are living across difference and belonging in its multiple forms – age, class, place, race, ethnicity, nationality, migration and citizenship status.

You began from a concern that the debates surrounding Brexit focused on certain rather crude distinctions, a division that sections of the media (often following Goodhart’s ‘Anywhere’ and ‘Somewhere’ argument) have often described as a ‘culture war’.  As anthropologists we have a longstanding interest in ‘culture’ as a way of understanding difference. When we look at people’s views on Brexit, are these views underpinned by cultural differences in the way anthropologists might understand them?  Do the people you’re speaking to in your fieldwork think of Brexit in terms of a culture war or do they have other ways of thinking about their differences from other voters?

The term ‘culture war’ originates in the United States and is particularly bound up with American religious and economic conservatism in contrast to a more liberal, progressive worldview. Common trigger points for political and social debates in the United States between these two camps include abortion, gun control, affirmative action, identity politics including race, gender and sexuality, immigration and equal rights. Some media commentators would seek to apply this framework to the UK in order to describe differences between the Leave and Remain camps. For instance, they might invoke culture wars over Brexit along class, ethnic, racial, political, geographical and generational lines, and they might extend that notion of culture wars to point to an anger at, for instance, “political correctness gone mad”. However, it seems to us that the ‘war’ between religious conservatism and liberal progressivism in America does not map very well onto contemporary British debates. It also does not help us to explain the firming up of Leave and Remain identity positions that we are experiencing in our varied fieldwork sites. Furthermore, the phrase ‘culture wars’ is not ethnographically salient for us in that the people we are engaging with across our field-sites do not (so far in our research) use the term to describe the issues they are grappling with around Brexit.

Having said this, for some of the people participating in our research, there is a real and deep sense of difference between those who support Remain and those who support Leave. ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ are terms and positionalities that are sometimes deployed to capture a sense of distinction in deeply moral, social and political worldviews. However, this does not map neatly onto ideas of class, ethnicity, race, generation, geography or political identity as the model of culture wars might have us believe. And it is an emergent form of distinction and identity that cross-cuts and co-exists with other already established forms of difference, such as place-based distinctions, in often unpredictable ways. Also of keen interest to us are the ways in which supporters of Leave and supporters of Remain come to imagine and construe the beliefs of people (including friends and family and those who are not) thought to be on the ‘other side’ of the Brexit debate to them. On the flip side of this are the people who may have had very different political worldviews and life experiences, but who have become united by a shared belief in the moral and political necessity and sense of social justice of leaving or of staying in the EU.

Intriguingly, and perhaps contradictorily, the idea of cultural difference is commonly deployed in everyday speech in Britain to refer to ethnic, racial and national differences. This has been amply illustrated by anthropologists and sociologists studying everyday multiculturalism and racism. In these contexts, ideas about culture can be mobilised to create racialised distinctions between people, divisions that constitute the much scrutinised discourses and practices of cultural racism. And yet, when thinking about culture, we find ourselves returning to how culture is about practice: Paul Gilroy (1987) describes how culture is ‘a field articulating the life world of subjects (albeit decentred) and the structures created by human activity’. Culture is not something static but is, of course, processual. It cannot be captured in a list of qualities constituting a war of identity and difference, but is as complex as human experience itself. It is forged in the doing of everyday life, with all the challenges and complexities that presents. It is this concept of culture we invoke, that helps us grasp the complexities of our field-sites and what people living in them are making of Brexit, rather than the polarised Cultures of the ‘culture wars’.

The Identity, Belonging and Role of the Media in Brexit Britain project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Published by The School of Social Science, University of Aberdeen

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