Is Britain pulling apart? Analysis of generational change in social distances

Lead Research Organisation: University of Stirling
Department Name: Applied Social Science


Daily life in Britain has changed in many important ways over recent decades. There have been longer-running demographic trends such as longer life expectancy and increased participation in education. Concurrently, independent adult living has increased. Routinely, people will have had other cohabiting partners before settling with a long term partner; will marry later than they would have in earlier decades; and will divorce or remarry more often. Patterns of fertility have also changed, first births occur later, and families have fewer children than in previous generations. Coupled with these demographic changes there have been notable developments in long-distance travel and, more recently, increased long-distance communication through electronic means (especially the internet). Taken together these changes may have substantial influence on patterns of social interaction in contemporary social life.

In this project we seek to paint a picture of social life in Britain through comprehensive empirical analyses of patterns in the 'social distance' between people. By social distance we mean the closeness (or distance) between different people who have connections to each other (such as family members or friends). We conjecture that changes in social distance are a useful barometer of social change.

Trends in social distance have sometimes been neglected within empirical sociological enquiries. This has partially been due to the lack of suitable data or the complexities of analysing data on linked individuals. Britain's exceptional resources in large-scale, longitudinal surveys, along with recent methodological innovations for the analysis of data on social connections, mean that it is now plausible to propose systematic analyses of trends in social distance using large-scale representative survey data.

In contemporary societies social connections are important because they provide essential economic, social and psychological support. Social connections also help to shape individual attitudes, values and expectations. In many areas of social science, there is growing recognition that to comprehensively understand an individual's circumstances, we need to know more about the circumstances of those in their networks (i.e. their 'nearest and dearest'). Understanding patterns of social distance can therefore offer major insights into the composition of contemporary social structures.

In the proposed analyses we are interested in exploring a wide range of different domains that are indicative of changes (or stability) in social distance. This will be a unique departure from conventional approaches that concentrate on standard socio-economic outcomes. The wide spectrum of these domains includes the connections between the political values and opinions of related people, through to their patterns of health and use of support services.

Social distance trends on certain socio-economic measures have been studied in sociology and economics. Typically the focus of empirical studies has been upon either educational or occupational similarity (or homophily), or upon intergenerational associations. Large-scale surveys have not been fully exploited to assess the diverse aspects of social distance in an integrated manner. Therefore the proposed project is intellectually innovative.

Funding is requested to support one full time researcher and the three investigators in a coordinated set of analyses oriented towards at least four publication objectives. The research fellow has appropriate pre-existing expertise in working with data on social connections and applying advanced statistical methods to social connections data. The proposed project builds directly upon previous ESRC supported activities which focussed upon analysing social networks and occupational data. The research will provide a solid empirical platform upon which theoretical claims about changing social circumstances in Britain can be formally tested.

Planned Impact

The project plans a number of activities designed to promote its research to wider audiences in a productive way. Strategies including dissemination plans and network engagement are noted in 'Pathways to Impact'. We argue that policy oriented audiences should in particular gain from what we hope will be accessible outputs from an important sociological topic. Examples of target communities could include local and national government policymakers, and 'think tanks', social justice and equality charities, and lobbying groups.

This research will be timely in terms of both feeding into contemporary social debates on social segregation/integration, and also emerging academic debates around homophily. Social integration and segregation are important issues in contemporary society, and there is much press coverage of the extent to which certain ethnic and religious groups are integrating (cf. Finney and Simpson 2009). Previous research has rarely achieved representative analysis of the multiple factors which can shape interaction patterns and their various consequences; the current project has an exciting opportunity to develop high quality empirical evidence on this complex topic.

We believe that by mapping structures of social distance we can gain a more thorough understanding of the social distance between groupings which may have policy implications in many domains (such as regarding ethnicity, immigration, religion, disability). Our methods will enable us to develop, from statistical representations of the social distance between groupings, comparisons which could be more easily understood by the wider public. We may be able to describe trends, for instance, by arguing that the difference between two social groups was previously like the difference between Guardian and Sun readers, but is now more like the gap between Guardian and Times readers (for example). Indeed, by mapping the social interaction structure, the study will enable a more refined and nuanced description of social ties between groups. This will enable existing attention to of social integration and segregation to be informed improved measures of distance, and measures of relative social inclusion should be generated which can improve upon the simpler data (on proportions of social groups) which is currently widely used.

Key outcomes influenced by social connections will also be analysed. Examples of important topics that we will be able to assess include: the effects of family members' illnesses or health patterns on longer-term health, social or career outcomes; whether political or social attitudes of social contacts correlate to socio-economic outcomes or aspirations; and the impact of social contacts' religious or cultural positions on values including health behaviours. We believe there is much potential further scope for future analyses of social distance patterns, and therefore one of the aims of the research will be to promote a wider programme of research and disseminate our methods to the wider academic audience to facilitate further adoption of our methods.

By demonstrating use of secondary data to study social distance, the project will showcase the substantive contributions of major ESRC research resources to a wider audience. A key input involves illustrating how a household design such as that of the BHPS means we can not only measure homophily amongst cohabiters, but can additionally analyse whether people have gone on to live with people similar to themselves or similar to other members of their previous home, helping us for instance to understand more about the stability or change in individuals' interaction patterns.
Description The project explored empirical evidence from a variety of large scale secondary survey datasets on patterns of 'social distance', which were defined in terms of the difference between social categories as measured by data on the frequency of social interactions between the incumbents of those categories. Social distance was explored in terms of socio-economic categories such as occuaptions and educational qualifications (for the UK over the period 1970-2012, and for 12 other countries); in terms of socio-demographic categories such as ethnicity and age groups (for the UK over the same period and for 4 other countries); and in terms of categories of social preferences and cultural behaviour, such as newspaper readership and leisure preferences (for the contemporary UK and for Sweden). The project undertook a series of linked empirical research investigations directed towards four paper publication objectives, as well as runing workshop, seminar and dissemination events. Empirical research proceeded largely as planned, and, as anticipated, slightly different evidence of social change emerged from studying social distance in different domains. At time of writing, the four target paper publications are still in preparation, and likely publication dates are now a few months later than scheduled, in 2015/16.
Principal research findings were that:
- Data on people with social connections to the individual under study (e.g. information about their friends; or information about other individuals in the same household) is available in many secondary datasets, and is empirically important in many analytical scenarios (ignoring such data, as is common practice in social research, risks introducing biases). Several statistical methods offer promising future opportunities for exploiting such information.
- Social distance structures between social categories are shaped by influences that can usefully be defined as different 'dimensions' to social interaction patterns. A dimension of 'social advantage' or 'social stratification' is the most consistently important factor in social interaction patterns, but other interesting dimensions can be identified, related, amongst other things, to gender, age/life-course stage, and region.
- Both the 'order' of social distance structures involving social categories, and the relative 'density' of social connections, with regard to socio-economic domains, have barely changed over 40 years in the UK, and have also barely changed over observation periods of between 50 and 20 years in 12 other countries. This led us to conclude that, in terms of social distance patterns, neither Britain, nor Europe, was 'pulling apart'
- There have however been some substantial changes over time or between birth cohorts in social distance patterns linked to demographic and to lifestyle patterns. In general, these have been in the direction of increased social intermixing and reduced exclusivity: a model of 'Britian pulling together' rather than of 'Britain pulling apart'. These trends are important in their own right and also should be taken into consideration when exploring socio-economic trends, with which they interact.
In light of the above evidence, we reached two general conclusions:
(a) there is a good methodological case for further research into social connections and social distance structures: these are currently fairly peripheral aspects of many empirical investigations within the social sciences, but they have potential to offer new insights about a range of different mechanisms
(b) a large body of academic and popular literature that offers commentary and theories premised on the assumption of substantial social change in the direction of increasing social polarisation in Britain is flawed. Our evidence suggests that a number of important social inequalities have been stable for an extended period, and some inequalities have been reduced over time. More theoretical effort is needed to explain stability and/or increasing equality.
Subsequent to the end of the project we continue to pursue related research and academic publication objectives based on findings from the study. We also have prospective but as yet unconfirmed plans for further funded research developing from the project, in particular with regard to the potential use of social distance measures as indexes of inequality, and the analysis of social distance patterns from earlier periods in time.
Exploitation Route Academic dissemination and communication was prominent throughout the project. Four papers were developed, presented to international conferences, and are due for submission for journal publication shortly. A website, twitter feed, and a popular blog site were all established at the start of the project and used throughout its duration (available from These outlets, hosted by the University of Stirling, will remain available, with occasional updates, at no cost over the coming years. An accessible review of the project's findings was also written for the nationally disseminated Understanding Society 'Findings' booklet, and a large number of dissemination and knowledge exchange events were run during the project that attracted interest in the research, all of which have the potential to lead to forthcoming developments and new research opportunities. Forthcoming scientific impact will be pursued primarily by following through on publication plans and by the motivation of the researchers to pursue follow-on funding and publication opportunities in the field.

The project attracted a great deal of academic interest during its lifetime - for instance generating several invitations to present materials to departmental groups and research organisations. This may reflect the relationship between the study of social distance and that of social inequality. The latter concept is central to most social science research questions, and there has been a recent growth in cross-disciplinary interest in social inequality. Accordingly we anticipate that a new route to scientific impact will be through further developing analyses and publications on the relationship between social distance and social inequality.

The project's work also coincided with a very influential publication by Savage et al. in UK sociology in which cultural participation was argued to be a central aspect of class location. The project team have already taken steps to engage with this work, which shares themes of social distance, and prospectively they hope to pursue further research on the relationship between cultural consumption, social distance and social inequality.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The project's main research finding, that social change related to social inequality in Britain is not as dramatic as it is sometimes believed to be, is one with non-academic resonance. This message has been disseminated through social media and online sources. It has also been conveyed in short accessible notes within two promotional publications that are designed to reach non-academic audiences interested in the social sciences: in the publication 'Understanding Society - Insight' (2014) (, and in the ESRC Society Now magazine (Spring 2015) ( The project's plenary presentation to the 2014 Radical Statistics conference was given to a group which aims to promote ideas outside academia (this group themed their whole conference on the question posed by the project, 'Is Britain Pulling Apart', and produced a subsequent special issue of their journal with this title). This conference and publication demonstrate how the ideas, evidence and debates raised by the project influence non-academic attention to social inequality. The plenary presentation from this meeting is available online by video making it accessible to non-academic audiences ( ; ) The project's social media presence involved a blog and Twitter account which were regularly updated. Several Twitter entries were 'retweeted' by users from non-academic policy and research organisations, suggesting influence on this sector. The blog features 14 publicly available discussion articles, written in a deliberately accessible style (e.g., and there is some evidence of it reaching non-academic audiences. For example, it fed into one of the most high profile 'Public Sociology' debates of recent years concerning the 'Great British Class Survey', with our blogpost being one of three that the authors of that survey choose to respond to and being cited in the recent Sociological Review special issue; the project team also gave an invited paper on this debate to a Social Statistics seminar at the Royal Statistical Society (May 2013) to a mixed academic/non-academic audience) ( ; Another popular output from the blog has been accessible materials highlighting alternative ways of using UKHLS and BHPS data (which align with SDAI objectives). Relevant outputs include a blogposts on 'the influence of others' and a linked Youtube interview given by Professor Vernon Gayle (; and materials on converting group data for Social Network Analysis; and on analysing news consumption data and analysing the social connections/network data, both of which were published not long after the data came out. Many of these resources enable potential users of the UKHLS to understand more about what's included, which could appeal to non-academic audiences.
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy
Impact Types Societal

Description MSc level training provisions
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact Inputs of materials on data management and on social networks and social distance to course materials for MSc level training at: - Essex Summer School in Social Science Data Analysis (2010->) - MSc Social Statistics and Social Research (2014 ->, University of Stirling) Participants in these initiatives are now exposed to materials on advanced data management and on social networks and social distance which impacts upon their understanding and research capacity
Description Assessment of the impact of contemporary immigration on the UK's Muslim community (SGSSS-ESRC studentship)
Amount £50,000 (GBP)
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2018 
End 09/2021
Description Equality and Human Rights Commission - Research briefs
Amount £30,000 (GBP)
Organisation Equality and Human Rights Commission 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2015 
End 05/2015
Description Supporting the key influencers in young people's career development
Amount £48,000 (GBP)
Organisation Skills Development Scotland 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2017 
End 09/2020
Description The evolution of social networking and its impact on Career Management Skills
Amount £45,000 (GBP)
Organisation Skills Development Scotland 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2014 
End 09/2017
Description 'Is Britain Pulling Apart' Engagement workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Talks given on research into social distance, by project members and other invited speakers. These provoked interest and discussion on policy themes relevant to social structure and social inequality

Several workshop participants subsequently followed project blog and twitter accounts and made contact with project members.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description 'Is Britain Pulling Apart' blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Blog postings have led to follow-up contacts and expressions of interest from academic and non-academic communities

In response to blog postings, members of policy communities have contacted project investigators to ask for further details
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013,2014,2015,2016