Identity, Belonging and the Role of the Media in Brexit Britain

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Sociology, Philosophy, Anthropology

Abstract

Since the referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, there has emerged a highly controversial picture of Britain as deeply polarised along racial, ethnic, class, geographical and generational lines. Crucial to this much debated image is the idea that the 'white working class', and particularly older generations of people, living in post-industrial areas of Britain were motivated to vote Leave because they are anti-immigration and dissatisfied with the loss of national sovereignty; this is in contrast to the younger middle class 'cosmopolitan elite' that reside in the South East of England and who are thought to represent the pro-Remain camp.

While much of the scholarly attention on Brexit has focused on competing narratives in the media and debates amongst political elites, little attention has been paid ethnographically to everyday experiences of post-Brexit UK. Our aim is to explore with a diversity of research participants from a wide range of different social backgrounds what they think about questions of immigration, local, national and European belonging in the face of Britain's exit from the EU. To do this we will conduct ethnographic research with residents from different geographical areas across England (the North East, the South West and the East Midlands) and from differing ethnic, migration, age, national, religious and class backgrounds. The fieldwork will include in-depth interviews with family members and within broader social networks to explore how research participants' attitudes are shared and reproduced (or not) within families, across generations, amongst friendship networks and neighbours. Emphasis will be put on the ways in which individuals across differing identities and geographical locations share similar or contrasting views on questions of immigration and national belonging, and attention will be paid to the differing emotional registers that shape people's engagements with what it means to belong or not to Britain and Europe.

Because the media has become inseparable from political and social processes our ethnographic study is especially innovative in its exploration of how everyday uses of the media frame people's attitudes on these issues. Our contention is that to understand the role of the media in informing people's views on immigration, belonging and identity, we need to understand what the media narratives on Brexit are, and how people deploy these narratives (or not) in their everyday discussions. To do this, we will conduct a quantitative media content analysis to identify themes, images, tone and frames in the media coverage (including television news, local and national newspapers and Twitter) from the time of the referendum campaign to the present day. This media analysis will afford a broad contextual landscape within which to position individuals' views on immigration and belonging. We will also introduce selected media narratives into our fieldwork interviews and discussions allowing us to explore the types of knowledge individuals mobilise to engage with diverse media representations on Brexit. This process will be contextualised within participant observation of individuals' daily media practices with a focus on practices relating to news on Brexit and its outcomes.

Our findings will inform: a) strategies implemented by local organisations to tackle social polarisation and inequality within the fieldsites; b) national government policies on social cohesion and migration; c) media and parliamentary debates about the role of the media on influencing public understanding and democractic processes especially in the current 'post-factual' and fragmented media environment; d) debate with British publics on issues of immigration, national and European belonging and the role of the media in shaping public opinion on Brexit. These are issues that resonate internationally given the growing global sense of profoundly shifting political and media landscapes.

Planned Impact

The overarching aim of this impact strategy is to inform local and government policies and wider public debate about social polarisation and immigration in Brexit Britain especially in the face of social inequalities and divisions that threaten to destabilise the quality of life in the UK. The research aims to benefit four constituencies: 1) Community-based organisations situated within each fieldsite involved in promoting equality for residents and fostering inclusion of minorities; 2) Government agencies concerned with Britain's exit from the EU; 3) Media regulators and journalists interested in the influence of the media on public opinion and democratic processes; 4) The British public.

1. Community-based organisations

The tackling of social polarisation and the fostering of cohesion between minorities and majorities, immigrants and the established population and the eradication of racist hate crimes is of central concern to a number of local organisations to the fieldwork sites. This research aims to enhance and inform the work of these organisations by giving them a voice in the research design and a sense of ownership in the project by inclusion of representatives from local organisations on the project's advisory board. Some groups are helping us recruit research participants, and we are offering to engage research participants as (paid) community researchers for additional data collection. Through this collaboration we will discuss with the organisations how we can make our research findings useful to them in pursuit of their aims and to strengthen their strategies.


2. Brexit policy community

Government agencies including Parliament, the Department for Exiting the European Union, the Home Office, and the Foreign Office are concerned with developing effective immigration and social cohesion policies when Britain leaves the EU. For example, the Home Affairs Committee has recently launched (December 2016) an inquiry into developing a consensus on immigration policy. By engaging with the Brexit-policy community, this research aims to bring them into contact with the public, and academics, so that they can enter into dialogue with them to increase their understanding of: a) the public's views of Brexit, immigration, identity and belonging; and b) how media reporting of Brexit is reflected in the public's views.

3. The media
Journalists, media regulation bodies (Ofcom and IPSO) are well aware of the public criticism of the media in the aftermath of the Leveson inquiry, and their role in the debate on the Brexit referendum. Journalists and regulatory bodies have a social and political responsibility to ensure that ethnic minorities and other minority groups are properly represented and given a voice in the media. These groups also have an interest in public confidence in social and traditional media in the current 'post-factual' media environment and the impact of the media on democratic processes. E.g., there is currently a Parliamentary inquiry on fake news http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/culture-media-and-sport-committee/news-parliament-2015/fake-news-launch-16-17/. Our aim is to discuss our findings appertaining to the role of the media by engaging media representatives and ask them to critically reflect on their role and responsibility, and make suggestions for a code of practice on how these issues could be better represented in the media in the future.

4. The British Public

The Brexit debate seems to have triggered strong and often polarised views in the British public on issues of immigration and national belonging with reference to Britain's exit from the EU. In addition to giving the public a voice on these issues, we aim to engage the public in a critical reflection on the role of the media in influencing their own views, and the impact of the debate on others.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title News dashboard 
Description We designed and implemented an online dashboard tracking the news coverage of Brexit on a daily basis. This is primarily a research tool aiding ethnographic fieldwork by keeping the researchers up to date with relevant information about the most important national news, as well as all mentions of Brexit in the local papers on the field sites. Our data is sourced through publicly available APIs and the dashboard is hosted on the project website. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The researchers commented on the usefulness of the news tracker that gives them the same background information despite being located on different field sites. Furthermore, the local component enables them to be up to date on what local issues and concerns especially around employment are linked to Brexit. 
URL http://qsteplin.ex.ac.uk/brexitbelong/appie/output/index.html
 
Description A class on Brexit and Identity for members of the public learning English as a second language in the South West of England 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Participant in and design of a class on Brexit and Identity for 30 members of the public learning English as a second language in the South West of England. This sparked questions and discussion about the research and was relevant to the research findings. It also facilitated further participation involvement in the research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Interview for press 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Tyler interviewed by Jackie Bischof on Brexit metaphors and analogies. Tyler cited by Bischof in her artcile 'These tortured analogies can help you understand Brexit Better', Feb 8th 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://qz.com/1538016/what-is-brexit-in-analogies/
 
Description Presentation on Project to a Community College in Devon 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Talk on the project themes presented to 'A' level students at a Community College in Devon. This sparked questions and discussions afterwards. The teacher reported an increased interest in related subject areas. The teacher also reported the students enjoyed seeing research in action.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Project Website featuring instagram, twitter and media dash board 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We have set up and maintained a project website which also features instagram, Twitter and a media dashboard. The aim is to engage and include diverse publics in our research and its findings as they develop.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://www.brexitandbelonging.org/
 
Description Social and Cultural Perspectives on Brexit Britain: Identity, Belonging and the Media 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Hosted by the Newcastle University Institute for Social Renewal (NISR), I presented with three other speakers at the "Brexit and the North East discussion event" to an audience of approximately 70 people. This generated valuable research contacts with both Newcastle and Sunderland city councils, further invitations to speak on the research at community organisations, and research participant contacts. It also sparked wider recognition of the research within the university.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL https://blogs.ncl.ac.uk/nisr/brexit-and-the-north-east-discussion-event/
 
Description Thinking Anthropologically about Brexit Britain - Explore Life Long Learning talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact 45 participants attended for a class in life-long learning (similar to University of the Third Age), with seminar style discussion, and a further invitation to return to the organisation and present a series of three more lectures.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019