Tuesday, 8 August 2017

What does social media discourse around the UK’s 2016 EU Referendum reveal about the interplay between English national identity and globalisation? By Harry Gable

This month's blog post features the work of one of our undergraduate students, Harry Gable, and a summary of his prize winning dissertation. The Politics external examiner considered it to be worthy of publication. Below is a synopsis of the main arguments.

In a recently written dissertation, I conducted research which sought to add to the scholarship around the complex and often contradictory effects of modern globalisation on national identity, using contemporary English society as a case-study. To do this, qualitative analysis was carried out based on the public Twitter discourses surrounding both Remain and Leave campaigns in the immediate build-up to the UK’s referendum on membership of the EU on June 23 2016. The utilisation of social media was central to the aims of the research, since Twitter has become an accessible medium for the recorded expression of opinion across an increasing variety of topics and demographics (Park and Kaye 2017:174). Although there are limits to the reliability of views expressed in a maximum of 140 characters, it provides researchers with a tool for accessing a previously unquantifiable body of public opinion. This helps to broaden understanding of public discussion around complex social phenomena in a way that analysis of conventional policy and media discourse cannot provide. This blog will briefly summarise the key trends evident from the Remain and Leave data-sets (30 Tweets were taken from each side, using Twitter searches of #VoteRemain and #VoteLeave from 22 June 2016). From here, I will consider subsequent implications for the future of English national identity in an increasingly globalised world, before detailing what further research would deepen understanding of this important dynamic.

It is clear from my research that national identity represents an increasingly sharp social divide in contemporary England. Identity politics has become pervasive influence on modern English socio-political culture, and debate over the future of the nation occupies a prominent position in this discourse (Reeves, 2016). The Referendum provided an unusually direct forum for observation of this phenomenon, and it is my contention that the discourse surrounding it is a reliable indicator of significant trends in public perceptions of English national identity, facilitating discussion of globalisation, supranationality and modernity. 

Overall, my research revealed that Remain voters on social media appear to have a positive conception of modern globalised realities, embracing the prosperity it has brought and the need to accept that no country can succeed in isolation. The cohort collectively lends support to the modernist conception of national origins and promote a civic brand of nationalism. In line with the theory that social organisation is a fluid product of macro-economic forces (Gellner 1964, Anderson 2006), the Remain data demonstrates that globalisation is definitely altering, while not necessarily eroding, the nature of English national attachment.

The effect of globalisation on national identity appears to be less transformative among Leave voters; the sample strongly affirmed an emotional commitment to the future prosperity of the nation, although there were many different visions of who should be included and what this prosperity should be based on. In line with the scholarship, the data-set revealed a division between patriotic Leave voters who conceived of a prosperous nation as outward looking and globalised, but “independent” and in complete control of its political affairs, and those of a nationalistic primordialist disposition, who perceived globalisation as a threat to national culture led by a compliantly corrupt elite. The latter argument lends support to Jung’s conception of ‘resistance identities’ (2008:581). On the whole, the split in the data-set between those who were sceptical of the supranationality at the heart of the EU but broadly supportive of economic interconnectedness and those who espoused a brand of anti-globalisation nationalist populism was marked. The fact that opinion was divided in this way serves to demonstrate the complex, evolving and divisive effect of globalisation on English national identity, polarising even among those with a shared scepticism of supranationality.

Although the two campaigns represent a logical dividing line in the debate around English national identity and its relationship to globalisation, there was a surprising degree of similarity between certain aspects of both groups, as well as significant tensions within each cohort. First among these observations was the prevalence of patriotism (see Viroli 1995) within the two discourses. Though they disagreed on the merits of EU membership, the majority of both data-sets espoused a strong commitment to the future of the nation, marked by a desire for economic prosperity and political strength. The existence of such views among the Remain cohort demonstrates a comfortable co-existence between national pride and an endorsement of supranationality, vindicating the conclusions of previous cross-national studies (Antonsich 2009, Jung 2008). On the Leave side, the distinction made by many between supranational union and globalised modernity is extremely important. Crucially, this cohort of the data-set seemed equally keen for the nation to profit from the economic opportunities of globalisation as the Remain sample, but saw supranational cooperation as an inhibiter of this, rather than a facilitator. Contrary to some post-referendum analysis, these views do not demonstrate a belief that the nation should retreat from globalisation (Cowell, 2016), and are more in-line with Hahn’s notion of civic nationalism, as opposed to its ethnically-driven alternative (Kohn in Smith and Hutchinson 1994:163).

This said, there was a very wide spectrum of views across both data-sets, in places revealing a seismic difference in perception of the English nation. This trend could have significant implications for future discourse, suggesting that the intensification of globalisation is having divisive and contradictory effects on elements within English society (in-line with Ariely 2012:462). For some, globalisation appears to be directly weakening national attachment while cultivating global cosmopolitan identities, while those at the opposing end of the scale see globalised modernity as threatening the cultural integrity of the English community. Again, this observation vindicates previous analysis of the effects on globalisation on national identity, which has found that it can precipitate both a resurgence in insular nationalism and a growth in cosmopolitanism across developed societies (Ariely 2012:464).

In the case of England, it looks as if populist nationalism will continue to grow while cosmopolitan attachments remain on the fringe, (In-line with Jung 2008: 581), a trend with perhaps profound implications for future national political discourse (Jones, 2015). While both my research and that of other academics indicate that civic patriotism based on a broad acceptance of globalisation remains the dominant opinion, the growing electoral popularity of nationalist parties in England and across Europe shows no sign of abating (Lucassen and Lubbers 2012:552). If this trend holds true, the tensions between civic and ethic conceptions of the English nation evident in the data-sets can only be expected to widen, further exacerbating the political centre-ground and dragging political discourse to the ideological extremes, a phenomenon that can already be observed in British politics (Helm, 2016). In many ways, Kohn’s (1945) civic/ethnic dichotomy is representative of this divide, as the cleavages separating civic and ethnic identity attachments are neatly encapsulated by the differences between the modernist and primordialist positions respectively (Gellner 1983, Geertz 1963). Since it is almost impossible to conceive of a complete reversal of economic globalisation (Beck 2005:4), these tensions between contradictory visions of the English nation could become irreconcilable, with the potential to seriously disrupt the existing parameters of democratic politics and national discourse.

At the core of these tensions sits the inherent conceptual ambiguity of globalisation, and the unequal distribution of benefits and costs across national societies. Consequently, globalisation, and its institutions like the EU, become symbolic of an immense variety of both opportunities and threats, dispersed among different social groups. In Ariely’s words, “different operationalisations of globalisation and national identity yield very different results” (2012:477). My research has very strongly vindicated this idea in relation to England, suggesting that without amelioration of the systemic economic and social inequalities that characterise modern globalisation, observers can expect the fundamental tensions between globalisation and English national identity to continue unabated. If the nation remains the primary unit of social and territorial organisation, it will be the logical vessel for the expression of grievances against globalisation, since it remains a tangible cultural entity in an increasingly uncertain world (Calhoun 2007:8). For this reason and based on my research, I expect nationalism to play an ever more prominent role in English political discourse in the coming years.

Further research is required to further explore the trends highlighted in this dissertation. The utility of a social media based discourse analysis has been discussed above, but this research model needs to be enlarged upon to comprehensively validate my conclusions.  Foremost among this should be a considerable expansion of the sample size and search parameters to facilitate investigation into the large cohort across both data-sets that espoused an acceptance of globalisation alongside a politically powerful, patriotic nation-state. If the current theorisations about the incompatibility of these two beliefs are proved correct and globalisation continues to undermine the formal capacities of the state (McGrew and Lewis 2013, Mann 1997), tracking the changing views of this cohort using tools like social media, will be crucial to understanding future political developments. Indeed, if contradictory interpretations of the nation can be explained by the differing formulations of globalisation subscribed to, more research is needed to isolate specific visions of globalisation in detail, and their direct relation to conceptions of the nation.


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