The context: Brexit Britain
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.
What we will do in our research
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:
- Strategies implemented by local organisations to tackle social polarisation and inequality within the fieldsites;
- National government policies on social cohesion and migration;
- Media and parliamentary debates about the role of the media on influencing public understanding and democratic processes especially in the current ‘post-factual’ and fragmented media environment;
- 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.