Towards a Political Sociology of Brexit

Towards a Political Sociology of Brexit

Didier Georgakakis

Although sociology usually deals with heavy theoretical software and protocols of empirical research, the knowledge accumulated also makes it possible to quickly react to events and to history in the making by giving an alternative perspective. This is particularly important because the European Union has been insufficiently theorized in societal terms (and by sociologists), and also because, in such a so-called “unpredictable” situation, commentators on Brexit have attempted a sort of sociology in talking about British and European societies. It is therefore important to involve sociologists in the debate and for them to offer more consistent and critical models or hypotheses than the “wild” or amateur sociology which has dominated the debates (1).

What is needed is a multi-causal perspective on an event combining history, social structure, identity constructions, the dynamics of political supply and demand, the media and interpretations of Europe and also of migration and possible futures. The context and more specifically the social conditions that led to the Brexit vote must also be related to other processes (globalization, cosmopolitization, Europeanization, macroeconomic and social transformation in times of crisis). which have implications for other processes than Brexit and in other countries such as France.

Particularly paradoxical is the UK’s advantageous position as a leading member state which has often imposed its economic and social model on Europe. Another contradiction is that between social structure and social representations, more specifically, between deep Europeanisation on one side, and a total lack of popular identification with Europe. Another question is about the social conditions of an alignment of different type of social cleavages, determining the vote in one direction or the other. The sociology of politics developed by Bourdieu may help to explain this. Another element of Bourdieu’s political sociology is also relevant. Because of what he called the ‘mystery of ministry’, everybody behaves after elections as if “the country has decided”, which is not true in the case of England and also not for France, where more than seven million people voted Le Pen and where the “Macron effect” won’t be eternal.

It seems to me that one of the dynamics of the vote is related to the particular location of national political fields between the European bureaucratic field and the populations. The European Union’s very indirect form of democracy puts the classic opposition between left and right under pressure. The capacity of politicians to represent groups seems to be undermined in a context leading towards a new form of transnationalization of social groups. Whereas the two main party leaders were ambivalent in their attitude to Europe, the anti-EU discourse, even though it included “bullshit politics” or post-truth, was embedded in clear social mental representations which make it easy to advocate. This put the Remainers on the defensive, without a clear narrative. Those who did have a narrative, such as the City and academic experts, were placed in a reactive position, without the capacity to argue for a positive alternative which they knew would be difficult to realize. The language of renegotiation did not create a consistent and durable alternative vision of the world, and this opened up a space for an ‘unfavourable’ alignment of social and political divisions. In France, by contrast, Macron was able to take advantage of the weakness of his competitors on both the left and right. Although he was also weak on the details of his programme, he was able to use the vague but effective slogan of “a stronger France in a new and stronger Europe”.

This articulation between society and a relational conception of politics seems to me also important to understand the process and the future of Brexit, and, in particular, the meaning and the effect of the way in which Brexit has been qualified as open, closed, hard, soft, clean, etc. All of these terms, which typically result from battles inside the political field, seem to be relevant in the sense that they create effects, both in relation to the capacity to embody the society or some segment of it, but also for Britain’s reputation and symbolic power inside the EU field. What role did these qualifications play in the last election campaign and to what extent? Again, it seems to me that the debate on Brexit has created a situation where Europe is now even more important than before, which tends to show that Brexit is an engine of paradoxical Europeanisation: managing the relationship with the EU is probably going to be an even more important political theme than before. This is the other side of the Eurocracy or EU perspective in which Brexit is perceived by some as an opportunity to rebuild Europe in a less neo-liberal or more “European” (ever closer union) way.

Finally, there is the question of the position of Brexit in the global field of power. The form and meaning of Brexit have been significantly changed by the relational context shaped by Trump’s election and to some extent Macron’s, creating a quite different situation from one with American Democrats favorable to Europe and a week Germano-French couple. To stress this is not to revert to political science’s business as usual but, on the contrary, to ask what are the implications in terms of narration, embodiment, the revaluation or devaluation of national capital and identity in relation to each other; this can help us to rethink the linkage between politics and societies.

(1) See for example William Outhwaite (ed) Brexit. Sociological Responses (London: Anthem, 2017)


Didier Georgakakis is Professor of Political Science at the University Paris 1. Panthéon-Sorbonne and a visiting professor at the College of Europe in Bruges. One of the founders of the historical and political sociology of the EU, his research deals with theoretical perspectives on the political sociology of European integration and transnational field theory as well as empirical studies on the professionals of EU policies and governance. Among numerous books and articles on these subjects, he co-edited The field of Eurocracy, (Palgrave 2013), and has just published European Civil Service in (Times of) Crisis. A Political Sociology of the Changing Power of Eurocrats (Palgrave 2017).

Image Credit: Nick.mon CC BY-SA 4.0