Divided, We Stand

Divided, We Stand

Geoff Payne and Eric Harrison

The recent Daily Telegraph headline (09.03.2020), ‘Coronavirus has united a nation divided by Brexit and Meghan‘, is not quite as crazy as it first seems. Covid-19 has indeed changed life in Britain (if not quite in the way the Telegraph implies), although the country was neither neatly divided nor now united, but rather continues to be simultaneously both. Deciding where to place the emphasis, on cohesion or division, requires evaluations based on a proper consideration of contemporary society. The life-threatening severity of Covid-19 as a biological crisis challenges us to confront fundamental social questions about what we share in common and how we differ from each other.

The very real and immediate health crisis may have displaced other ‘crises’ from the front page, but for some time, social division has been a prominent media theme. News-stories of drama and conflict sell newspapers. While not everyone has been seriously divided over Meghan Markle, there has been a wide acceptance and amplification of the Telegraph’s view of Britain divided by Brexit. This ranges from The Observer’sWe’re a divided kingdom now’ (16.08.2019) through the Mirror’s ‘Brexit has exposed the ways our country is divided’ (31.01.2020), to the Daily Express’s ‘Now we have the chance to unite our divided nation with Boris Johnson’ (17.12.2019).

Similar language was also used earlier during the Scottish Independence Referendum campaign: for example, the Independent talked about ‘a nation divided against itself’ (16.08.2014), while from abroad CNN identified ‘a family divided’ and the New York Times described Britain as a ‘Splintered Isle’. A war of ‘two cultures’ was declared to explain away why one side voted ‘Leave’.

This sense of conflict and internal differentiation is partially reflected in the public’s slow realisation that, under Covid-19 lockdown, life for the home-working, suburban middle classes (and fathers) is very different from furloughed manual workers, the self-employed and unemployed (and mothers) crowded with large families in small flats and tower blocks. And yet at the same time, there has been a long-overdue, collective acknowledgement that we depend on countless invisible others to sustain our supply chains and to nurse us during a life-threatening sickness we all currently risk catching.

Measures to tackle the pandemic have also prompted a re-discovery of one kind of local community, based on taking interest – at least for the time being – in the welfare of elderly neighbours. We have similarly seen a dramatic expansion of diffuse, online interaction groups consciously designed to sustain a form of social association with kin, friends and co-workers. We now simultaneously see ourselves as a cohesive unit (clapping for the NHS workers, volunteering and hugely supporting formal and informal charities) and yet also differentiated from each other by social conditions, widely distinctive ways of life, and senses of specific social identities. Covid-19 makes us question the validity of our ‘normal’ mundane social practices.

These new perspectives coexist in complex combinations which sit uneasily with the earlier and more simple formulations of press headlines. Even the ‘quality press’ and its legions of journalist commentators have favoured a discourse which frames division in contemporary society as the neat dichotomies of ‘cultural wars’, or ‘identity politics’, or generations as in the claim that the older generation ‘took their children’s future’ (Willetts, 2019).

But why, except for journalistic convenience, limit ourselves to dichotomies? Social division involves more, and more complex, forms and processes, including those comprising ethnicity, gender, and material inequalities, and sexuality, national identity, or the consequences of education. This comes as nothing new to sociologists. Even before Émile Durkheim’s doctoral thesis De la Division du Travail Social (1893) or Robert MacIver’s Community (1917), the basic questions of how and why social cohesion, differentiation and persistent inequality are possible, had been central to sociological theory (Crow, 2002).

Willetts’ notion of one generation blighting the prospects of another provides a useful contemporary example of how these questions still apply. We are not saying that inter-generational conflict is an indefensible idea. Societies change over time, and so do the circumstances which birth cohorts experience. The ‘Baby Boomer’ generation born between, say, 1945 and 1964 (to take two arbitrary dates) did live through a lengthy period of peace, prosperity and expanded opportunities. This can be overplayed of course –in the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, many lost jobs – but in aggregate the Boomers had more secure employment, better pensions, and bought their own homes earlier in life and in larger numbers than the successor generation.

Contrary to Max Kiefel’s rapid response in DS, this dichotomy masks socio-economic differentiation within each generation. ‘Having to live at home in their twenties’ or ‘save longer for a deposit on their first property’ are qualitatively different for the children of professional workers than those with parents in manual occupations. ‘Access to the bank of Mum and Dad’, while reflecting the trend to ‘extended youth transitions’, is a privilege as much as an embarrassment.

Even when these differentiations are recognised, they can still disguise the fact that not everything got worse over the last forty years (a truth often unpopular among sociologists!). Data show overall improvements in health, access to consumer technology, and education, despite general deterioration of state provision during the period. Thus Higher Education students in the last two decades incurred greater costs to their current and future selves than those in the 1970s and 1980s. But among the Boomer generation less than 10% went to University, compared with around 40% now, a 10% disproportionately male and middle class. Focussing narrowly on one division means missing others, and their complexity, and of failing to see how they are inter-related.

The COVID-19 situation displays inconsistencies of disadvantages along different axes. Older cohorts are disproportionately at risk of experiencing serious illness and death. Compared with younger people, their isolation tends to be more extreme and last longer. However, the financial penalties from boarding up the economy are, and will be, most keenly felt by the Millennial generation. They have fewer assets to fall back on and have weaker labour market protection. Demographically, they are more likely to have childcare commitments. But yet again, within these age groups, disadvantages and risks are spread unevenly according to ethnicity, gender, and social class.

Nonetheless, alongside the manifestations of altruistic community togetherness with its urges to render self-identities social, and the rallying around national symbols of legitimation like the NHS and the Queen (even among some fervent republicans!), the COVID-19 crisis provides opportunities to declare new ‘binary’ divisions and identities. We now have lockdown hawks and doves, and those whose work is ‘essential’ and those whose ‘work’ is supposedly less so. These identities have quickly become oppositional, with in-groups and out-groups marked out for social media shaming, passive-aggressive notes on windscreens and confrontation in public spaces (and at home).

This shows a certain resemblance to relationships between Brexiters and Remainers. What was previous seen as the dichotomous ‘cultural wars’ of nationalists versus cosmopolitans seems to be re-playing, albeit in modified terms. If the cultural wars can be properly treated as a social division, this illustrates that social divisions do not quickly disappear – they can operate in new ways when they encounter fresh circumstances, and may be joined by new or temporary combinations. This necessitates dexterity in how we conceptualise social division.

Of course, it is impossible to discuss all social divisions at the same time. The pet interests of commentators lead them to focus only on their preferred details, so missing the overall picture. This is significant: consider the sociology’s intellectual shift when social class lost its prime position as older, mainly male, sociologists had to acknowledge that this single variable could not account for all social phenomena. The same applies to the enthusiasm for ‘intersectionality’ among feminist sociologists who have recognised that gender alone does not explain everything.

In times of major upheaval, the complexity of divisions in society become a little more evident, although this does necessarily mean that a new enlightened perspective emerges. Divisions both persist and shape-change, taking on greater or less visibility and importance compared with each other, depending on social context.

This is not just a simple, neutral or naturalist process. Vested interests, not least big business and the political elite, have developed elaborate, highly effective, systematic ‘public relations’ techniques to ‘inform’ the public. The discourse for dealing with inconvenient facts about divisions, inequalities and politicians’ incompetence normally consists of irrelevant responses, statements expertly crafted to mislead rather directly lie, invoking legitimation symbols, or delaying until it is too late to do anything about a problem: vide the Covid-19 crisis.

The media can be seen either as complicit in this obfuscation, or as victims who cannot convey the complexity of social division, and whose commercial viability depends upon entertainment rather than social analysis. When groups in modern society live physically separate lives, those with advantages can avoid confronting differences in advantage and disadvantage: indifference replaces conflict. New ideologies, as varied as neo-liberal individualism; ‘we are all in it together’; or ‘different but equal’ arise to confuse our understanding. Crude superficial dichotomies become attractive ways through the confusion of a society that continues to cohere despite the inherent inequalities of its multiple division and inequalities, not least because we rarely find ourselves on the same side of the barricades on every social division at the same time.


Geoff Payne is a Research Associate in the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University, who writes on social mobility, social inequalities and research methodology. A new edition of his Social Divisions, co-edited with Eric Harrison, was published in April 2020. Eric Harrison is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at City, University of London, and Deputy Director of the European Social Survey. He has research interests in social stratification, social inequality, wellbeing and survey methodology.

Image Credit: Judy Payne and Geoff Payne