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04 November 2021

Is our society as divided as it seems?

The new episode of the WORLD: we got this podcast looks at division and polarisation in society and what could help create a greater sense of unity in the future


Generational, cultural, political and geographical divisions are all covered in the latest episode of the WORLD: we got this podcast series.

In this episode, Professor Bobby Duffy, of the Policy Institute, Paula Surridge, of the UK in a Changing Europe, and Dr Jack Brown, of the School of Politics & Economics, look at recent trends of division and polarisation in society.

As well examining the causes of divisions, they also explore whether society is really as divided as it is often portrayed and share their thoughts on ways we can all become more cohesive and unified in the future.

In the episode, Professor Duffy talks about his recent work on generational differences which are often seized on by the media. 

A lot of the myths and stereotypes come from age and cohort effects where lots of things that are ascribed to millennials or gen z as a generation are just a feature of being young. There is absolutely no evidence that the gap between young and old on current cultural issues is any bigger than the gap between young and old on previous culture issues. Our connections up and down generations through families are much stronger than our connections across them.

Professor Bobby Duffy

He also discusses how identities developed during and after Brexit in the UK have now moved into debates around cultural change. He shares research that revealed how in the UK media reporting on culture wars has increased significantly in recent years. Yet surveys show that many Britons don’t know what terms imported from the US such as “woke” actually mean.

He concludes that countries such as the UK should not automatically assume they will follow the same path as the USA on this debate.

Paula Surridge highlights how the referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU tapped into feelings that already existed in Britain.

But I think what we then did was we took this divide and we kind of poured petrol on it almost, really accelerated it, gave people a sense of identity that they could then become on either side of it and so we really embedded it in a way. We have got this kind of hangover of Brexit still happening, in that people’s Brexit identifies still operate as lenses through which they view the world.

Paula Surridge

But she also thinks we need to understand society as fragmented rather than divided into two camps. Looking to the future, she also thinks that the effects of the pandemic mean we are likely to see volatile and unpredictable behaviour among the electorate.

In the episode, Dr Jack Brown explains how many have used stereotypes about London to fuel division between urban and rural areas or a sense of north vs south. And he explains how this does not always reflect the complex reality of where poverty exists or the politics of individuals in these areas.

I think a lot of stereotypes and myths are wilfully put out there. Divisive language is used by politicians on both left and right actually about the north south divide, about cities against the rest, about London. People say London when they mean Westminster. They say Westminster when they mean national government.

Dr Jack Brown

He appeals for a change in the national conversation and the tone of debate, which he thinks could really help create a greater sense of unity.

I think lots of these divides are artificial really. I think they are divides of language of ideas rather than of actual policies. Most people want the same thing... We are a much more united country than our current national conversation suggests, and we can go back there. I think we will.

Dr Jack Brown

Listen to the full episode and previous seasons’ episodes on Acast or through your preferred podcast provider by searching for ‘WORLD: we got this’.

Listen to the full episode and previous seasons’ episodes on Acast or through your preferred podcast provider by searching for ‘WORLD: we got this’

This season of the WORLD: we got this podcast is a partnership between the Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy and the School of Global Affairs and will feature both themed and ‘In Conversation’ episodes.

In this story


Lecturer in London Studies and London Partnerships Director