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26 May 2021

Public split on whether 'woke' is compliment or insult, and unsure what 'culture wars' means – despite huge surge in media coverage

'Cancel culture', 'identity politics' and 'microaggressions' also mean little to most people


Culture wars in the UK: how the public understand the debate

Read the research

The UK public are as likely to think being “woke” is a compliment (26%) as they are to think it’s an insult (24%) – and are in fact most likely to say they don’t know what the term means (38%), according to a major new study of culture wars in the UK.

The research, by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and Ipsos MORI, also finds that a majority of the public have heard little to nothing about the phrases “cancel culture” or “identity politics”, and that there is limited awareness of the culture war debate more generally in the UK – despite a huge surge in related media coverage in recent years, from just 21 newspaper articles focused on the issue in the UK in 2015 to over 500 in 2020.

The study is the first in a series of reports that provides an in-depth assessment of the UK’s culture wars. 

Being woke: who thinks it’s a compliment and who thinks it’s an insult?

Labour supporters (36%) are three times as likely as Conservatives (12%) to say they’d consider it a compliment if someone called them “woke”, and there is a virtually the same divide in views between Remainers (37%) and Leavers (13%).

But one in four (24%) Labour supporters and one in five (21%) Remainers nonetheless say they would interpret the term as an insult.

The likelihood of thinking being woke is a compliment also declines sharply with age: 52% of 16- to 24-year-olds say the term is a compliment, which declines to 13% among those aged 55 and above, half of whom also say they don’t know what being woke means.

Overall, around half (49%) say they’ve heard at least a little about the phrase “being woke” – although only 33% say they’ve heard a lot about it – while the other half (50%) say they know very little or nothing about it. 

How well-known are key culture war terms?

Majorities say they have at least a little awareness of some key concepts in the culture wars debate – but when it comes to others, most people know very little or nothing about them: 

  • A major exception is “white privilege”: 82% of the public say they’ve heard at least a little about this term, including 55% who say they’ve heard a lot about it – by far the most widely known concept of those asked about.
  • 72% report they have either never heard of the term “microaggressions” or have heard of them but know very little, while 61% say the same about both “cancel culture” and “identity politics”, and 54% are similarly unaware of “trigger warnings”.
  • And while most say they have heard at least a little about various other culture war terms, this is often almost matched by substantial minorities who are less aware of them. For example, 53% report hearing a lot or a little about “cultural appropriation”, compared with 46% who say they know very little about it or haven’t heard of it at all.

Asking the public to describe, in their own words, what sorts of issues the term “culture wars” makes them think of reveals they have a limited understanding of what it refers to – by far the most common response is that the phrase doesn’t make them think of any issues (43%).

For those who do have certain issues in mind, race and racism is most commonly cited, by 14% of people. This is followed by religion, highlighted by 11%.

And only tiny minorities associate culture wars with many of the sorts of issues that have been prominent in UK media coverage of this area: just over 1% link the term to the Black Lives Matter movement or debates over transgender issues, while under 1% make a connection to the removal of statues, for instance.

This limited awareness is despite an explosion in media discussion of “culture wars”

New media content analysis using the Nexis database shows there has been a huge surge in media coverage mentioning “culture wars” in recent years: 808 UK newspaper articles talked about culture wars anywhere in the world in 2020 – up from 106 in 2015.

Even more strikingly, the number of articles focusing on the existence or nature of culture wars in the UK has gone from just 21 in 2015 to 534 in 2020.

The Guardian comes top among all UK newspapers for mentions of “culture wars”, with the term appearing in 999 articles between 1993 and 2020. The Times, which comes second for mentions of the term, used it in 482 reports – less than half as many.

Based on a close reading of a quarter of all articles on culture wars in the UK in 2020, the British empire and slavery were the issues mentioned most often (in 36% of the sample). Race, ethnicity and racism (26%) came next, followed by discussions of the response to Covid-19 (22%) and politics and political culture (21%).

Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:

“An incredible surge in media discussion of ‘culture wars’ in the UK has not yet been matched by widespread public engagement with key concepts in the debate, or an understanding of their meaning – as seen in the very different interpretations of being ‘woke’. It’s vital to recognise that the vast majority of the public are currently not deeply interested in the heated language and content of culture war disputes. But this doesn’t mean they are unimportant: the evolution of culture wars in the US shows that these sorts of conflicts often start from the top, with broader political and media messages working their way through to public consciousness, and ending in a greater sense of division.”

Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos MORI, said:

"Culture wars are not new – but the recent focus on them is largely driven by the media and politicians themselves. Our research shows that in fact the public have a much less clear understanding of what ‘culture wars’ mean, and which side they are supposed to be on. That doesn’t mean there aren’t meaningful differences along the spectrum, as seen in the different reactions towards being ‘woke’ by young and old, Labour and Conservative voters, Remain and Leave. Our future releases in this research programme will explore the public’s views in detail: how divided do we think are, what are the faultlines, and what do the different tribes think of each other?”

Technical details – survey
Ipsos MORI interviewed online a representative sample of 2,834 adults aged 16+ across the United Kingdom between 26th November and 2nd December 2020. This data has been collected by Ipsos MORI’s UK KnowledgePanel, an online random probability panel which provides gold standard insights into the UK population, by providing bigger sample sizes via the most rigorous research methods. Data are weighted by age, gender, region, Index of Multiple Deprivation quintile, education, ethnicity and number of adults in the household in order to reflect the profile of the UK population. All polls are subject to a wide range of potential sources of error.

Technical details – media analysis
The Policy Institute at King’s College London carried out media content analysis based on a sample drawn from Nexis of all articles published in UK newspapers which explicitly mention the term “culture wars” (2,762 articles). Researchers also took a more detailed view of the topics linked to the culture wars, the individuals and institutions involved, and the framing of the term “culture wars”, based on close analysis of a sample of 322 articles that focus on the UK – a quarter of all such articles – which were analysed in detail in NVivo using a grounded theory approach.

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