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What light can research shed on the multiculturalism debate?

Posted on 02 May 2013 .
Tags: diversity, immigration, multiculturalism

A couple of days ago, I attended an event: ‘The Politics of Diversity and One Nation’ held by Demos about whether multiculturalism would sink or swim as a major integration policy in the years to come. It’s a big topic that has raged on in the media and in parliament, with much generalistion, anecdote and politicisation. So how can research help us move beyond polemic debates towards a more evidence-based and substantiated discussion?

Some of the discussion on Tuesday was about immigration: how the public feels about immigration, why they feel this way. And it seems that the facts are more nuanced than rhetoric leads us to think. The public has always favoured a reduction in the numbers of immigrants, even during times of little immigration to Britain, and in our most recent round British Social Attitudes (BSA) 75% of respondents supported an overall reduction in immigration. But immigration and multiculturalism are not synonymous with each other.

In fact, this opposition to immigration may bear little relation to public sentiment about existing multiculturalism. 51% of respondents in 2011 felt that the cultural impact of migration was neutral or positive and 48% perceived the economic impact of migration to be neutral or positive. The data also gives us a more nuanced picture about what types of immigration people oppose and under what conditions. Ultimately, qualifications are seen as more important than origins and professionals and good students are also perceived positively regardless of origin. It seems immigrants aren’t the only victims of generalisation, the British public is often overgeneralised, too.

But the debate about multiculturalism is about much more than immigration, it’s about national identity as well and for that we need to look at the actual experiences and opinions of minorities as well as the majority. Understanding Society suggests that a multicultural society is compatible with a united national identity. Indeed, those ethnic minority Brits who retain their minority self-classification are more strongly attached to a British identity than the white majority. Moreover, the white majority is more mixed than previously thought; many of those who identify as white come from mixed-ethnicity backgrounds. As Mark Easton, the BBC Home Affairs Editor put it, the figures ‘suggest our mixed race population may be twice the size of official figures - numbering up to two million people’.

So to some extent we are already living in a multicultural society. Multiethnic and diverse religious groups have a sense of Britishness and although the public are, on the whole, against more immigration, their attitudes to multiculturalism are complex. These studies alone do not tell the whole story, but the hard facts certainly add often overlooked detail to the debate. There is more to come: our Youth is Europe study is decoding the lives, experiences and opinions of young immigrants across Europe and this year’s British Social Attitudes asks questions about immigration. I look forward to seeing the findings of these studies and a more substantiated debate on a topic that is far more complex and nuanced than is often portrayed.

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