Review of ‘Is Britain Pulling Apart?’ workshop

Last week we staged the first dissemination event for our ‘Is Britain Pulling Apart?’ project. Held at the Royal Statistical Society, the event comprised presentations from the project team, a thought-provoking lecture from Danny Dorling and a series of PechaKucha presentations from researchers in the field.

Paul Lambert (Univ. Stirling) began the event, discussing ‘Social Relations, Social Connections and Social Distance’. Lambert defined the key concepts within the project as being: social relations – the character of a tie between two people or groups; social connections – the measurement of social ties; and social distance – the social structure that is revealed through analysing those ties. These areas have been extensively analysed in the UK in relation to occupational categories, but less so across other domains. A thorough exploration of their usage in occupational research was presented, providing much thought for other spheres which can be analysed from methods such as association modelling, social interaction distance analysis and social network analysis.

Richard Zijdeman (Utrecht Univ. and International Institute of Social History) talked about ‘Social Relations in the past: Using historical data to test theories’. He argued that researchers should be motivated to make stronger use of historical analysis, with the wealth of data sources and data linkage projects opening new avenues for exploring longer term trends. Zijdeman argued that data going back to the 1970’s isn’t showing historical change over time, which requires much longer analysis. He argued that much of the social sciences is, essentially, trying to answer questions which we solved in the past, such as female labour market participation. He concluded that emerging sources and methods means ‘historical data are currently up to a level where they can contribute to contemporary debates in sociology and perhaps even will make us rethink the research questions we are asking’.

Danny Dorling (Univ. Sheffield) was invited to give a guest lecture, on ‘Social Relations in Britain in 2025’. Dorling provided a compelling study of social mobility in the UK, providing a nice preview of his recent New Statesman article ‘How Social Mobility Got Stuck’. Dorling’s central argument was that increasing our understanding of the top end of society can help inform our knowledge of how society works. He argued that whilst the top 1% are often viewed as a coherent group there is actually greater differences between them than exist within the other 99%. Dorling talked of the increasing proportion of income the top 1% are earning, arguing those countries which can control how much the top 1% earn are usually more organised overall, as demonstrated by different social indicators. Whilst the rich are getting richer, the poorer were portrayed as getting poorer, with unemployment having a different meaning today than in the 1980s, the return of food banks and the rising numbers of people without sufficient savings to repair their boilers. Despite these social issues, the economy is rarely seen as more important than immigration as a political issue. Increasing integration of ethnic groups can be seen, but Dorling called for more assertive mating and social mixing between economic groups as there is increasing division between the rich and poor.

During the lively questions section Dorling suggested that all people believe they are underpaid, chiefly as they only think about those earning more than they are and ignoring how the poor are being left behind. He also argued that rising tuition fees, combined with educational expansion rising faster than the number of traditional graduate jobs, will generate a cohort of highly educated, under-employed and highly annoyed individuals, questioning whether this injustice will bring about change or whether younger people are more tolerant of inequalities and income differences as they’ve grown up in a society where it is the norm. He argued higher property taxes would be an effective method of redistribution as the majority of the global superrich own property in the UK and assortative mating means many dual high-income households are creating a divide in economic resources. He summed up his comments by suggesting that we currently rightly focus much attention on poverty, but we should also think more about the wealthy and what they show about our society.

After lunch, Mark Tranmer (Univ. Manchester) talked about ‘Modelling Variations in Social Connections’, focusing on the relationships between multilevel modelling and social network analysis. He argued that egonets can provide rich data for analysing, amongst other things, homophily in terms of which types of people connect to which others. However, Tranmer argued that social network dependencies are an important consideration as people named as a friend by multiple egos, for instance, could unduly influence results. He proposed using Multiple Membership Multiple Classification (MMMC) Models to overcome this problem, presenting simulation data demonstrating where variance in outcomes could be attributed. Tranmer identified further progression of this work to explore measuring the chances of connections occurring which were not present within the data (i.e., basing probability of a tie on all possible ties, not just on all observed ties).

Dave Griffiths (Univ. Stirling) talked of ‘Network analysis of social distance’, arguing that social surveys have not been fully utilised as sources of social network data. Two approaches were discussed. Firstly, using household panel surveys, such as Understanding Society, to create linkages across households and connect individuals to other respondents they have a shared social connection with outside their household. Secondly, connecting social groups through overly-common social interactions between members was shown to uncover elements of social structure. An example was given of sports participation, with an apparent distance between those playing team sports and those partaking in more individualistic pursuits. Griffiths showed how cross-comparisons with political attitudes demonstrated how dimensions of homophily can be measured and assessed through networks of aggregated connections.

There followed a number of PechaKucha style presentations from researchers working, in various ways, in the areas of social connections, social distance and stratification. PechaKucha presentations involve 20 slides, each displayed for 20 seconds, enforcing a fast-pace to the discussions. Despite being a relatively new, uncommon and potentially difficult presentation format, it worked very well for providing other viewpoints on methods, data and questions which can be undertaken in the area. Therefore, we thank the speakers who all excelled at the challenges of such presentations.

Liana Fox (SOFI, Stockholm Univ.) presented on ‘Re-evaluating Historical Poverty Trends in the United States’, arguing that poverty measures need to be updated to take account of changes in family units, breakdown of expenditure and income composition. She showed, for instance, that the number of traditional nuclear families has halved since the measures were developed with no account given to cohabiting partners. Analysis showed contemporary derived measurements produced broadly similar overall levels of household poverty, but with discrepancies appearing where not necessarily expected. The poverty of older people was particularly shown to be misrepresented by existing measures.

Marina Shapira (Univ. Stirling) discussed ‘Do you speak your grandma’s language: intergenerational communication and attainment of immigrant children in Western countries of immigration’. Shapira argued that European countries are increasingly likely to be defined as an ‘immigration country’, with increasing numbers of migrants in the working age population. Studies have often shown that first generation migrants perform better than second generation migrants. Shapira tested whether those second generation migrants who speak their host language at home perform worse than those speaking another language as this could create a barrier in communication with wider family members, especially grandparents. Language patterns were inconsistent overall, but there was evidence that the presence of grandparents in the home had a positive impact.

Raj Patel (Univ. Essex) presented on the potential of using Understanding Society for studying social connections. He provided an overview of Understanding Society and its design structure, as well as giving indicators of the vast size of the dataset. For instance, in Wave 2 there were over 74,000 cases including 1,147 Bangladeshis, 1,584 people who had seen ballot in the previous year and 1,077 who worked from home. Patel talked about the various modules which will appear in the survey, including questions about best friends, social networking sites, socialising and local neighbours. Homophily came through as a strong theme with questions about proportions of friends of the same age, ethnicity, educational level, geographical space and income. Given there was much discussion during the day regarding changing household composition, the question about what proportion of friends are family members appears very intriguing.

Ebru Soytemel (Univ. Oxford) talked about ‘The social space of gentrification: An exploratory analysis of neighbourhood belonging and social distance with Multiple Correspondence Analysis’. Her work focused on the Golden Horn neighbourhoods of Istanbul, an area containing traditional working class families, upper class gentrification and also Kurdish forced migrants. Soytemel argued this was an area with three social groups living separately together. Even within the same streets people didn’t mix with those from the other side of the road. The gentrified classes were shown to have fewer relatives living in the neighbourhoods and much less engagement with the area than those with stronger and deeper-rooted ties in the area. Soytemel argued that multiple correspondence analysis facilitated looking across occupational and income definitions to thinking about the geography of class relations. She argued that gentrification both created new boundaries of social polarisation and eroded social cohesion.

Gemma Catney (Univ. Liverpool) presented ‘Neighbourhood social relations: How has ethnic group segregation changed in England and Wales, 2001-2011?’. She argued that integration is an important policy issue and there is much debate about diversity, although the UK is actually segregated more by economic and occupational concerns than ethnicity. Mixed ethnicity nearly doubled between 2001 and 2011 and there was a growing likelihood of multi-ethnic couples. Segregation was shown to be declining for all ethnic groups. Catney critiqued the media argument of ‘white flight’ from urban areas showing the trend across all ethnic groups of a reduction in their share living in Inner London and a movement towards smaller urban and rural-urban areas.

Pierre Walthery (Univ. Manchester) talked about ‘Making the most of what we have: triangulating family composition in longitudinal studies’. This was based on his work with e-Stat, looking at the disparity of measures in longitudinal studies. He presented a pilot study looking at measuring changes in household composition from the British Household Panel Survey and the Millennium Cohort Study, presenting issues of variables having different coding and uneven sample sizes. Analysing the changes to household composition for child he presented a sensitivity analysis which demonstrated the harmonisation process across the surveys appeared stable. Walthery argued this showed what is possible in the area and that he was looking for further data and indicators to test. The Stata do and data files facilitating these mergers are openly available.

Those six PechaKucha presentations lasted less than 45 minutes, providing much to think about, in terms of data, methods, results and analysis, at very fast pace.

After a short break, Vernon Gayle (Univ. Edinburgh) concluded the event by summing up thoughts on ‘Social Connections’, presented through a variety of personalised tales and depictions of social trends. Gayle composed a sailing metaphor for social life, stating that tides are easy to predict long into the future, but wind patterns are almost impossible to accurately predict and suggesting social research needs to take into account what is likely and what is mere prediction. He gave examples of the 29 bus to Wood Green following the same route for generations, but an unlikelihood of babies to be born within the sounds of Bow Bells anymore. Gayle discussed the large increase in divorce rates, changes to marital status and its implications for employment status and household composition (factors in many empirical studies). He also questioned how we perceive social positions, asking if two nurses are seen in the same situation if one is married to a consultant and the other to a porter and, indeed, if our attitudes change whether it is male or female nurses being discussed. This talk was designed to generate discussion amongst participants and raised questions about the incorporation of migration into studies of social connections and also the importance of controlling for geography.

A number of themes seem to emerge from the various presentations and discussions. This included: the necessity to incorporate analysis of the changing migration and ethnic patterns in the UK; the implications of changes to marriage, cohabitation and household composition; and the requirement to understand the difference between short-term and long-term changes in social trends. Techniques used multiple correspondence analysis, association modelling, social network analysis and multilevel modelling, often making adjustments to suit the study of social connections. A vast array of datasets where discussed, including Understanding Society, the census and historical data such as marriage records. This provides much thought and breadth to considerations of analysing contemporary and longitudinal patterns of social connections and social distance.

Dave Griffiths, 24 May 2013


About Dave Griffiths

I am a lecturer in Quantitative Methods in the School of Applied Social Science at the University of Stirling.
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