Between Categories and Cosmopolitanism: On the Subtleties of Voters’ Persuasions

By John Loewenthal

Through Nigel Rapport’s notion of a cosmopolitan anthropology – where difference exists at the level of the individual – we can articulate how common themes in the UK snap election are differently evaluated from person to person. The high levels of popularity as well as unpopularity for both major party leaders and the centrality of Brexit, including the lack of a plausible option to prevent it, make for a very different political landscape to 2015. Party affiliations are being disrupted and reconfigured, with the Conservatives enjoying previously unthinkable levels of working-class support and with many middle-class Remainers feeling politically homeless. Class, region, age, and ethnicity are all highly significant. However, such labels are overly simplistic and even distorting if used as the sole representations of the electorate.

Drawing on findings from ongoing research among school leavers, this post argues for a more nuanced lens through which to frame demographic differences. Categories such as class can be ambiguous in application, while so general that they essentialize large populations irrespective of intersectionalities and internal differences. Furthermore, simply stating which groups might vote for whom fails to represent voters’ subjective deliberations over multiple, possibly contradictory, issues that speak to different aspects of their identity. Through an alternative, cosmopolitan framework, we can appreciate each person as being like a ‘Venn diagram’ of layered filters – such as background, family, occupation, aspirations, and epistemology (e.g. news sources) – that assemble in particularised ways.

In Rapport’s ethnography of the Northern English village of Wanet, he draws upon Richard Rorty’s distinction between ‘systematic’ and ‘edifying’ types of argument. The systematic seeks to identify structure and order, to scientifically generalize and to formulate discrete categories; the edifying, by contrast, cherishes life’s irreducibility and denounces definitions as inherently limiting. Rapport opts for the latter, underlining the multiplicity and incongruity of social life. Anthropologists have often dealt with such tensions regarding the translation of culture or experience into language, as well as relating ‘part’ to ‘whole’ and differentiating the general from the specific. Rapport’s work is controversial for it contradicts our most central sociological beliefs in the primacy of the collective.

Perhaps the foundational study of sociology demonstrates that even the most personal of desires, to take one’s own life, is in fact socially determined: by religion, political system, gender, romantic and domestic life, occupation, education level, region, and season. Elsewhere, in linguistics, Saussure urged us to ignore the pernickety variations of individual speech acts (parole) to appreciate underlying signifying systems (langue) – without which parole wouldn’t be possible. This famously formed the inspiration for Levi-Strauss’s structuralism that sought to compare the deep structures of societies from a macro, universalist perspective.

At one level, voting should of course be analysed through such collectivist frameworks. In this election, as is common, young people are favouring the Left-wing candidate, and are also less likely to vote than their typically more traditional elderly counterparts. Meanwhile via Brexit and the ideological takeover of the Conservative Party, UKIP have made the Tories palatable to lifelong working-class Labour voters on a previously unimaginable scale. Discourses of working-class abandonment of Labour, or vice versa, have been underway for years. Such tensions have been exacerbated of late by the competing nationalisms of the Scottish National Party (pushing Scottish Labour from 1st to 3rd) and the patriotic, largely English vote for Brexit. The newspapers have been fundamental in constructing political persuasions, as well as outcomes – to an extent of pro-Brexit, pro-Conservative bias that might be unfamiliar to those outside of the UK (see this excellent piece for the New York Times). Benedict Anderson’s notion of print capitalism is therefore as relevant today as it was in the age of early industrial printing, through news outlets (on- and off-line) constructing a national imagination in synchronisation. However, with rapidly changing polls and amid endless – often distorted and contradictory – information, the geometries of party affiliation are clearly complex and unstable. As epitomised by John Harris’ series, Anywhere but Westminster, people across the country feel confused and conflicted, even if they know who they will be voting for.

Findings from our research among school leaves from urban, rural, and regional parts of the UK support the case for a more intimate look at how we collectively conceptualise individuals and their opinions. A first point regards the inadequacy of solely using blanket categories such as ‘youth’ or ‘class’. Take for example a group of first-year students at a post-1992 university in London, who collectively come from Reading, Maidstone, Dover, Wolverhampton, Doncaster, Leicester, rural Oxfordshire, and rural Norway. While all were state educated and none speak with ‘received pronunciation’, they fundamentally disagree about each other’s classed identities:

Oxfordshire: “No, but where I’m from, I’m not posh”

Wolverhampton: “I think you’re posh based on your accent. I never judge people based on where they’re from at all. But like [Reading] sounds posh to me. [Maidstone], just hearing him, he sounds proper posh to me because he’s not like me and [Doncaster] with proper Northerner and Midlands accents”

Norway: “So, what. All working-class people live up north?”

Wolverhampton: “That’s my perception. That’s how I feel”

Reading: “I come from a family of Bricklayers!”

While region and class are clearly significant to them, they lack a coherent vocabulary through which to express their backgrounds in relation to each other. Throughout Britain there is a paradox between the pervasiveness of class consciousness and the very limited available language through which to describe either class categories or their subtle, cultural ramifications.

The students’ rather awkward discussions of politics echoed a similar diversity of perspective and lack of uniformity. Arguments and tensions emerged when discussing Brexit and issues of race; such themes (being introduced by me as an interviewer) were exposing divisions that were otherwise papered over and the group explained that’s why they usually avoid ‘serious’ topics altogether. Across the different settings of the project so far, politics has been an ambivalent topic, usually evaded when in groups (see previous blog posts: here and here). This is not for a lack of political opinion; rather, due to a social emphasis on having a good time, avoiding conflict, and not coming across as overly earnest. Frivolity is a central aspect of British youth culture, and something that must be performed such as through drinking, having a laugh, and not discussing politics. Behind this measured display, however, subtle if not drastic differences often exist in people’s personal perceptions as in Rapport’s work. An example of this was revealed during a follow-up interview in rural Oxfordshire with two close friends who had gone straight into work from school. The two girls only discovered their different opinions on Brexit through my asking during the interview. One explained:

“I remember, in the morning, [my sister] came into my room and like woke me up, at like whatever time it was, and was like “Sarah, we actually did it, we voted out” and I was like, “Fuck off, no we didn’t, like, I don’t believe you!” I really didn’t think we were going to vote out. I thought that was too bad to be true.”

Her friend in response grew rather hesitant and defensive, explaining her very different morning:

“Yeah. I mean, I voted out… So, yeah, I was still like, “oh my God, it actually happened.” I was happy, but… for like quite immature reasons. I was like, “oh my God, it’s like quite exciting, like something really serious has happened about the country” … Well, I thought I was getting what I wanted, obviously, but they kind of did manipulate you, you know.’

Similar, often unspoken, contrasts will no doubt be at play across the county in the context of this general election. Whether people are undecided, unenthusiastic, and/or conflicted with themselves, or perhaps with family, colleagues, or their preferred party’s policies or leader. Numerically, the passionate and resolute are in fact rather few. While the vast crowds and rock star receptions to Jeremy Corbyn would be unthinkable for Theresa May, it was just 313,209 votes that Corbyn received in his must-win second leadership election. This may have guaranteed another landslide and an increased majority within his party, but for a general election, the figure is somewhat diminutive. How then are the nation’s millions, of various backgrounds and with differing agenda, projecting their plausible votes into the future? Leaders, manifestos, party names, and approaches to Brexit or the Union are all variables that may align neither neatly nor with any zeal. Such a situation is part and parcel of the social world Rapport describes as ‘farcical, chaotic, multiple, (and) contradictory‘. For him, the rigidity of Durkheim and general simplicity of functionalism, or else the ‘distance and certainty‘ of structuralism fail to get at the messy details that make up our inter-personal lives. Meanwhile, ‘symbolic collectivization’ – or category-thinking, such as through class or ethnicity – is deemed ‘deindividuating and hence dehumanizing’. Ultimately, Rapport argues that we are all cosmopolitan subjects, unique in our own right and bound between self and humanity more than necessarily between self and a conceptually hegemonic ‘community’.

The argument perhaps goes too far as most sociologists would argue that class, nation, gender, and the like can be taken seriously as modes of distinction without reverting to reductionism. Similarly, the qualitative implications of such categories – though heterogenous – do manifest in patterns of both culture and personality (such as ‘types’ of audience member on Question Time and by corollary, types of voter), even if we lack the nuanced terminology to describe them. For these reasons, I suggest that cosmopolitanism should be used to elaborate on, rather than replace, demographics. We each simultaneously inhabit multiple identities, and humans are therefore more than the sum of their categorical parts. In the context of this election, as well as life more generally, our overlapping influences, positionalities, and outlooks will manifest through subtle, individual differences.

The project referred to above is conducted alongside Patrick Alexander and Graham Butt and is funded by Oxford Brookes University; the project blog can be found here.

John Loewenthal is a doctoral candidate in the School of Education at Oxford Brookes University, having previously trained in social anthropology and the anthropology of education. He is currently based at New York University, conducting an ethnography of the aspirations and transitions of university graduates in New York City. He tweets from: @jl_loewenthal.

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