Just who does feel British?

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A systematic study of which ethnic groups in the UK identify most closely with being British reveals that the White majority population identifies less strongly with Britishness than most ethnic minority groups, while Muslim groups tend to identify most strongly.

The just-published research is set in the context of extensive debate in recent years about the success or otherwise of ’multiculturalism, with some claiming that it has undermined minority groups’ willingness or ability to sign up to the national identity of the country in which they live.

Explaining the background to the project, Dr Alita Nandi from the Institute for Social and Economic Research, said:

“National identification is widely regarded as an important indicator of social cohesion within societies and to have implications for the incorporation or alienation of minorities. However, there is relatively little evidence on the extent or nature of minority group identity patterns.”

She added:

“In addition, the debate around national identity has tended to focus on minority groups, which would seem to imply that we simply accept that the majority population have a strong sense of national identity when that may in fact not be the case. If minorities are being encouraged to sign up to a ‘national story’ it is clearly important to understand the extent to which that identity is held or endorsed by the majority society.”

Listen to Alita Nandi discussing her Britishness research in the Understanding Society Podcast Series.

Using the rich data on ethnic and national identification found in the first wave of Understanding Society, including the Ethnic Minority Boost Sample, the researchers examine:

  1. the strength of identification with a British identity across the UK’s ethnic groups and how it varies across generations
  2. how minorities’ British and minority ethnic identities co-vary, and how that changes across generations
  3. the extent to which the White majority prioritises British or individual country identities.

Key findings

First, the researchers find that ethnic minorities express strong British identities – stronger in fact than the White majority, and that these increase across generations. Second they show that minority identification does not necessarily imply a loss of majority identity and that the most common pattern is to hold strong majority and minority identities at the same time.

By contrast, among the White majority, there is not only substantial variation in identification, but that, with the exception of those born in Northern Ireland, individual country identities (Wales, Scotland, England) tend to be prioritised over British identities.

Commenting on the findings, Professor Lucinda Platt from the London School of Economics said:

“Our research shows that the multicultural project does not seem to have created the problems some have claimed. The second generation is moving towards greater ‘assimilation’ in identity with strengthening endorsement of British identity; and this appears to be especially the case for British Muslim minorities.”

The researchers note, however, that as around half of the majority population endorse country specific identities (English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish), and do not spontaneously choose British as their national identity, the population as a whole, is not strongly invested in a British ‘national story’.

Professor Platt added:

“For the majority, political commitment is positively associated with country-specific rather than British identities and hence ethnic rather than civic conceptions of nation. This finding raises questions as to what exactly is the national story which is argued to lead towards a cohesive society, and how might the White majority be encouraged to sign up to it more strongly.”

this news has been re-posted from the Understanding Society website