Global Extremes

Why does measuring polarisation matter?

From immigration to climate change, the key challenges of our times are met with polarised perspectives.

Sheryl Prentice
16 July 2020, 12.01am
George Floyd Protest in Miami, US on 05 June 2020
Picture by Adam DelGiudice / SOPA Images/ PA Images. All rights reserved
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Societal polarisation is an increasingly observable aspect of our modern lives. From immigration to climate change, the key challenges of our times are met with polarised perspectives. We observe this too, in democratic political systems, with the increasing presence of populist parties and a loss of the so-called political “middle ground”. Recent events, such as the global COVID-19 pandemic and protests around police brutality, expose the deep societal and economic divides that exist within and across countries world-wide.

While a degree of polarisation can be said to be useful in terms of bringing multiple perspectives to a task and enhancing political participation, too much can stymie progress in addressing key socio-economic issues and challenges. Knowing the levels and causes of polarisation and resilience to polarisation within or across particular countries might help us to understand which countries are at risk of polarisation-based conflict and for what reasons. Understanding these reasons, in turn, can assist us in tailoring solutions. This is what the Building Resilience to Violent Extremism (BRaVE) toolkit assists users in doing.

The BRaVE polarisation toolkit compiles indicators and associated metrics that measure five forms of polarisation and resilience: religious, ethnic and racial, gendered, socio-economic, and political. The indicators map onto the project’s conceptual paper and database on the causal factors involved in polarisation.

What does the current picture of polarisation in the EU look like?

Applying our toolkit to the 10 EU countries featured in the BRaVE project (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and the UK), three key takeaway points emerge:

  1. One should look beyond stereotypical notions of a country’s polarised or resilient socio-political landscape: Whilst countries may have reputations for tolerance or intolerance, this could obscure aspects of relationship damage or strength that exist within certain sections of society. The Netherlands, for example, traditionally viewed as tolerant, scores higher than the EU average on a number of measures of ethnic and racial polarisation, including measures of mainstream disengagement, antagonistic environment and discrimination.
  2. One must partner considerations of polarisation with considerations around resilience to gain a complete picture: While a country may score above/below average across a range of indicators on a given polarisation type, it may also show/not show aspects of resilience that are effective at countering the threats posed. France, Italy and Greece, for example, score fairly consistently across social deprivation measures of socio-economic polarisation. However, while France scores above the EU average on 9 out of 11 measures of socio-economic resilience, Greece scores above average on 2 out of 11.
  3. Polarisation needs to be considered in a fine-grained way: Countries score above or below the EU average on particular sets of polarisation or resilience indicators and/or measures. Operating at a fine-grained level may help us understand the precise nature of polarisation and/or resilience within a country, which could help to inform more effective, targeted initiatives to both tackle societal divisions and enhance societal resilience. Italy, Hungary, Greece and Poland, for example, all score fairly consistently across measures of gendered polarisation. However, unlike the other countries listed, Italy’s gendered polarisation is characterised by discrimination (including perceived and personal levels of discrimination), while Poland’s gendered polarisation is characterised by an antagonistic environment (including experience or fear of harassment or physical attack).

What are the uses and limitations of the BRaVE toolkit?

If you are a practitioner, the toolkit provides you with national level evidence to quantify the polarisation and resilience observed in your communities. For policy makers, the toolkit provides focus. It allows you to identify the forms of polarisation and resilience that drive your country’s metrics and thus refine how you use your limited resource. For researchers, the metrics provide a treasure trove of what researchers have uncovered in the last decade, against which you may ask comparative questions and inform approaches to tackling societal divisions and building more harmonious relationships.

The toolkit cannot currently allow you to measure changes over time (with the exception of measures from repeated surveys). Further, the indicators are limited to particular sources and measures for which comparative data could be gathered, and as such there is a heavy leaning towards self-report measures. This means that you will mainly gain a view of perceived as opposed to ‘real’ polarisation.

Due to the nature of the source data, the indicators will also provide you with a national rather than a regional picture, though you could source your own regional data and use the toolkit as a framework around which to build regional overviews.

Finally, each country is currently compared with an EU average. Changing the comparison group may present you with a different picture. In sum, any findings you make using the toolkit should be interpreted with caution and with a consideration of the wider context.

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