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Is our society as divided as it seems?

September 17, 2023

Warnings abound about the risks of ever-deepening cultural rifts. But things may not be as bad as they seem, researchers say. Difference can actually be a healthy part of how society evolves.

A protest in Berlin this May against the criminalization of the Last Generation climate activism group
Climate activism has polarized many people, including at this protest in Berlin earlier this yearImage: JONAS GEHRING/aal/IMAGO

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier once suggested that a compulsory year of civil service for young people might be a good way to bridge social divides. In France, President Emmanuel Macron announced after this summer's riots that he wants to take action against the threat of division in the country. And when discussions about compulsory COVID-19 vaccinations flared up in many countries two years ago, there were frequent warnings about said divisions.

Moments like this leave the impression that political and cultural rifts are deeper than ever before in many Western countries. The vicious language often used in public debates on issues such as abortion, gender, climate change, migration and racism have only reinforced this perception.

Protesters demand abortion rights in Warsaw, Poland in 2021.
Protesters demanded abortion rights in Warsaw in 2021, one year after Poland's constitutional court imposed a banImage: Czarek Sokolowski/AP Photo/picture alliance

The fact that societies have become more diverse in recent decades is undeniable, said sociologist Stefan Hradil. "Differentiation is without alternative in modern societies. It's related to growing degrees of freedom, education, migration and much more," said Hradil, a professor emeritus at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz.

Still, this ought to be clearly separated from what is being called division, he said. "Differentiation does not have to be a split at all. It could develop into one, but a lot has to happen for that to be so."

Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King's College London, echoes this sentiment. "Of course there are tensions between different groups in societies, but the way that both our media and social media are structured and then the incentives in politics is to exaggerate those divisions," he said. "When you look at the big picture we're pretty tolerant and happy with each other."

Politicians, social media and distorted perception

Why, then, do we have the impression that things are quite different in many countries?

For one thing, Hradil explained, we need to be aware that politicians, opinion makers and the media often use terms such as "division" or "culture war" to evoke emotions, thereby contributing to a distorted perception.

Social media networks also play a role. Moderate viewpoints with majority support don't attract as much attention as extreme positions and loud minorities.

Demonstrators attempt to break into the Reichstag — the federal parliament building in Berlin — as part of a 2020 protest against coronavirus restrictions
Demonstrators attempted to break into Germany's federal parliament building during a 2020 protest against COVID restrictionsImage: JeanMW/imago images

Duffy, who has published a book on the misperception of social realities, pointed out that cognitive biases, or unconscious distortions in thinking and perception, also play a role. "We know that people have a greater tendency to focus on negative information than positive information. And we know that we are more likely to respond to emotional stories than facts and figures," he told DW.

In social psychology, Duffy said, frequent reference is made to "rosy retrospection," which means "we forget the bad from the past, which makes us think today is worse than it really is."

In every society, there are various fault lines — for example, between rich and poor, right and left, young and old. But what about in Germany specifically?

"In other countries you see quite a lot of tension between people in more rural areas where there's a kind of sense of metropolitan elite versus the rest. You don't see much of that in Germany," said Duffy. "But the one big tension in Germany is around immigration."

How can division be measured?

A society can therefore be more divided in one area, but less so in another. When measuring divisive tendencies, researchers distinguish between "issue polarization" and "affective polarization," among other things. While the former describes dissent on specific political or social issues, the latter is when entire groups dislike and disparage each another. According to Duffy, this kind of tribalism involves fundamental distrust of the other camp and a tendency to "dehumanize them in some ways."

While "issue polarization" has not increased in the United Kingdom in recent decades, for example, there has certainly been "affective polarization" between supporters and opponents of Brexit, for example. "And that is the trend that we're all looking to the US with some worry about because they have certainly seen an affective polarization between Republicans and Democrats," he said.

According to German sociologist Hradil, social division can be grouped into four categories: social, political, economic and sociocultural. Specifically, this means: How much do I tolerate my fellow human beings? How much do I respect political institutions, and how much do politicians respect each other? How divided is society in financial terms? And how much do different social groups tolerate or distrust each other?

For a publication on this topic, he and his colleagues illustrated the results of the European Commission's Eurobarometer survey (see infographic). Citizens of the 27 European Union member states were asked how much they trust their fellow citizens and their national government. The result: On average, 60% of respondents in the EU said they have little trust in their national governments. The least trusted are the Slovenian government (with 77% of respondents saying they were distrustful) and the Croatian government (76%).

The picture is better when it comes to social cohesion: Only a minority, 28% of respondents on average in the EU, tend not to trust or do not trust at all their fellow citizens. In Denmark, the distrust rate is lowest at 5%, while people in Malta (46%) and France (38%) distrust each other the most.

In Germany, figures show that divisive tendencies at the political and social level are comparatively low. At 44% and 21% respectively, distrust of the government and fellow citizens are both below the EU average.

'Disagreement is a healthy and inevitable part of society'

That there is nevertheless so much talk about division could be related to Germans having a romanticized idea of an ideal society, Hradil suggested. "And when the bar is set particularly high, the astonishment and annoyance at conflicts are all the greater."

Inflationary warnings about societal divisions, however, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that breeds complacency. Will warnings be taken seriously once the situation becomes truly critical?

Perhaps it helps to keep in mind that modern democratic societies exist based on the fact that different opinions and groups clash and struggle with each other. Otherwise, they would not continue to develop.

"Political or cultural disagreement is a healthy and inevitable part of society," said Duffy. "What becomes unhealthy is where those divisions become so wrapped up in your personal identity that you are part of one tribe that cannot compromise with the other tribe on whatever the issue is."

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This article was originally written in German.