'Uncomfortable’ opposition across the ‘educational divide’

There is a sociocultural opposition in the Netherlands between people with high and low education levels. This is expressed politically in highly divergent opinions on sensitive issues such as migrants, the EU and politics in general. It also manifests itself in social distance. The two groups live in separate social networks and have different cultural tastes. The opposition between those with a low and high education level can lead to a sense of discomfiture, and there is a real risk of the two groups shunning each other.

These are among the conclusions drawn by the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP) and the WRR in the joint report ‘Separate worlds. An exploration of sociocultural oppositions in the Netherlands’ (Gescheiden werelden, Een verkenning van sociaal-culturele tegenstellingen in Nederland), published on 30 October 2014, in which a diverse group of scientists express their views on new and existing sociocultural oppositions in the Netherlands.  

New oppositions

A great deal of international attention has been devoted in recent years to new sociocultural oppositions and their significance for politics. The research presented in this report shows that, as in other Western European countries, these oppositions also exist in the Netherlands.

  • On one side are citizens with reasonably positive attitudes towards open borders, different cultures and admitting immigrants, who often support the European Union. They have relatively high levels of trust in politics and are generally well educated.
  • On the other hand there are citizens who draw attention mainly to the disadvantages of open borders and immigration and who are highly critical of the European Union. They have low trust in politics and relatively often have a low education level.

Two camps

However, it is not true to say that the Dutch population is not divided into two separate camps. Most people occupy a moderate position between these extremes. The Netherlands is less politically polarised than a country such as the United States, for example, where the opposition between liberals and conservatives has become very sharp. The Dutch are also less polarised in their news consumption than Americans, with news programmes from the public broadcaster NOS (and, to a lesser extent, the commercial broadcaster RTL), for example, being watched by all groups.

Social distance

The opposition between those with low and high education levels is also evident on other fronts. Having a low education level is not generally something that people are proud of (as they might be of belonging to the working class, for example), but is more likely to make them feel vulnerable. People with a low education level are accordingly relatively often inclined to see a conflict between those with a low and a high education level. Educational differences can also be uncomfortable for those at the other end of the educational scale; for example, those with a higher education level regularly perceive a tension between their egalitarian ideals and their sometimes negative views about the tastes and preferences of people with a lower education level.

The two groups also view each other differently. People with a low education level more often see their well-educated counterparts as competent but not warm or friendly, while well-educated people tend to see low-educated people as warm but not as competent.

There is some segregation between the two groups in the residential setting, at school and at work, but compared with other countries this segregation is not (yet) pronounced. Despite this, there is a fairly wide social distance between the two groups, with little overlap between their social networks. Both groups mainly have contact with people with a similar education level to their own, and the vast majority of married or cohabiting partners have the same or almost the same education level. Precisely because of the discomfiture that accompanies the opposition between those with a low and a higher education level, shunning each other is also a psychologically appealing option. All manner of societal and technological developments (such as the Internet) have made this mutual avoidance a good deal easier than in the past. 

Societal dividing lines

This report is a joint publication by SCP and the WRR. It forms part of a wider range of joint projects focusing on the theme of ‘societal dividing lines’. As part of this programme, the WRR published the Investigation ‘How unequal is the Netherlands?’ (Hoe ongelijk is Nederland?) in the spring of this year, and in December SCP will publish the Social and Cultural Report 2014 (Sociaal en Cultureel Rapport 2014), focusing on the theme ‘Difference in the Netherlands’ (Verschil in Nederland).