What’s wrong with divisions?

No one wants social divisions. But what are they actually? And when do they take on undesirable forms? What are the consequences of identifying a division? These are the questions addressed by the Investigation 'What’s wrong with social divisions?' (Wat is er mis met maatschappelijke scheidslijnen?), which was published by the WRR on 12 January 2017.

The Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) has published several reports in recent years containing facts and figures on social differences, such as ‘How unequal is the Netherlands?’ (Hoe ongelijk is Nederland?) and ‘Separate worlds?’ (Gescheiden werelden?) (jointly with the Netherlands Institute for Social Research, SCP). This new Investigation explores the theoretical concepts underlying this topic.

An ‘uh-oh’ word

Social divisions and dividing lines crop up regularly in the public debate, and always in a negative sense. Where freedom and democracy are ‘hurrah’ words, divisions and dividing lines are ‘uh-oh’ words. However, it is unclear when social differences are so great that they can be regarded as a division. Why a particular division should be seen as undesirable also often remains implicit. Talking about ‘divisions’ sounds threatening, without it being very clear precisely what the problem is.

This Investigation seeks to bring order to the debate by making explicit when we can talk about social divisions and what their potential dangers are.

Three dimensions

According to the Investigation, three dimensions are key to the question of whether a difference between groups in society should be regarded as a division. These three dimensions are:

  • the extent to which the groups differ objectively, for example in terms of income, health status or living environment;    
  • the extent to which group members identify with their own group:
  • the extent to which these groups are presented as separate in politics and the media.

The higher the ‘score’ on each of these dimensions, the more reason there is to refer to a division. Based on these dimensions, during the heyday of ‘pillarisation’ in the Netherlands, Dutch society was riven by deep social divisions. The present distinction between people with a lower and higher education level scores lower on the second and third dimension, however.

Referring to social divisions is also tantamount to proposing an agenda. On the one hand, it is important to state what is happening in society, whilst on the other there is the risk of it turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it is constantly repeated that there is a social division between group X and group Y, there is a chance that politicians and society will also start thinking, feeling and acting accordingly, thereby making the division (even more) real. 

Risks and points for attention

Highlighting a social division begs the question of why this is an undesirable social situation that warrants attention. The Investigation examines six concerns that may underlie the fear of divisions. Divisions may be a sign of inequality, may constrain people’s freedom, put pressure on societal cohesion, lead to distrust and conflict, to the absence of certain groups from the political landscape, and to irreconcilable differences of opinion about facts. The Investigation examines each of these concerns.

How can the Netherlands prevent social differences from developing into undesirable divisions? This study makes no specific recommendations in this regard, but based on the literature proposes nine general points for attention, which together could form a broad agenda or assessment framework for combating divisions.

Note to the editor

The Investigation ‘What’s wrong with social divisions?' (Wat is er mis met maatschappelijke scheidslijnen?) was written by Dr Will Tiemeijer, a researcher at the WRR, and forms part of the Social Divisions project, in which Professor Mark Bovens and Anne-Greet Keizer are also involved. The publication is available from www.wrr.nl and can be ordered via info@wrr.nl.

‘Investigations’ are studies carried out in the context of the WRR’s activities which are felt to be of sufficient quality and significance to warrant publication. Responsibility for the content and standpoints adopted rests with the authors.

Information on this publication may be obtained from:

Mirjan van Leijenhorst, WRR (+31 (0)6 26298379 or leijenhorst@wrr.nl