Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Thinking Sociologically about the EU Referendum

Thursday, June 23rd will bring one of the most important votes in the country's history - a referendum to decide whether the UK will remain in, or leave, the European Union. The decision will have significant effects on British society and economics, on British identity and on the lives of millions of people, Brits and non-Brits, within and beyond the UK.

Because it is such a momentous social and political occasion, it is important to think about the referendum sociologically. Indeed, as sociologists, we have an important role to play in this debate, because we can raise awareness of the sociological issues at stake in a decision about EU membership and the sociological factors shaping the current discourses and debate in the UK about that membership. Unfortunately, sociological thinking has often been absent from the debate, and as a result a very important issue is being discussed in simplistic, problematic and at times very dangerous and toxic ways.

Staff in the department have been following the debates closely and reflecting on the referendum carefully, and we have decided to compile some of those reflections in one page. We hope these reflections will get your own sociological imagination flowing, encourage you to vote in the referendum and help you encourage people around you - family members, friends, fellow students - to think sociologically about the complex effects of the referendum. We also hope these reflections will help you understand how some of the issues we have been discussing in lectures and seminars - about identity, media representation, discourse, racism, environment, politics, among many others - actually play out in one particular social event. The contributions are all personal reflections - some more sociological than others, some long and some short, all taking different approaches.

We hope you enjoy this page. Most importantly, we hope you go and vote on Thursday, June 23rd. The outcome of this referendum will have a direct and significant effect on your life - much more than it will on the lives of those we most hear talking about it on TV. That means that this referendum is much too important for you to miss out on.

claireClaire Blencowe

From the perspective of rights and solidarity I think that we have to vote remain on Thursday. But it’s a very tough call! Because the EU as it is currently set up – especially for those countries that are members of the Euro – effectively legislates against left wing politics, constraining governments to protect the interests of markets and finance. Nonetheless, given the immensely transnational and mobile scale of businesses in the contemporary world (with the most important companies being bigger in economic scale than many countries) it seems that the only way for workers, consumers and citizens to have any hope of standing up for their rights against the dictates of global finance and business interests is by being able to operate at the transnational level – for which the EU is the only existing institution. Indeed, most of the rights that UK citizens currently hold depend upon the EU. If the EU crumbles then we don’t only lose what the EU is, but we also lose what the EU could be. And with that it seems to me that we lose the possibility of the kind of transnationalisation of labour solidarity and people’s politics that could even begin to stand up to the already transnational power of business and finance. Voting to leave is both voting away existing rights, and voting away the possibility of building better rights in the future.But there is an even more important perspective from which to consider this referendum – that is the perspective of political symbolism. Our world is at, or beyond, a tipping point of spiralling into a horrific scenario of proliferating racisms and violent extremisms. We have a situation in which a tiny elite is profiteering from conditions of economic crisis whilst promoting social dis-ease and impoverishment through policies such as austerity. They are getting away with it because people are divided against each other and distracted by scapegoats. This is a poisonous situation that gives rise to the kind of political spiritual sickness that was manifest in the murder of Jo Cox last week. Whilst the real issues are complex, and individuals will vote to leave for a range of reasons, including some very good and complex reasons – it is nonetheless the case that if the UK vote to leave the EU that will play into the narratives and symbols of this poisonous, pernicious politics of proliferating racisms. In times when powerful people are out to promote division, racism and nationalist violence, we have to stand for and with symbols of solidarity.

thomThom Davies

Brexit is a Toxic choice
Perhaps no other issue spans geopolitical borders quite like climate change. With the threat of increased CO2 emissions irreversibly altering our world, we should stick together and work for a global solution. International problems need international answers.
A vote for Brexit would mean turning our back on collaboration over climate change. It would mean turning away from commitments already made by the EU to reduce emissions by at least 40% by 2030 and to improve energy efficiency by at least 27%. There is still a long way to go. But if we leave the EU we would render ourselves diplomatically impotent at fixing our global climate crisis.
Former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who leads the Brexit campaign, currently stands accused of holding back a report that showed how illegal air pollution disproportionately affects deprived schools. This environmental cover-up could be the tip of the iceberg if the UK leaves the EU and we enter an environmental race to the bottom. The campaigner Jim Puckett once said that ‘toxic waste will always run downhill on an economic path of least resistance’. If we turn our back on the EU then we abandon environmental regulations that protect us all, our wildlife and our environmental health. Is this the kind of politics you want in charge of your country or the air that you breathe?
The environment has been largely overlooked by much of the coverage about the EU referendum. The slow violence of pollution has been marginalised. Instead, other ‘toxic’ debates such as immigration and the economy have filled the headlines. But abandoning the EU could have toxic consequences.


Hannah Jones

Hannah has just published a piece for her Huffington Post blog on the referendum.
The title of the piece is Breaking Point: why we need more sociological imagination to understand the Brexit arguments and you can read it here (link to be added as soon as the piece goes live. In the meantime, you can read this version.)




Goldie Osuri

I would encourage you to read this article, which is really good and echoes my sentiments on the issue. It is important to warn, however, that the article offers a 'white' argument regarding migrants.


mariaMaria do Mar Pereira

It is a strange, confusing and disturbing time to be a foreign EU national resident in the UK: you are spoken about incessantly and fervently by campaigners on both sides, and yet have little voice in the debates and absolutely no vote in the referendum itself. As a Portuguese citizen who has lived in the UK for over 10 years, my professional and personal life has been completely shaped by the study, work and travel opportunities that the European Union has made possible - my son is one of 1 million Erasmus babies, and I certainly would not be in this department, teaching many of you, if I hadn't had a chance to do a year abroad, get my PhD in another European country, and receive EU funding to do my sociological research on gender. If Leave wins, thousands of people like me, who have families, jobs and lives in the UK, will have to leave, and that will only make this country - and your own education, professional and personal lives - poorer.

But what I want to encourage you to think about as you prepare to vote is not what happens to me if Leave wins, but what happens to your own identity and to "Britishness" and "British culture". A new vision of what it means to be British, and what Britain's relationship to other countries should be, is emerging and becoming legitimated in the debates about the referendum, and that vision is misleading, scary and dangerous. If you're British, this new vision expects you to align with a form of identity that promotes racism, isolationism, exclusion, feelings of self-entitlement and superiority, and even violence. If you're not British, your country (whether it is European or not), is framed as just a playground or profit source for the UK. This vision of identity will not promote peace, collaboration and solidarity, and thus we must resist it.

In this short blog post, I have written about this new vision of "Britishness", including a discussion of the many things that we think are really British (like tea, the Royal Family and Harry Potter) but actually are not straightforwardly so - please read it!


Leon Sealey-Huggins

Much of the debate around ‘Brexit’ has been positioned on the political right, from extreme right to centre right. There are many critical commentators on the left, however, who are keen to ensure that the social features in discussions. They have considered the implications of being either in or out of Europe in terms of the kinds of society we, as the majority, want to build. Here are some articles that take this approach:

simoneSimone Varriale

Brexit, migration and the politics of classification

If you have been following debates about the Brexit, or have just read a few newspaper articles, you have probably become familiar with the following categories:

Refugees, immigrants, foreigners

These are pretty much the concepts through which advocates of both fronts discuss complex political, economic and cultural issues related to migration, cross-national movement and border politics. But these concepts are not purely descriptive. Indeed they create the very objects they name. How they do so? Through homogenisation. They erase the complexity of migrants’ histories and the very impact of different social relations over their biographies. Such relations pertain nationality, ethnicity and race, but these intersect with legal status, class, gender and age (to name only some). As these inequalities affect the lives of groups and individuals in different ways, you can start seeing how the Brexit is reducing migrants’ humanity and experience. More subtly, it is reproducing problematic distinctions between different kinds of migrants (when they are not all collapsed in the notion of ‘foreigners’), and between migrants and citizens. So when it comes to asylum seekers and refugees, they are reduced to bodies to be monitored, moved around, contained, and possibly rejected. When it comes to other migrants, they are reduced to either human capital - a favourite of the Remain campaign - or job stealers (Leave front), that is, they are reduced to their economic value. British citizens, on the other hand, are fixed in place, despite representing significant populations of immigrants in other countries (notably Spain). They are also fixed in race, as such debates reproduce the myth of a white population which is historically and sociologically wrong (an ‘imagined community’, to put it with Benedict Anderson).

So as a remedy to what I call the ‘politics of classification’, and to help you think these issues more in depth, I have selected a few studies that struggle to unravell the complex axes of power that shape (and have shaped) migrants’ trajectories and everyday experiences. This is by no means an exhaustive bibliography. It is more like a personal list of works that I find infused with sociological imagination and reflexivity, despite moving from sometimes different theoretical premises. I have deliberately put together different groups (including British migrants). I have also privileged in-depth, rigorous empirical studies, and avoided distinctions between old and new migrations, EU and non-EU citizens.

Anthias, F. 1992. Ethnicity, Class, Gender, and Migration: Greek Cypriots in Britain (Ashgate Publishing).
Back, L. 1996. New Ethnicities and Urban Culture: Racisms and Multiculture in Young Lives (Routledge).
Bhambra, G. 2015. ‘Whither Europe? Postcolonial versus Neocolonial Cosmopolitanism’. Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 18/2: 187-202.
Erel, U. 2009. Migrant Women Transforming Citizenship: Life-Stories from Britain and Germany (Ashgate).
Jones, H. and Jackson, E. (eds) Stories of Cosmopolitan Belonging: Emotion and Location (Routledge/Earthscan).
Moroşanu, L. 2012. ‘“We all eat the same bread”: the roots and limits of cosmopolitan bridging ties developed by Romanians in London’. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 36/12: 2160-2181.
O’Reilly, K. 2000. The British in Costa del Sol: Transnational Identities and Local Communities (Routledge).
Però, D. 2014. ‘Class politics and migrants: Collective action among new migrant workers in Britain’, Sociology, 48(6): 1156–1172.
Ryan, L. 2010. ‘’Becoming Polish in London: negotiating ethnicity through migration’, Social Identities, 16/3: 359-376.
Sigona, N. 2012. ‘“I have too much baggage”: the impacts of legal status on the social worlds of irregular migrants’, Social Anthropology 20/1: 50–65.
Solomos, J. 2003(1989). Race and Racism in Britain (Palgrave).
Zontini, E. 2015. ‘Growing old in a transnational social field: belonging, mobility and identity among Italian migrants’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 38/2: 326-341.


Ros Williams

It is difficult to engage with the emotional call to ‘make Britain great again’ by leaving the EU. As if this were the key to revert our country to its former British glory.

This short piece by Fintan O’Toole really articulates this for me. Namely, what comprises this “self” that many are appealing to with the call for ‘self-rule’? It’s so difficult to capture in a word, an image, or a feeling, something that really defines Britishness. I think the referendum has really revealed that it is about as hard to pin down a shadow as it is to articulate ‘Britishness' in a way that’s meaningful for a majority. I don’t feel connected to an argument that appeals to a (re)centralisation of British values as it’s not clear to me what those values constitute

Caroline Wrightcaroline

Why I voted to RemaIN in the EU

I’ve always seen myself as British and European, so my decision to vote YES in Thursday’s Referendum was not a difficult one (in fact I’ve already voted by post because I live in two places and never know where I’ll be come election day). I remember how cross I was back in the 00s when I bought a new car and the dealer forgot to give me the number plate type I’d ordered, with the EU symbol on one side and GB on the other; this also tells us something as sociologists about the extent to which my commodities symbolize my identity!

I want to look outwards as well as inwards, to be part of a Europe that’s seeking solutions to contemporary problems that go beyond the capacity of any one nation-state to address. I object very strongly to the politics of fear about immigration, which is racist, xenophobic, ahistorical and extremely dangerous. It’s a sign of strength that we’re a country people from other countries in Europe want to come and work, study and live in, both temporarily and permanently, and we benefit enormously from their contributions. As a Sociologist committed to social justice and as a lesbian then there are further reasons for me to vote to remain in the EU, especially its positive (although imperfect) contribution to labour rights and LGBTQ rights, as these two articles further explain:

So for me it’s always been a vote YES from my heart just as much as one from my head!

That’s why I voted the way I did; you of course must all make up your own minds. But above all I urge you to vote on Thursday if you’re eligible and you’ve registered, both because it’s such an important issue to have your say on and because voting is a democratic right that labour movements and feminist movements in the past have fought and died to secure, and we need to honour their struggles.

charlesCharles Turner


Consequences of Voting Remain

• Continued access to the single European market with its one set of rules of regulations that make economic transactions and cooperation between firms in different countries easier, not more difficult
• Continued influence on EU institutions and structures, not merely for the UK’s benefit but for the benefit of all Europeans and the wider world.
• Continued access to academic exchange programmes, European scientific research grants (UK receives 4th largest amount, 8 billion Euros 2007-13) and farm subsidies
• Continued protection of the environment, and of people via existing social chapter and human rights legislation that would require no modification.
• Continued net contributions to EU budget of £8.8bn annually (0.5% of GDP and less per capita than Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Austria, Finland and Belgium), and continued benefits to the British economy thereby of between £60 and £70 billion annually (CBI estimates)
• Continued chance to do what EU membership has never prevented us from doing: improving the lives of British people by building more homes (to standards comparable to those in Germany or Denmark), limiting home ownership to 2 properties per person, imposing rent controls, increasing the proportion of GDP spent on research and development (currently half of Germany’s), training engineers and scientists, doctors and nurses, improving urban public transport on the basis of sensible funding models, funding the arts, tackling poverty, collecting taxes properly etc..

Consequences of Voting Leave

The government, whatever its make up, with the approval of parliament, the sovereign legislative body in the UK, enters into negotiations on the basis of Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty. Those negotiations may result in:

1. Britain leaving the EU but retaining access to the single market for a reduced fee but with no access to EU structural and cohesion funds, and with acceptance of single market rules, including the existing arrangements for the free movement of labour (as in Norway and Switzerland, the latter now having a higher proportion of non-Swiss citizens that the UK has non-UK citizens)
2. Britain leaving EU and also the single market, and developing its own immigration policy, but also having to negotiate a new trade deal with the EU, and negotiate new trade deals with all 60 non-EU states with which the EU currently has trade deals (this would be necessary as the UK could now only offer a market of 67 million rather than 500 million customers and so would be in breach of any currently contracts).

As with climate change, the overwhelming majority of experts are of one opinion. In this case it is that option 2 would be costly, painful, and counter-productive, and very probably lead to a recession that could last for years, easily wiping out the paltry saving of 8.8 billion a year and thus exploding the fantasy about spending it all on the NHS. Furthermore, Britain has very few experienced trade negotiators (even Roger Helmer, UKIP MEP, told me that ‘we would have to get a team of Americans in’) and so deals will either take years and years or, if concluded quickly, may be disadvantageous or come with strings attached.

The Switzerland and Norway options are really not on. Switzerland is almost self-sufficient in energy (50% hydro-electric, 45% nuclear) and is a world leader in high precision measuring instruments (which every factory in the world needs) and in chemicals, is far better governed than the UK, and yet it still prefers being inside the single market to being outside it; ditto Norway.

Three things:

1. The referendum is on one question: should the UK remain in or leave the EU? Leaving the EU can still result in option 1, our being part of the single market and having the same immigration levels as now. We are not actually voting on whether we are part of the single market and we are not voting on immigration levels – those decisions are for our elected representatives, and the majority of MPs would favour option 1. So those voting leave in the hope of remaining prosperous while kicking the foreigners out may be disappointed.
2. Whatever the outcome, unless there is substantial constitutional change in the UK (which EU membership does not prevent us making) Britain will continue to be the most centralized and least democratic of all European nation states, with first past the post, the house of lords and an unelected head of state, with 135,000 unelected people sitting on quangos (the EU, for a population of 500 million, employs 55,000 trained and qualified personnel). So if you really want to kick the foreigners out, either elect the most anti-immigration candidates from the main parties, or campaign (again) for the proportional representation we rejected 5 years ago, and then vote UKIP.
3. The EU is far from perfect, but it has 28 members, not just Germany, and with imagination and coordinated effort they may be able to tackle the serious problems facing southern Europeans under the age of 30 in the Eurozone, or Romanians and Bulgarians of any age. We in Britain could brush them under the carpet and say: ‘we have set ourselves free of the EU, you can do it too’, or ‘we don’t care what happens in the rest of Europe as long as the UK is OK’. But if Europe implodes we are all affected anyway, so a more productive attitude (more productive than the half-hearted support from Cameron (with all his opt-outs) and Corbyn (who knows nothing of Europe) and the childish hostility from Farage and Johnson) would be full on and enthusiastic acceptance of our membership of the EU and of the responsibilities – British, European, global – that go with it.

floFlorian Reiche

I cannot vote on the 23rd, but if you can, please do, and vote REMAIN.

The EU referendum is personal to me - of course it is, I am one of the many immigrants the Leave campaign is so keen to get rid off (it won't, but this is an entirely different matter). But the issue is deeper for me than that. The EU has shaped my life, by allowing me to do and funding an ERASMUS exchange, by allowing me to study in the UK, by allowing me to obtain a PhD in the UK, by allowing me to live in the UK, by allowing me to work in the UK. This experience has profoundly impacted on my personality, on my values, on my circle of friends, on my partner, in short on almost everything that makes me me today.

In the last couple of weeks, Immigrants have often be portrayed as something undesirable, as people without value to the society, taking up jobs British people could fill. In my job, I am playing a small but hopefully not insignificant role in increasing numerical and statistical literacy in the Social Sciences - a skill rare in the UK, for which foreign expertise was and still is needed. I am proud to make a contribution to this society in my own humble way. This would be much harder without the freedoms the EU is granting its citizens. I work in a team made up of Brits, Italians, French, Germans, and Greeks, and we all bring different sets of skills and ideas to the table, making the work as productive, enjoyable and successful as it is. Without the freedom of movement for people, such expertise and plurality would be much harder to provide for the university and the society at large would suffer.

This university defines and prides itself in its international outlook, transnational research collaborations, and all the many values such an environment entails. What struck me most in my first weeks in the UK, back in 2006, were two of these profound values: tolerance and acceptance. To me, Britain has always been a great country, this is is why I have come here and made it my home.

So please, don't disappoint me tomorrow. Please show me that Britain wants to remain an open, tolerant, and broadminded country that is a strong player in the EU community.

robertRobert Fine

A footnote on supporting Remain and the idea of a European Union

In the interwar years, some time before Churchill spoke of a United States of Europe, the Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig, had this same vision. It was at a time when practically the whole of Europe was overshadowed by the growth of dark forces that pretended to represent the ordinary person but actually stood for a narcissism that worships only itself, a persecution complex that knows only how to hold ‘others’ culpable (Jews, communists, internationalists, experts, intellectuals, etc.), and an enclosed mentality that responds to the needs of foreigners only with police measures to keep them out. Zweig issued his manifesto of solidarity in an age of catastrophe. The core of the manifesto was a Europe based on mutual understanding, reciprocal education and an awareness of our debts to one another. Zweig acknowledged that European political consciousness is not the product of ‘spontaneous fervour’ but a more ‘slowly ripened fruit’.

When I first travelled in Europe, there were three fascist countries in the West (Spain, Portugal and Greece), poverty imbricated in clientela structures in the South, and Russian imperial-style domination in the East. Who can doubt that the European Union and its predecessor the EEC played a mighty role in putting what we hoped would be an end to all that. Today there are nationalist forces operating in most countries of Europe, in some areas in government, in others as the main opposition. Britain has a proud record of anti-fascism within Europe. We can again lead Europe by appealing to its more enlightened side and not become the vanguard of forces of dissolution. It is easy to dismiss institutions (like those of the EU) because they don’t live up to our ideal of them, whatever that ideal might be. But this is a downward spiral. It is painfully difficult – more painful for some than for others – to build them up again. It is not the people who are the problem, for most of us are usually quite hospitable; it is those who speak in our name to appeal to our least generous and least reflective impulses.