Posts Tagged ‘David Voas’

British Social Attitudes

The Christian Muslim Forum organised an important workshop at King’s College London in May 2010. The focus of the workshop was a presentation by Professor David Voas from Manchester University of his research on religious attitudes in a number of countries including Britain.  The British component derived from the British Social Attitudes Survey, Britain’s leading annual survey on public attitudes to a wide range of issues.  The most recent report was published in January 2010.  The survey included a number of questions on religion and Professor Voas analysed and interpreted the data.  Two academics, Professor Humayun Ansari, OBE, of Royal Holloway College and Professor Richard Burridge, Dean of King’s College London, and two journalists, Ruth Gledhill of The Times and Navid Akhtar of Gazelle Media, responded to Professor Voas.  An invited audience of forty contributed further comments.  The Right Reverend Richard Cheetham, Acting Bishop of Southwark and Chair of the Christian Muslim Forum, chaired the workshop.

Professor Voas described his findings as ‘uncomfortable’ but was able to say at the end of the day that something good was possible from his research.  The findings are ‘uncomfortable’ because they suggest that a significant minority of British people is specifically negative about Muslims.  This led to media headlines in The Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Mail that Professor Voas described as ‘very misleading’.  In the course of the workshop, it became very clear that the reality represented by the research is a great deal more complex than indicated by the headline, ‘Britons are suspicious towards Muslims’.  Three factors, in particular, were highlighted:

  • the context of social attitudes;
  • the survey methodology;
  • the role of the media in transmitting research findings.

Context is immensely important and relevant in different ways – when, where, why people hold the attitudes they do.  Richard Cheetham quoted the chapter introduction, where Professor Voas writes that the wider context of the research is that ‘religion is a source of perplexity to the British… after a long history of religious turmoil and mistrust … tolerance is the great commandment of the modern age’ (p.65).  The survey findings are that 43% of the British population says they have ‘no religion’ (Table 4.1) and 62% never attend religious services (Table 4.4).  52% agree that ‘Britain is deeply divided along religious lines’ (p.76).   Attitudes to Muslims are more negative than they are to other religious groups, although nearer the attitudes expressed about ‘deeply religious’ people.  Context was relevant in the finding that lack of educational qualifications is associated with more negative attitudes and towards diversity in general.  Questions were raised as to how far ‘religion’ was a proxy for other social variables, notably ethnicity and culture, whether more detailed research would uncover locality differences and how far negative attitudes were related to disadvantage, ‘relative deprivation’ and the latent racism in British society.  The small proportion of Muslims in British society (4% in 2008) means that their views are barely represented in the survey.  The wider social and political context of attitudes is also pertinent.  This not only applies to global political issues, such as the Iraq war, but more locally.  Professor Burridge said, for example, that when he arrived at King’s in 1996, the Muslim community at King’s contained extremist elements which caused some problems whereas now, following a determined effort on his part as Dean together with the leaders of the student Islamic Society, relations in the College are excellent.

Secondly, respondents addressed the survey methodology.  The British Social Attitudes survey is a high quality survey of its kind, based largely on face to face interviews and statistically representative of the British population.  It inevitably suffers from some of the limitations associated with surveys, such as the the way questions are framed, the definitions used and the robustness of the response rate.  Professor Burridge argued that the international comparisons with the USA in the chapter could be misleading because of the different constitutional position given to religion in the two countries.

Thirdly, the general public find out about research findings through the prism of the media.   Professor Ansari pointed out that the headlines relating to Professor Voas’ research focused on the negative findings, following Professor Voas’ ‘key points’ (p.80).  But a different interpretation – and perhaps different headlines – could have focused more on the tolerance and openness uncovered by the survey.  Social research is never entirely objective, and once in the public domain, is a politically useable resource – for good and bad.  Ruth Gledhill, from The Times, identified that ‘bad news’ stories about Islam had dominated the media since the ‘Salman Rushdie affair’ and that public understanding of Islam had been distorted by the actions of a minority.   In her view, the remedy was for journalists to receive news of, and promote the good done in the name of all religions.  Navid Akhtar, from Gazelle Media, and a media adviser to the Christian Muslim Forum, argued that both economics and digital technology were weakening public service broadcasting, and that one, perhaps unanticipated consequence, was that competing ‘narratives’ of Christian-Muslim relationships were increasingly simplistic.  Professor Burridge suggested that the perceived negative attitudes uncovered in the survey were not the same as a perceived threat to social cohesion and that government policies around the prevention of terrorism were a matter of concern because of their alienating effect – a view that has perhaps not been transmitted in the media.

By the end of the day, those present felt both more sober but also more hopeful than they perhaps had during Professor Voas’ presentation.  There was greater awareness that the research could be seen in more than one light, that social attitudes are complex, and that social surveys, however good, are not ‘the last word’ on a particular subject.  The Christian Muslim Forum, for its part, will continue to encourage and stimulate ways in which Muslims and Christians in Britain can together move the issues forward positively and creatively.

Claudine McCreadie, 16 May 2010

Following the workshop, Claudine McCreadie, a volunteer with the Christian Muslim Forum, accessed these Web links and found them useful.

Topic Web site and report
Contextualising Islam in Britain Report
Exploring the roots of BNP support.  Research published in April 2010 Institute for Public Policy Research
The Gallup Co-exist Index 2009, a global study of inter-faith relations Gallup Coexist Index
Immigration, faith and cohesion.  Research on factors affecting community cohesion in three areas in England with significant Muslim populations. JRF Immigration, Faith and Cohesion
The ‘Muslim world’ in British historical imagination.  Inaugural lecture by Professor K. Humayun Ansari, OBE. Royal Holloway, University of London
Who speaks for Islam?  Lecture at the British Academy in March 2010 by Dr Dalia Mogahed, Gallup British Academy