However difficult it is to properly gauge the significance of historical events while still living through them, we can surely already state with confidence that the Covid pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine together constitute a truly seismic and transformative sequence of years for the world.
The debate continues on what exactly we can learn today from prior such tumultuous times, but one repeated feature of periods of crisis, already becoming apparent in this contemporary experience, is how they call into question the previously dominant concepts and terms used to diagnose social challenges, and explain the malfunctioning workings of our societies. ‘Polarisation’ – as a way of describing an observed increase in division, extreme views and hostility – is just one such concept in need of re-evaluation.
Of course, like any such general term, ‘polarisation’ has a whole range of usages and meanings, varying in scope and focus. In this case, ranging from a simple dynamic in individual group interactions, to a wider trend within political systems at a national level. In recent years, however, the term has transcended these specific technical usages to become adopted as a general catch all for describing not only binary partisan divides in specific political contexts (or a dynamic in defined group conflicts), but a more general malaise across global society. Countless books, articles, and studies ask: ‘how we got so polarised’, ‘why are we polarised’, and debate solutions to this pressing trend.
To be fair, the more rigorous of such works generally clarify a specific limited scope to which their analysis is applicable. And yet, even those have contributed to legitimating the use of the single word “polarisation” as a common sense conventional explanation for the divisive character of current culture.
Thus we can ask the question: is ‘polarisation’ indeed the most helpful way to understand, analyse, and discuss the rupturing of our social fabric across the vast variety of contexts and scales in which it is discussed? Or could it instead be a misdiagnosis and, at its worst, a dangerous distraction that blinds us to the true causes of dangerous social division and prevents real solutions?
The roots of a modern concern
‘Polarisation’ as a social scientific reality is a timeless and inevitable feature of both politics and group social phenomena more generally. But the origin of the current wave of concern about polarisation – as a particularly modern danger – can be located, as with so many other similar worries, in the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and the Brexit vote of the same year.
US politics has long been split in a binary fashion between two major parties, so at points like these when division becomes greater, and partisan hostility is heightened, it is understandable that as a practical reality the polarisation of politics comes under greater scrutiny. Contemporary analysis of this specific American phenomenon has a convincing story to tell, with a clear line of causation tracing back decades. Conscious attempts to split the two US parties politically have combined with social and economic sorting to create two ‘mega-identities’; where age, ethnicity, cultural values, and other preferences have become as much an indicator of which ‘side’ you might belong as your actual political views.
As a result, Democrats and Republicans are now more likely than ever to choose to live and mix with others like them, creating a vicious cycle of distancing and suspicion, filtered through a media environment that has become ever more fractious and combative. This is not the first bout of increased hostility between the two main parties in US political history – indeed it has been a feature of it, not least at the height of the battle for civil rights.
The history and present reality of partisanship in America makes clear a fundamental issue with framing political polarisation as a problem that we must all look to solve, that is: its inherent implication that there exists a central, stable consensus that we should aspire to – a natural political equilibrium from which we have dangerously departed.
For all their mutual dislike, when measured on their differences of opinion on matters of political policy, by most measures the population is barely if at all more politically divided – or ‘polarised’ – than has long been the case.
Once uncovered, this implication raises all sorts of questions: not least who gets to define the bounds of that central ‘reasonable’ middle ground, and why we should assume that such a position is the most beneficial direction for society. Any diagnosis that automatically seeks to exclude as invalid and dangerous views that fall outside of a predetermined acceptable centre seems particularly poorly equipped to help achieve the harmonious democratic consensus it apparently aims for.
What pushback there has been to modern concerns about polarisation thus far has tended to come from this perspective – positioning it as merely the veiled lament of a failing centrist establishment seeking the pre-emptive disqualification of alternative approaches, that draws a false equivalence between reactionary authoritarian forces of one side, and the justified righteous claims of another.
Such a critique draws on the ‘agonist’ tradition that sees conflict in politics as not a threat, but a source of energy that powers progress. Even Facebook made such an argument - and a comparison with the period of Civil Rights - when arguing in internal documents that the ‘polarising’ effect from the use of its technology (that its own research revealed) could be seen as potentially beneficial.
While such critiques have a strong basic case, they start to strain when the hostility expressed goes beyond the rough and tumble of political debate into attitudes that hint at something darker. In an oft-quoted but still remarkable statistic, the percentage of Republicans who would be unhappy if their child married a Democrat is regularly measured at between 40 and 50%, while on the flip side, in 2019, an astonishing 20% of Democrats were recorded as saying the country would be better off if large numbers of Republicans ‘just died’.1 Though the validity of such statistics has been challenged, any observer of contemporary American politics would find it hard to claim that the level of hostility between the most loyal of the two political groupings has not reached a dangerous pitch – the insurrection on January 6th, 2021 being the most obvious of many examples.
But there is a strange aspect to this hostility that suggests the ‘agonist’ idea of healthy political conflict is misplaced in this case, while also questioning the idea that ‘polarisation’ is the best way of fully describing what is actually happening. For all their mutual dislike, when measured on their differences of opinion on matters of political policy, by most measures the population is barely if at all more politically divided – or ‘polarised’ – than has long been the case.
What has actually seen a dramatic increase in the US in recent years is not a difference in actual political views as both sides become more extreme (the traditional definition of polarisation within politics: issue-based polarisation), but negative attitudes towards a perceived ‘other’ side, independent of actual differences in political views. For all the passion with which it is expressed, the antipathy present in US politics is in fact almost entirely detached from the political views that are supposedly the central definitional division between the two sides. Across a wide range of issues, including some assumed to be the most divisive, Americans in fact are in broad agreement when asked – whether it is the more than 80% of the general public who see racism as a serious problem,2 or a similar proportion (77%) who believe immigration is good for the country.3 This more specific phenomena of increased hostility without a matching increase in actual disagreement on the issues, a feature of recent years, is referred to as ‘affective polarisation’. However, despite the need for a qualifying adjective in social science - and among more informed journalism - the unqualified single word term continues to be used regularly in popular discourse to refer to the modern trend, regardless of the lack of evidence for its most commonly defined meaning.
This might not seem a major issue at first glance – simply, a slight conflation between a larger concept and something that is described, at least in the current terms, as a subset of it. But the implications are worse than they might appear. The conflation of a specific evidenced modern trend - increased hostility and willingness to commit violence against opponents - with a much broader dynamic that is a natural feature of all politics, dilutes efforts to properly identify and address the former, and also, somewhat ironically, undermines attempts to build consensus behind solutions. For anybody who considers the evident rise in political hostility a real threat, the misuse of ‘polarisation’ as a too generalised concept should therefore be of real concern.
Such concern is heightened when a further characteristic of modern polarisation is considered - the phenomena of ‘negative partisanship’.4 As well as being detached from substantial changes in political views, it turns out that the modern form of polarisation is also often separate from any increased loyalty or sense of belonging to one’s own group. It is largely defined by negative attitudes towards another group, rather than any related positive feelings towards the group you are a member of. This was particularly evident during the pandemic in the US, as attitudes among partisans towards vaccination quickly became a matter of opposing what the other side was perceived to support.
As should be becoming clear, when fully qualified, this modern form of polarisation looks more and more like a common condition – a rise in negative affect across the board – that increases partisan hostility when that is the most salient identity available, but has little to do with the substance of or attachment to those groupings.
A global problem?
Broadening the perspective of our analysis beyond the US, further limitations of the concept become quickly evident.
Alongside the election of Donald Trump in the same year, Brexit is very often assumed to be a case study in polarisation, with ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ splitting the United Kingdom down the middle. And there is little doubt that the referendum’s binary choice heightened - if not created - a defining divide that continues to have significant influence in public opinion and political views.
However, while the trends and outcomes of Brexit may seem to share much in common with a polarised US politics, there are also similar issues which call into question whether polarisation is indeed the best lens through which to view it. The referendum and its aftermath have been notable for how, rather than reinforcing existing political divides (as in the US), it has in fact split the traditional parties, dividing them internally along cultural and values-based fault lines that had previously been subordinated to partisan loyalty. With remarkable swiftness, previous definitional political identities were superseded by the new binary choice of Leave vs Remain.
The binary nature of that divide is of course similar to the way that ‘polarisation’ manifests in US politics - or at least how it is most often presented. The evidence also suggests another similarity: the rise of the phenomena of ‘affective polarisation’5 – hostility to a perceived other side – while political views in general have again not become on the whole significantly more extreme or different among the population than they were previously.
It is important to stop and note here how the gap continues to widen between political polarisation as it has been commonly defined and understood, and its modern, affective variant. Not only is the increase in hostility largely unrelated to any substantive change in actual political views in the population at large, but rather than mapping onto and reinforcing a pre-existing partisan political divide, the British version sparked off the binary choice of a referendum to create two loose groupings defined far more by culture and values (to which political parties have had to adapt.) Under deeper examination, it becomes clear that even one of the most paradigmatic examples of modern ‘polarisation’ – that is, Brexit – is not really a close fit with even the qualified concept of ‘affective polarisation.’6
Further examination of these heartlands of the polarisation narrative provides plenty of additional ammunition for such a challenge. In an apparently polarised UK, surveys from More in Common show that more than 70% of the population believe the media exaggerates how divided the country is. Notably, the ‘Britain’s choice’ study, an in depth analysis of values and beliefs, identified that rather than a single binary divide, the UK political sphere is best characterised as comprising of seven distinct tribes,7 and that relations between these groups are complex, dynamic and shifting, rather than straightforwardly ‘polarised’. Similar evidence is starting to emerge from the US, where the asymmetry of many of the main measures of polarisation is becoming clear,8 calling into question the central concept of a mutually reinforcing dynamic between two sides that is surely a core requirement of a meaningful use of the word, qualified or not.
Looking further afield, the sense of a concept that struggles to capture complexity beyond its US-centric perspective only heightens. On a superficial level, many of the apparent outcomes of a polarised political culture in the US seem also to be becoming more common across the world, from increasingly authoritarian leaders and political candidates, to populist rhetoric and a focus on divisive ‘culture war’ issues over all else. But to diagnose all these outcomes as the product of a single coherent phenomena called ‘polarisation’ is an unjustified simplification, with each apparently similar case on closer inspection having many characteristics that don’t fit the necessary definition.
...there is little doubt that the referendum’s binary choice heightened - if not created - a defining divide that continues to have significant influence in public opinion and political views.
France for example, has recently seen a closely fought presidential election between a centre-right incumbent, and his far-right opponent. But despite the necessarily binary nature of the campaign, and the clearly divisive nature of current French politics, gilet-jaunes and all,9 the way that the campaign evolved was far from a straightforward case of two clear sides becoming further apart. Left and right wing voters that have always been natural opponents came together to back the challenger, and young voters, normally the most liberal in values, also backed Le Pen in surprising numbers. Such complexity is backed up by More in Common’s 2020 research, which found that though almost 90% of French people believe that political debate is becoming more aggressive, this is more than a two-way street, with six distinct segments, summarised into three broad groupings, acting in complex interrelations.10
Another oft cited example of a country beset by polarisation is India – and undoubtedly there are deep rifts that play a huge influence in Indian politics and society that could fairly be described as ‘polarised’, not least that of secularisation against Hindu nationalism. But even here there are reasons to doubt there is a simple common concept that describes meaningfully similar dynamics with those in the US and other western countries. Recent research regarding the pandemic looked at how blame was allocated for the initial spread of Covid-19 - it found ‘affective polarisation’ was at play, but that political polarisation was largely absent.11
These examples (and more) taken into account, it is reasonable to suggest that the concept of ‘polarisation’ has become so widespread largely due to influential, paradigmatic examples in the UK and US where increased animosity across the board can be seen as ‘polar’. In the former, a binary referendum, in the latter, a binary partisan political divide – both neatly splitting people into two opposed sides – in a way that does not fully map onto a more complex reality.
The complexities revealed by even a brief survey of other countries question how useful a mainstreamed concept of “polarisation” is. And even within the US and the UK, it is quite possible to identify multiple heated divisions and fault lines opening up over all sorts of other issues and debates. Zoom in, and any one of these might appear binary, and increased intensity can be accurately described as an instance of ‘polarisation’. But to see this overall phenomenon merely on the level of each individual division is surely a classic case of missing the wood for the trees.
So why has this happened? If the capacity of ‘polarisation’ (affective or otherwise) to usefully diagnose the contemporary increase in hostility and division is under severe question, what explains its continuing currency? To continue the arboreal metaphor, for answers to this we must look into the roots of how polarisation is explained - uncover the theoretical underpinnings and their flaws, in order to begin the work of identifying a more useful concept, from the fundamentals up.
Such is the variety of analysis on polarisation that it has been approached from a host of angles: looking for its connections to social media, economic deprivation, demographic changes, and much more besides. Many of these analyses take for granted the usefulness and validity of polarisation as a concept that is useful and robust, despite the limitations already noted. They therefore tend to focus on assessing the evidence for different causes and correlations, rather than looking at the exact mechanism of how polarisation actually works, at the level of the psychology of individuals involved. But it is at this level – the psychological – that we can start to identify perhaps the most telling flaw in the model: its reliance on a simplistic and dated binary model of psychology, with regressive implications.
As already noted, of the existing critiques of treating ‘polarisation’ as a problem, perhaps the most common is to question its novelty. Indeed, with a broad definition it is possible to see periods of political and societal polarisation as a reliably regular occurrence in many countries over the last century or two. The most extreme version of this is the outbreak of war – and it is from the last global outbreak of armed conflict that many of the key psychological theories we still use - and that lie at the root of how polarisation is conceptualised today - emerged.
Through a range of innovative experiments, a set of brilliant thinkers sought to understand how societies could descend into brutality. Many had experienced the savagery of the Second World War themselves both directly and indirectly. Luminaries such as Kurt Lewin, Solomon Asch, and Henri Tafjel helped lay the foundations for an entirely new field, social psychology – the scientific study of how individuals were influenced by their peers and culture. Undoubtedly, their many achievements have added enormously to our collective understanding of human society and behaviour.
However, rooted as they were in the attempt to understand the extremes of war and genocide, these studies, and many that built on them, carry with them philosophical assumptions that put limits on their explanatory scope. In seeking to understand the process by which individuals could engage in collective violence and atrocities, they saw their role as identifying the mechanisms by which the calm, rational individual might become subsumed into the dangerous emotionality of group behaviour.
This focus on the process of ‘deindividuation’, and its positioning as a dangerous ‘slippery slope’ towards irrationality and violence, has a long prior history in psychology, going back at least as far as the 1890s and the work of Gustave Le Bon. His ‘The Psychology of Crowds’ famously and influentially asserted the dangers of industrial masses being subsumed into mindless mobs, easily ‘infected’ with simplistic and dangerous ideas, often leading to violence.
“By the mere fact that he forms part of an organized crowd,” said Le Bon, “a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian—that is, a creature acting by instinct.”
And these same philosophical roots are very much present in the key psychological theory that is central to many modern explanations of polarisation, the ‘Robber’s Cave’ experiments. Taking place in the early 1950s, the psychologist Muzar Sharif held a series of complex and controversial experiments, which - like many of the other famous experiments of the age - could surely never be undertaken today. Large groups of school age boys were recruited, split randomly into groups, and through a series of exercises and challenges in a rural setting, used to study the fundamentals of group conflict.
Along with other experiments of the time, the results of these experiments seemed to prove how group formation, even on a meaningless and arbitrary basis, could quickly spiral into hostility and violence. At Robber’s cave, the boys, split into groups called ‘the Eagles’ and ‘the Rattlers’, quickly descended into reciprocal attacks, including burning of flags, vandalism, and worse.
But like the even more infamous experiments of his contemporary Stanley Milgram, these experiments had serious issues, with a recent study revealing a number of interventions and manipulations on the part of the researchers, intended to provoke and worsen conflict.12 Robbers Cave itself was the fifth in a series of similar experiments, after previous attempts had failed to produce sufficient hostility between the groups, with participants (all young and male) chosen specifically for their competitive nature. In an echo of the modern ‘replication crisis’ that has beset US social psychology, contemporary notes show Sharif felt pressure from funders to produce the results he had promised. Such issues are rarely if ever mentioned in the many explorations of polarisation that draw upon the work - a number of which choose the experiments as the starting point from which their entire analysis begins.
Undoubtedly, Robbers Cave did produce useful insights which have been built on and replicated since, showing how relatively trivially established groups can be the basis for remarkable hostility. However, it is also true that there are further, fundamental issues with the ‘deindividuation’ paradigm that the Robbers Cave experiments (and many of its contemporaries) have contributed to. Despite what many works on polarisation might suggest, social psychology did not stop in the 1950s and 60s, and subsequent study has shown that many of the assumptions built into the work of the post war psychologists - and going back to Le Bon - had dubious foundations.
The modern approach of Social Identity Theory in particular paints a much more nuanced and complex picture than the simple dichotomy of rational individual and emotional, violent crowds. Across a range of experiments and analyses of the realities of crowd behaviour, evidence suggests that the outcomes are far more dependent on the specific characteristics and norms of the group in question, and the situational context in which the group is located, than previous theory had suggested. Rather than individual personality being typically subsumed entirely under dominant group norms, in truth group norms become temporarily more salient, with individual agency and personality still very much present, and capable of continued dissent and decision. The actual outcomes and behaviour of crowds, then, is much more contingent and specific to the particular scenario in question, and the social norms at play at the time.
The contrast between these two views of group behaviour is perhaps not surprising. The earlier view gained currency during a Cold War conflict in which the contrast between the individual and the collective was a defining ideological divide, and continues a long preoccupation in western culture with attempting to make a clear distinction between the two categories. The attempt to venerate individual psychology and its separateness from dangerous collectivity perhaps also explains partly how principles and theories based on the behaviour of small groups in physical proximity have so easily been seen to translate perfectly across to also explain how ‘groups’ composed of millions of people across a vast distance behave, despite the clear qualitative difference.
The older psychological theories do contain much truth, and help us to explain many social phenomena today, like the ease with which categorical groups can be formed, and their willingness to act out in prejudice and discrimination. Like polarisation, they are measuring something real, but we need to be aware of their inherent assumptions and limitations, and not take them as a full explanation.
It is not surprising that an explanation like polarisation that relies on a limited model of psychology, sharing as it does its narrow focus and binary division between individual and group, has found currency today. To move beyond it, and find a better explanation, we need to have a more fleshed out psychological model, one that better fits the conditions of today.
However, despite its explanatory weakness, the influence of this way of thinking about the mind is anything but limited. In fact, during the pandemic, explanations that, like Le Bon’s, sideline individual psychology in favour of depicting human minds as automatons, enslaved by infectious ideas have abounded, most notably in the concept of an ‘infodemic’. Even before this, the influence of a modern form of behaviourism, that sees human psychology mainly through an individualist lens, as a mere ‘bundle of biases’, has been increasingly prevalent. In truth, many other social science disciplines - and much of the modern literature on polarisation - takes for granted a similar perspective; there is less interest in the interplay between different individual, social, cultural and societal dynamics, than in focussing simply on the attempt to define ‘automatic’ processes by which individual rationality is overridden by ‘the group’, across all contexts, as the basis for sweeping conclusions.
To the chagrin of Social Identity Theorists, popular descriptions of incidences of social or crowd violence also continue to be dominated by language that reinforces outdated concepts of mindless mobs, rather than seeking to understand the specific situations and context in each case.
Remarkably, this trend continues even as it has been repeatedly pointed out that the vast majority of ‘universal’ findings in these fields are based on studies carried out in extremely small and unrepresentative segments of the world’s population (that is Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic13 ). So it is not surprising that an explanation like polarisation that relies on a limited model of psychology, sharing as it does its narrow focus and binary division between individual and group, has found currency today. To move beyond it, and find a better explanation, we need to have a more fleshed out psychological model, one that better fits the conditions of today.
Where the psychological dimension of polarisation has been neglected, relying on limited and outdated models, conversely there has been no shortage of study and debate around the big picture causes of the phenomenon. And it is by reassessing these wider antecedents that we can start to find the outlines of a fuller picture of the psychological and cultural mechanisms that might be at play, as the basis for a richer description.
As discussed above, among a range of different causes that have been linked to the outcome of polarisation, a set of particular trends and phenomena have emerged as the most often identified. Often these have been rhetorically divided into ‘economic’ and ‘cultural’ categories, but in reality this distinction does not stand up to much scrutiny - even the most material of economic factors interacts with political issues within a cultural context, and it is hard to identify any purely ‘cultural’ factors that are entirely separate from the impact of economics.
Nevertheless, starting with those most clearly within the economic sphere, a familiar narrative of the last half century describes rising inequality within western economies that is accompanied by wage stagnation, both associated with the structural upheavals of deindustrialisation and globalisation. Alongside this have been significant demographic and socio-cultural shifts taking place over relatively short periods of time in western societies. Most prominent among these are increasing numbers of university graduates, higher levels of immigration, and increased ethnic diversity, growth of metropolitan cities, changing gender roles, and increased secularisation.
Bringing these two broad trends together, the last few decades in particular have seen significant ‘social sorting’ - whereby groups with similar outlook and lifestyle end up living and working and spending more of their time with people more similar to them. Across a range of different geographies, post-industrial, lower educated, and more rural areas have become increasingly separated and distinct from the relatively affluent, educated, and metropolitan areas. Taken together, the standard story of polarisation goes, this has produced a vicious cycle, which combined with binary political dynamics, media incentives, and other factors, has resulted in the formation of distinct political ‘tribes’, who, following the classic group psychology models described above, have inevitably become at odds and in conflict.
This story is not, it must be said, entirely untrue - but it is partial.
Another way of looking at the trends described above is to see not just the story of the formation of an increasingly binary divide (primarily, if not only in US politics), but as a worldwide dissolution of traditional stable sources of identity. On almost every front, once reliable sources of identity have undergone a rapid degree of weakening and change, whether from the increasing instability of occupational and gender roles, to the blurring of class distinctions, to reduced membership and participation in associations and communities, and much more besides.
Alongside this, profound changes to our media and use of technology have taken place over the last two decades, in particular the rise of social media, leading to big changes in how the individual relates to wider society and culture, expectations, and norms.
Debate continues on exactly how (if at all) social media and related technologies contribute to the apparent polarisation of politics - complicated undoubtedly by the qualified and shaky nature of the outcome we have discussed above. But among the drip feed of specific evidenced claims, particularly relevant seems the fact that increased exposure to opposing views, rather than bringing people together as had once been assumed, in fact strengthens people’s existing and opposing identities.14 Add to this more general realities of our new media age, such as context collapse15 (where people are increasingly forced to merge and aggregate their separate identity roles due to online pressures), and the general splintering of common cultural signifiers with the rise of algorithmically curated personalised feeds, and it seems safe to say that whatever its other effects, developments in media technology have surely also introduced profound new pressures and challenges to personal and collective identity.
To add a final part to this big picture story, the last three decades have also seen the dissolution of faith in the big picture ideologies that dominated western politics for at least the previous half century. After the fall of Communism, a decade of relative confidence in liberal capitalism has been followed by two decades in which the model has been beset by a series of crises that have caused widespread disillusionment. War, financial crisis, corruption and environmental destruction have shattered the widespread assumption that the future would be better than the past.
On almost every front, once reliable sources of identity have undergone a rapid degree of weakening and change
Taken in aggregate, these can be seen as a perfect storm threatening our sense of who we are, and our place in the world and its future. And there are groups of related psychological theories that together could help explain how this could lead to the sort of hostility and fracturing that is a more consistent and clear phenomena across the world in recent years than ‘polarisation’.
The Meaning Maintenance Model first proposed in 2006, Steven Heine, Travis Proulx and Kathleen Vohs, proposed that our mental representation of the world is ‘like a delicate web of interconnected beliefs, documenting the relations between ourselves and the people, places and objects around us’.16 When we encounter events or information that contradicts it, we react in a variety of ways, but often rather than change our underlying worldview we attempt to compensate in apparently unconnected ways that bolster our self-esteem, a process which is referred to as ‘fluid compensation’. Such a dynamic has been evidenced in a variety of domains, but Heine has explicitly suggested that it could help explain increased political extremism and hostility in the face of an increasingly uncertain world.
This model was a development of - and to some degree an alternative to - the earlier theoretical approach of ‘‘Terror Management Theory’. Built on the work of Ernst Becker and his classic work ‘The Denial of Death’, it places human fear and avoidance of mortality at the heart of our psychology and motivations. Humans respond to the threat of death by building up our ‘self-esteem’ - conceived as an overall worldview based on normative values, and when that worldview/self-esteem is threatened, they can respond with ‘worldview defence’, which often includes derogation of dissimilar others.
Karen Stenner’s recent work on the ‘authoritarian dynamic’ provides another example of how threats to people’s identity and worldview can result in hostility and reaction. More specific than the above theories, it looks specifically at a subset of individuals who are identified as having a predisposed aversion to otherness, and diagnoses that rather than this being a consistent observable trait, it is more often a latent one, activated in response to normative societal threats. When these threats to their worldview (such as ambiguity, complexity and socio-cultural diversity) are particularly salient, authoritarians respond with increased intolerance and hostility.
Each of these theories has something important to contribute to our understanding of the current situation, but it is what they share that is particularly valuable . They, and other related concepts such as ‘cognitive dissonance’, all show how outward antagonism - not necessarailly associated with a strong stable group membership - can be the contingent result of a particular sense of threat, particularly to core worldview or identity.
As such, they represent a more existential, phenomenological, and culturally contingent perspective on psychology, one that is at odds with the dominant trends in the field today. This is the case not only with the individualistic, laboratory focused attempts of modern behaviourism, obsessed with compiling an endless list of discrete computational biases, but also the group focussed efforts of traditional Social Psychology discussed earlier.
Traditional theory would expect threatening of people’s worldviews and identity to result only in a strengthening of their attachment to existing groups - and undoubtedly in some cases this has happened. But in a world where, as we have discussed, traditional sources of group identity are fracturing and dissolving, this is an insufficient explanatory dynamic. The phenomenon of ‘negative partisanship’, where increased hostility towards outgroups in recent years has not always or even often been accompanied by a strengthening of feelings of loyalty towards ingroups, makes clear this explanation cannot hold water.
While the reasons for threat may be many, and the reactions equally varied, there is a line that can be drawn between the two. And once established, that line may also help us better explain a range of other contemporary woes.
A family affair
Even the most ardent proponents of polarisation as a way of understanding today’s politics and society would acknowledge that there are numerous other dynamics and outcomes also at play, and then many of these are related to the same root causes.
It should not therefore be surprising that if we can understand the deeper dynamics behind ‘polarisation’ better through a richer psychological model, we may also be able to gain a deeper understanding of these other contemporary challenges. A comprehensive review is far beyond the scope of this piece, but even a cursory look suggests strongly this could be the case.
A number of studies have linked anxiety over existential threats, feeling loss of control and a lack of identification to increased belief in conspiracy theories, itself linked to more extreme political positions.17 The wave of disinformation and misinformation of the last few years - often seen as a technical, supply-side problem with technical solutions, can also be understood as the product of increased demand, from a populace seeking information to bolster worldviews that feel more secure, or comprehensible.
Beyond this, a vista of other subjects appear, which could gain from being studied through this lens, whether falling levels of trust, the increase in ‘culture wars’ or even radicalisation and extremism. No one approach or perspective will ever provide anything like a full explanation of all these different phenomena, but we are surely more likely to be able to concoct approaches to tackle them that look to find common causes, rather than treating them as distinct topics of study. Among the most common of insults thrown around in modern politics is that of ‘fragility’ - accusations and counter-accusation of a ‘snowflake’-like tendency to find the slightest pressure or criticism as a cutting attack. Perhaps what we can take from this is not so much the need for certain individuals to ‘toughen-up’ or the hypocrisy of others, but that in this case perhaps everyone is right - we are all more fragile, and therefore lashing out in order to better define our sense of who we are.
The wave of disinformation and misinformation of the last few years - often seen as a technical, supply-side problem with technical solutions, can also be understood as the product of increased demand, from a populace seeking information to bolster worldviews that feel more secure, or comprehensible.
Like all political concepts, polarisation is essentially an attempt to look at complex, shifting reality, and carve out a particular dynamic or pattern as worthy of particular attention or concern. All such concepts must make decisions about the breadth of their parameters, what they choose to include and to omit - how to remain succinct and comprensible while doing justice to the complex reality.
It is this essay’s contention that polarisation is, for several reasons, a failure on these terms - too narrow, shallow, and limited a concept to do justice to reality, and more of an obstacle than an aid to our understanding.
Such flaws are most readily observable in the paucity of solutions that are offered to address our ‘polarisation problem’ - most often consisting of either voluntary individual ‘conversation guides’ and the like that seem clearly ill-equipped to tackle societal level issues, misty-eyed paeans to an empty collectivity, or technocratic policy agendas that seem to require their own success as a pre-condition. None of this should be a surprise when we review the number of issues with the concept as it is commonly found in contemporary discourse.
Discussions about polarisation present themselves as concerned with the splitting up or coming apart of society - and yet in its most basic implications it is ironically tendentious, presenting political extremes as problems to be solved, or the return to a proposed natural centre. This seems unlikely to be the basis for a common acceptance of a collective issue - and so it has proved.
The evidence for the current rise in polarisation is partial at best, with the qualified ‘affective polarisation’ rather than the common definition of the term much more clearly on the rise, and ‘negative partisanship’ further suggesting a common rise in outwards facing hostility as a more convincing diagnosis. This is the case even in the places most often studied and discussed in reference to the subject - the US and the UK - where an existing or artificially established political binary has made the term a seemingly close fit.
Digging deeper into how political polarisation is explained finds further flaws. It relies on simplistic and outdated psychological models, part of a tradition that puts the individual and the group at odds - a binary conception that can be seen as its most foundational limitation, and a theoretical bottleneck which restricts the possible usefulness of research into its root causes.
However, going this deep does at least provide some idea of what a richer perspective might require and allow. Attempts to understand the causes of polarisation have provided a broad survey of the many big picture social, economic, and cultural trends of recent decades, and by reassessing these, with an appreciation of its conceptual flaws, suggests a different angle.
A set of more modern psychological theories, centred around how individuals react to challenges and threats to their fundamental identity and worldview, start to hint at a way to make broader connections that can enrich our understanding. To go beyond polarisation as a concept, we need to transcend its limits - by using a more contemporary and nuanced psychology to connect the varied social trends of recent decades - including technological and media change - with the range of major social challenges that have come to the fore in that time.
With a broader lens like this, we might start to see the real root causes in our common social ills, how they are connected – and what would be necessary to truly address them. Polarisation cannot offer us that – but we have the tools to begin creating something better that can.
Daniel Stanley is the Founder and CEO of Future Narratives Lab. He is a strategic communications specialist, with a background in social psychology and community organising. Daniel writes and lectures on narrative, values & framing. He founded and led movement-building digital agency Small Axe, working with many of the world’s biggest NGOs, Social Enterprises and campaigning organisations, and is currently Creative Director at consultancy Cohere Partner
Laurențiu Sarjan (photos by Erasmia Kadinopoulou Asteriu)
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