Brexit, Relationships and Everyday Family Life

By Katherine Davies, The University of Sheffield

Brexit politics, in their broadest sense, have dominated conversations about politics in British media, homes and workplaces since campaigning for the 2016 referendum began. The idea that, following the Brexit vote, the UK is a ‘divided’ nation characterised by deep divisions between ‘remainers’ and ‘leavers’ is now a well-rehearsed trope. Many media outlets have pointed in particular to generational divisions between so-called ‘baby boomers’ who, according to a YouGov poll (Moore 2016), voted mainly to leave and ‘millenials’ who were found to vote overwhelmingly to remain. Despite the proliferation of these discourses, we know very little about how these so-called divisions are lived and experienced in people’s everyday personal relationships, particularly within families where inter-generational ties are often central. It is important that we unpack the trope of ‘divided Britain’ so we can understand how Brexit, and disagreements about it, are lived in people’s everyday (inter)generational relationships and so we can make sense of what ‘division’ actually means for people in their everyday lives. These micro lived realities of relational life in ‘Brexit Britain’ are often overlooked in media coverage and political commentary yet, whatever the outcome of the current shambolic scenes from parliament, they have crucial implications for governance post Brexit.

For the past 18 months I have been interviewing people about how they talk to their family members about Brexit politics in a project funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme small grants scheme. It has been fascinating to hear about the ways that families have dealt with differences of political opinion, from the ‘baby boomer’ couple who voted leave and found themselves sharing a holiday cottage with their remain voting son and daughter-in-law on referendum day, to the twenty three year old woman trying to explain to her leave voting grandad why she wants to be free to work in Europe one day. What is striking is the effort people are putting into avoiding serious divisions within their family over Brexit, with participants displaying a great deal of tacit knowledge and judgement, reminiscent of Hochschild’s (1983) ‘emotion work’ (the personal-life iteration of her more well-known concept of ‘emotional labour’) in deciding when, where and how to ‘talk politics’. Furthermore, the data suggest that people’s political views, practices and orientations are deeply embedded in their relationships, both past and present, and participants have drawn upon their political memories of key events, such as the 1984-5 miners strike, as well as childhood memories, such as accompanying a parent to the polling station, when making sense of the role of politics in their lives and relationships today. This pilot project has indicated that there is certainly a lot going on ‘behind closed doors’ when it comes to Brexit but it has been difficult to fully understand the role of Brexit in everyday family relationships using qualitative interviews as participants often struggled to recall specific conversations or moments. It has also become clear that the phenomenon of Brexit ebbs and flows through time in unpredictable ways,  sometimes bubbling just below the surface and other times creating moments of high drama. It is difficult to understand how families are living with Brexit politics over time in a one-off qualitative interview encounter.

The obvious methodological answer to the challenges of capturing the everyday and temporal flows of relational life in ‘Brexit Britain’ is to turn to ethnography, but of course it is difficult to ‘hang out’ in people’s private homes, hoping to catch an exchange or conversation about Brexit. My latest project, funded under the ESRC Governance After Brexit scheme, starting in February this year, will attempt to address this issue by employing a suite of methods I term ‘ethnographic encounters’. The project will work with up to ten families over a period of a year to explore how Brexit politics are lived and experienced within people’s everyday relationships, how people’s views, behaviours and attitudes towards Brexit are influenced by the relationships in which they are embedded (both past and present) and focussing on the role of seemingly mundane interactions, identities, relationships and biographies in shaping people’s experiences of and orientations towards Brexit. In addition to interviews with family members together and apart and some targeted participant observation, the project will use memory work with individuals and family groups to explore participants’ early political memories and the importance of biography and family history in shaping people’s orientations towards and experiences of Brexit. Lots of people in the pilot study said that they often had conversations with family members about Brexit when something about Brexit politics happened to come onto the television, so the project will also engineer media elicitation sessions in the style of Channel Four’s Gogglebox programme, where families and friends are filmed watching selected television programmes together. Furthermore, some qualitative network mapping and interactive diary keeping will be used to explore ‘real life’ and virtual interactions with family as well as friends, neighbours and colleagues about Brexit politics.

The project, led by Dr Katherine Davies, will run from 1 February 2019 to 31 January 2021 and will be situated in The Department of Sociological Studies at The University of Sheffield. For more information about the ESRC’s Governance After Brexit scheme of funded research see:


  • Hochschild, A. R. (1983) The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling Berkeley: University of California Press
  • Moore, P. (2016) ‘How Britain Voted’ YouGov 27 June 2016  Accessed 16 April 2018