Brexit and sociology: A view from across the North Sea

By Hans Siebers

Many things about Brexit remain unclear, but two things seem certain. Brexit exemplifies a global trend of nationalist and populist culture and people with a migration background will probably have to face its severest consequences. As a non-UK BSA member, I take the opportunity to reflect especially on those consequences and on how to study them from a viewpoint just across the North Sea.

Projects like Brexit are particularly threatening for people with a migration background. As sociologists, we had better be prepared to measure, describe and explain their exclusion and exploitation. UK sociologists will face up to that task since they have a track record of excellent and relevant work, and continue to inspire colleagues elsewhere like me. However, there is no reason to lay back as two challenges stand out, in my view. The first one is the conflation of racism and nationalism in many studies on the problems these people are facing, exemplified by terms that seem very mystifying like ‘cultural racism’ (Siebers and Dennissen, 2015).

That conflation confuses me since, in the Dutch historical context, racism and nationalism have gone very different ways. For example, people with a migration background were classified here in official nationalist terms as “ethnic minorities” in the 1980s, in a deliberate attempt to avoid their racialisation (Miles, 1993). Overall, this avoidance has been successful, but it has created a blind eye for the exclusion and exploitation of these people driven by nationalism, first cast as multiculturalism and later as cultural fundamentalism (Siebers and Dennissen, 2015). The conflation of nationalism and racism also surprises me since in principle nationalism and racism are rooted in very different theories and bodies of literature.

Second, if we distinguish racism and nationalism, an unfruitful imbalance in the literature becomes visible that perhaps may be summarised as ‘hard on racism, soft on nationalism’. There is a boosting literature on racism that uses the term racism as a very powerful qualification to condemn and denounce (see Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1999). However, such a qualification may create its biases. One of them is the equation of exclusion or exploitation of people with a migration background and racism. Whatever these people suffer from, it must be racism, so it goes.

Such an equation is simply untenable, though. After all, such exclusion and exploitation can also be caused by something very different, i.e. nationalism (see Mann, 2005). Next, denouncing may take the place of explaining. The theorisation of racism has not kept pace with the upsurge of literature on it. Basic questions such as where variation in racism comes from – why does it occur in one context and not in another? – remain unanswered.    Moreover, having been educated in a strong anti-racism tradition in the Netherlands after the Holocaust, I cannot avoid feeling very uneasy when I read the terminology used in some racism studies when the authors themselves depict people in racial terms like “black” or “white”. I understand, some UK universities offer a courses in “black” studies. Until recently, anyone who would dare to use such terms in Dutch public life was excommunicated forever. I am not saying that the Dutch situation should set the standards for the UK, nor vice versa, and perhaps it is my own localised bias, but I would suggest that to counter racism we need to abstain from using – and legitimising – the very discursive classifications that give rise to it. Can we agree that there are no “black” or “white” or “coloured” people?

Brexit’s consequences for people with a migration background are often associated with racism, whereas Brexit is an obvious expression of nationalism. There is a tendency in the literature to be soft on nationalism, i.e. to underestimate its dangers or even legitimise or justify it. Some argue, there would be a functional necessity for it in the emergence of an industrial society (Gellner, 1983). Others naturalise it: nationalism is supposed to have been there since ancient times thus it is normal and natural (Smith, 1986). Again, others argue that people would have an understandable tendency to seek belongingness and protection in something like a “nation” (Harris, 2016).

Such arguments fail to convince me. Gellner’s functionalist argument is predicated upon a reality more than a century ago. Smith’s argument is basically metaphysical. Harris’ praising of nationalism for providing security in insecure times boils down to something like honouring the Sicilian mafia for providing protection to shopkeepers, farmers and restaurant owners. Are not competing nationalisms the main source of insecurity in the first place? This methodological nationalism (Wimmer and Glick Schiller, 2002) or soft spot for nationalism is so remarkable since, arguably, it is the political phenomenon that has produced by far the largest numbers of casualties in human history. It triggered two world wars.

My own research shows that nationalism is a major factor fuelling exclusion and exploitation of people with a migration background in the Netherlands, both in education (e.g. Siebers, 2019) and in the labour market (e.g. Siebers, 2017). It is not part of everyday life, so nothing natural. It does pop up at school or at work with its devastating consequences when triggered by Dutch mass media. Is not Brexit also at least partially the result of massive disinformation campaigns by British media?

Both racism and nationalism can harm people with a migration background, but we need to distinguish them conceptually and analytically in order to understand how such harm works and where it comes from. There are also good reasons to stay self-critical to avoid becoming part of the problems we study. If Brexit reminds us of that, at least something positive will have come out of it.


Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L. (1999) On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason. Theory, Culture & Society, 16(1): 41–58.

Gellner, E. (1983) Nations and Nationalism. Ithaka (NY): Cornell University Press.

Harris, E. (2016) Why has nationalism not run its course? Nations and Nationalism, 22(2): 243-247.

Mann, M. (2005) The Dark Side of Democracy. Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Miles, R. (1993) Racism after ‘Race Relations’. London: Routledge.

Siebers, H. (2017) What turns migrants into ethnic minorities at work? Factors erecting ethnic boundaries among Dutch police officers. Sociology, 51(3): 608-625.

Siebers, H. (2019) Are education and nationalism a happy marriage? Ethno-nationalist disruptions of education in Dutch classrooms. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 40(1): 33-49.

Siebers, H. and Dennissen, M.H.J. (2015) Is it cultural racism? Discursive oppression and exclusion of migrants in the Netherlands. Current Sociology, 63(3): 470-489.

Smith, A. D. (1986) The Ethnic Origins of Nations. Oxford: Blackwell.

Wimmer, A. and Glick Schiller, N. (2002) Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State Building, Migration and the Social Sciences. Global Networks, 2(4): 301-334.