Public Policy

Rob Ford on Immigration

June 3, 2024 660

Opinions on immigration are not set in stone, suggests Rob Ford – but they may be set in generations. Zeroing in on the experience of the United Kingdom since the end of World War II, Ford – a political scientist at the University of Manchester – explains how this generation’s ‘other’ becomes the next generation’s ‘neighbor’ – “a very remarkable transformation.”

“And so,” he tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “we’ve definitely got a situation now where there’s just so many more people who, if you say immigrants, they don’t just hear an alien other, they hear or can see in their mind’s eye, a relative or a friend, or a child, spouse or whatever it might be.”

Although there are clearly other factors at play, he acknowledges and discusses, nonetheless “generational change is one of the most underestimated forces in politics and society.”

Those other factors include race, how someone arrives on a foreign shore, how closely a new community has contact with the existing communities, and levels of polarization among natives. “[O]ne of the things I’ve learned is the story is always complicated,” the 2022 fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences admitted. “It’s one of the things that makes communicating social science research both challenging and rewarding is how do you tell a complicated story clearly, but without losing that vital nuance. But however well you do it, what gets heard, is out of your control.”

Ford has told his story – focusing on public opinion, electoral choice and party politics – in a series of well-received books and edited collections. His first book, Revolt on the Right, written with Matthew Goodwin, detailed the rise of the UK Independence Party and was named 2015 Political Book of the Year by Paddypower, while a book written with Maria Sobolewska, Brexitland, received the 2022 WJM Mackenzie Book Prize from the Political Studies Association (which also gave Ford a special recognition prize in 2017). Ford also edited two volumes of short essays, Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box and More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box, aimed at a general audience.

To download an MP3 of this podcast, right-click this link and save. The transcript of the conversation appears below.


David Edmonds: “As I look ahead, I’m filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see the river Tiber, foaming with much blood.” So said the conservative politician Enoch Powell, in an explosive speech in 1968, warning about the effect of mass immigration. We’re nearly six decades on, yet immigration remains a political football in the UK – where an election was announced shortly after this interview was recorded. In 2023 it’s thought that well over a million people migrated into the UK. And that net migration — that’s those who immigrated minus those who emigrated — was nearly 700,000. Yet there’s been a surprising trend in attitudes to immigration, as Rob Ford, professor of political science at Manchester University, explains.

Rob Ford, welcome to Social Science Bites.

Rob Ford: Delighted to be here.

Edmonds: Immigration is what we’re talking about today, in particular attitudes to immigration. The UK, I think was a reasonably homogenous country before World War II. Can you describe what happens to the numbers of immigrants after that?

Ford: Yes, well, the big turning point, the first big turning point in the story of post-war immigration in the UK, is 1948, when the Labour government passes the British Nationality Act, which wasn’t actually supposed to be about immigration at all. It was supposed to be about maintaining good relations with the Commonwealth. If you look at the parliamentary debates on it, they don’t mention immigration from what we ended up calling the new Commonwealth even once. But what it did was confer what was called Commonwealth citizenship on all of the people of the current and former colonies of the British Empire, which, of course, is an awful lot of places and an awful lot of people, the whole Indian subcontinent, many of the islands of the West Indies, much of Africa.

And so, all of those people from that day, had the right, unrestricted, to migrate to Britain, to work in Britain, once they lived here, to vote in British elections, a right they still retain incidentally. And what rapidly took the government by surprise as we move from the 1940s into the 1950s, is that growing numbers of people began to exercise that right. First of all, tens of thousands, then, by the end of the 50s, early 1960s, we’re looking at hundreds of thousands. This is the period where what we now call the kind of big ethnic minority communities in Britain first start to form in our big cities.

Edmonds: They’re coming mainly from the subcontinent, India, from Pakistan, and from the West Indies.

Ford: That’s right. The West Indians were the first to arrive, hence, we now have the great symbol of the Empire, Windrush that was, I think, a former cruise ship that was repurposed, and was one of the first tranches of workers coming from Jamaica to come and work in London. The numbers from South Asia start to pick up a bit more in the early 1960s, particularly parts of Pakistan and Bangladesh, there are parts of Bangladesh that had connections to the British Navy, and much of what we now call Indian cuisine in Britain has actually Bangladeshi chefs from the Navy, who came and settled here and founded Indian restaurants, and a part of Pakistan called Mirpur, where the government built a huge dam and displaced an awful lot of people who then came in large numbers, often to Birmingham in the northern mill towns, and then that would set up chain migration. So you can often have whole communities over here, who can trace their roots back to the same cluster of villages in that particular bit of Pakistan.

Edmonds: So large numbers coming from South Asia and from the Caribbean. And then there’s another big wave a couple of decades after Britain joins the European Union. Explain what happens then.

Ford: Yes, so Britain joined the, as it was then, the EEC [European Economic Community, precursor to the European Union], in 1973. From the beginning, one of the founding principles of the EEC was the free movement of goods and labor across borders, the so-called single market, it wasn’t particularly a big issue in terms of immigration early on, because most of the countries in the EEC were sort of similar levels of prosperity. There was some anxiety when Greece, Portugal, Spain joined in the 1980s. And there was a lot of migration from those countries, but mainly to their neighbors, mainly to France, some to Germany as well. But then in the 2000s, you had the post-communist societies, the so-called Accession Eight — Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia and so on — joining and there was a great, big, long discussion at EU level about on what terms they will be brought into the single market. And Tony Blair, who was very keen to make new friends in Europe and also this is one of the examples of his more idealistic streak, he said Britain would accept migrants from these new countries without any kind of transitional controls. So the EU negotiated this deal where you could have some controls on who could come in for up to seven years. He did that thinking that most of the other big countries in Europe would be similarly benevolent and generous, particularly Germany, which obviously is right next door to Poland.

And that didn’t happen. Everyone else except us, Ireland and Sweden, imposed transitional controls. So between that, a booming economy in the 2000s and the popularity of the English language, we rapidly became the most popular destination for migrants from these new EU member states. In fact, more people arrived in the first month than the government had been projecting would arrive in the first year.

Edmonds: That’s amazing. What numbers are we talking about?

Ford: We’re talking about millions. In fact, the numbers have recently been revised up by the Office for National Statistics. One of the great scandals was instantly in the politics and policy of migration is the appalling quality of most of our statistics about this, we really don’t know very well who’s coming and going. At the time, the main survey we had to capture who was coming into Britain was called the International Passenger Survey, which as the name suggests, is flights arriving. But it mainly conducted its surveys, you’d have the clipboard people in the big airports, Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, and so on, and very few in the smaller regional airports, and course none at the coach stations or anything like that. And how were the Poles arriving? Often on overnight coaches, often to the smaller airports, which Ryanair will give you cheap flights to and everything, so lots of them are just missed when they arrived. It’s now estimated that at its peak, we were talking about 300,000+ arriving every year. And we know now from the post-Brexit settlement register, that there are at least 6 million EU citizens who have a right to remain here who came to Britain under freedom of movement. The Polish are now the second largest foreign-born community in Britain. And there was only a very small Polish population here before that migration began.

Edmonds: So, let’s talk about attitudes to immigration. I’m too young to remember Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” speech in the late 1960s. But I do remember going to football matches in the late 1970s, early 1980s. And there was an extraordinary amount of overt racism and hostility to immigration. Was that a kind of low point of attitudes towards immigration?

Ford: Yeah, I mean, Powell’s speech is kind of totemic in this story. In fact, when I first started researching the politics of immigration, initially, my thinking was, “Why are people getting so worked up about this when it doesn’t really seem to directly impact their lives an awful lot?” So it seemed like a puzzle to me. And it was a real kind of jaw-to-the-floor moment, when I watched, there’s not actually footage of Powell reading the whole speech out, but you get footage of an actor reading it out. And I just thought, my goodness, this is some really potent, heated stuff.

And that’s when I realized that what we’re talking about, especially with the first wave of postwar migration, it’s a story about far more than just people coming and going. It’s a story about identity. It’s a story about race. It’s a story about empire. There’s the famous line about Britain acquired an empire in a fit of absence of mind. In terms of mass public attitudes, this was definitely true. Even though we’ve ruled over this huge empire, the average British person did not consider anybody who had a different skin color or a different country of birth to be British automatically and often they would say these people can never ever be British. So, the Britishness, Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness, all of them were very racialized: you’re white, you’re born here, you’re British. If you aren’t those things, you are not. And right from the beginning, even when the numbers arriving were quite small, the reaction amongst part of the public was viscerally, viscerally hostile.

Edmonds: So that was a very common attitude, I think, in the 60s, early 70s. What’s happened to attitude to immigrants since then?

Ford: Attitudes on immigration and on race have seen a very remarkable transformation. And this was another one of the sort of penny-dropping moments in my career, I find that generational change is one of the most underestimated forces in politics, and society. All of us, I think, imagine that the kinds of attitudes that are prevalent amongst our peers and in our cohort are just normal. That’s what we’re exposed to most of the time, most of our lives. And as a result, we miss how much you get changes from one generation to the next.

Edmonds: So it’s not young people becoming more liberal as they become older. It’s a different generation with a different set of attitudes.

Ford: That is one of the biggest drivers. Yeah, I mean, it’s a difficult thing to measure, for example, racial prejudice, because it’s a socially sensitive topic, a lot of people don’t want to admit to it. So, I’d say quite a lot of people do. But if you want an accurate measure, you want to try and come at it slightly obliquely. So one question that was used for a long time was, would you mind if a close relative of yours married someone from a different ethnic group, because intermarriage has always been one of the most sort of electric topics and this is a good way of capturing how this has changed over time. And if you look over the period from, say, when the migration began in the 1950s, take people who were like 20 in the 1950s, that my dad was, and then people are 20 today. You go from a situation where something like three quarters or four fifths would say that they minded, something close to majority who say they would mind a lot about the idea of racial intermarriage. Now you’re down to sort of 5 percent to 10 percent maximum. So, it’s completely disappeared as a form of hostility over the course of three or four generations.

Edmonds: So that’s attitude to interracial relationships. What about things like attitudes to their contribution, I don’t know, to the culture or to the economy?

Ford: Yeah, there the change, I think it’s a little bit more recent, because I think this stuff is a little bit like layers of an onion. So, one of the reasons that racial attitudes have changed an awful lot is that people have grown up. So, from the 1970s onwards, certainly from the 1980s and 1990s onwards. The idea of Britain as a multiethnic society that there are people here have grown up here, the same accents as you, the same cultural experiences as you, but they have different ethnic racial heritage, that’s just totally normal for these generations. So, they have become part of us.

But migrants, by definition are people who have grown up somewhere else. So, there’s an additional barrier there, they are newer arrivals, they are starting in some respects as “them,” and so there you saw attitudes remain negative for longer. But more recently, in the last 15 or 20 years, what you’re starting to see is both generational, but actually also across the board, across all the generations and social groups, a growing positivity about the impact that immigration has – it’s good for our economy, it’s good for our culture. So it’s kind of like a staged thing. We’ve gone from a society that was very inward looking and very ethnically homogenous, to then one that was diverse, and more comfortable with that, but with still a kind of wall around the border, to one that is diverse, comfortable with diversity, and increasingly happy to be open for people to come and go.

Edmonds: So it sounds like your explanation for why we’re more liberal, more progressive about attitudes to immigration, is that we’ve just got used to being a multicultural society.

Ford: I certainly think that is a big part of it. I think I would go further, I would say it’s not just that we’ve got used to it, it’s that for a growing portion of the public, this is something they value about the society. Normalization, I think is a tremendously important force in society. Things that become seen as normal, the default attitude then just becomes much more liberal to those sorts of things. So for example, children out of wedlock, homosexuality, that’s another one where if you look at the British social attitudes from the 1970s, versus today, these are not things that people are very intolerant about, because they’re just seen as normal parts of everyday life, people will like that, that’s fine. It took longer for that to happen with immigration, but it is happening. But also, there’s a kind of set of values that says, to be able to move around, to cross borders, to experience diverse cultures, to come and go as you please, to welcome people in, these are all valuable things. There’s a set of social values associated with this. And it’s not just the kind of society we do have, it is the kind of society we want.

Edmonds: But it’s also because you talked about the millions coming in since World War II, it becomes a question not just of people talking about them, but as you’ve suggested, them talking about us, in that so many people now must have a grandparent or great grandparent who was not born in the UK.

Ford: Yes. And this is, of course, one of the other big changes that we see. And it’s kind of a natural lag to this, you know, people arrived for the first time in a country that hasn’t had a lot of experience for immigration, then a generation or two down the line, they’re going to have a whole lot of descendants, you’re going to have a whole lot of people who grew up with them on the playground. So it’s not just parents and grandparents, it’s cousins and sisters -in-law and brothers-in-law and close friends and everything like that. So the share of people who have direct social contact with people who’ve come here from other countries just goes up really fast a couple of decades after you start to experience mass migration. And one of the most consistent findings in all of social psychology is the best way to improve attitudes towards any group is regular, positive social contact with someone with that group because that, it puts a human face on a group that might otherwise be characterized by stereotypes or feelings of threat. And so, we’ve definitely got a situation now where there’s just so many more people who, if you say immigrants, they don’t just hear an alien other, they hear or can see in their mind’s eye, a relative or a friend, or a child, spouse or whatever it might be.

Edmonds: Age, you’ve already touched on as a factor which seems to be correlated with attitudes to immigration. What about other demographic factors like sex or class?

Ford: Well, there isn’t that much of a gender divide in immigration attitudes, but the big, strong predictor is education. University graduates are very much more liberal on basically every immigration question we ask about and on all the identity questions, too. That seems to be partly a matter of graduates being more prone to these kinds of liberal open values that I’m talking about. But it’s also to do with voters who have the lowest levels of formal education. And I’m gonna be very careful, I talk about this, because if you use the term uneducated, that’s just wrong. This isn’t a matter of ignorance, it’s very important point, it is a matter of values. So voters who left school have less formal education, they’re much more prone to have kind of smaller social worlds, they’re much more prone to be still living in the places where they grew up. And they’re much more attracted to values that are about stability, and continuity, and homogeneity and stuff like this. And they see immigration as a threat to those kinds of values.

Edmonds: So, education is not a causal factor, it correlates with these values.

Ford: Yes, exactly. Education itself is not the causal factor. This isn’t, like I say, this is one of the sources of the heat that you get in debates. If we’re talking about class divides in politics, I think there’s a kind of established understanding that both sides have legitimate interests and legitimate values, and so on. With these newer education divides, there is a tendency, I think, amongst those in the kind of liberal graduate high education group to dismiss the other group as motivated by ignorance, or by fear or by bigotry. So, there isn’t the kind of mutual legitimacy. You know, the working class has interests that are different to the middle class, we accept that. If you say my interests are legitimate, your interests are the product of ignorance and bigotry, it’s not surprising that the latter group gets quite defensive and quite angry. What we need is to recognize that actually, there is a clash of values here, that isn’t just a matter of prejudices. I’m not saying there aren’t prejudices, we talked about that already. There clearly were and still are. But there’s a lot of other things going on here. I think people can quite legitimately say, change makes me anxious, stability is something I value. And immigration is a driver of change. All of those things are true and legitimate views to hold.

Edmonds: We can’t have a discussion about attitudes to immigration without talking about Brexit. And the puzzle about Brexit is you talk about this gradual change in attitudes to immigrants. And yet, Brexit, which wasn’t that long ago, 2016, the slogan that won the Brexiteers, the campaign, was “take back control.” And I take that slogan to mean in particular, take back control of immigration. Is that a fair summary of what happened in the Brexit campaign? And how does that square with this story you’re telling about us becoming increasingly liberal?

Ford: It is a fair, if partial, summary. Take back control, it was a piece of political marketing genius, I would say because in three words, it managed to capture and epitomize a huge amount of intuit resentment out there in the public. And if you look at it statistically, then people’s views about immigration are the strongest predictor, then, of leave voting, but they’re not the only predictor. So, people’s views about national identity and sovereignty and social change, their views about political trust and the establishment and so on. These things kind of mix together. So, what does it mean, take back control? Society is changing in ways that we’re not happy with, we seem to have no control over that, we’re not being listened to, and immigration kind of epitomizes all of this. It’s a change that’s being imposed upon us that we weren’t consulted over, and we want to reassert control.

Your question is, then, well why did this happen if attitudes were becoming more liberal at the same time? It’s because first of all, because they started from a very liberal place. So if we’d have had this campaign 20 years earlier, and if everyone had voted the same way, as they did in the 2016 referendum, if we lined up all the races in terms of their attitudes on various things, then the lead majority would have been bigger than and if we did it now, 10 years later, it’s quite likely that just through demographic change and attitude change alone, it would be a substantial remain majority. So, it happens to be that we held that referendum right at the point where the majority in favor of these more sort of anti-immigration, nationalistic or liberal views was fading, but still there. It was one of those kinds of accidents of history. Five years later, it could have been different. But also, different groups move at different rates, which can create misperceptions about how far this change has gone. If David Cameron had looked in his own sort of social network, he wouldn’t have seen many Lee Andersons.

Edmonds: David Cameron being the prime minister at the time, Lee Anderson, being well, a person who’s constantly changing party and is currently now a member of the Reform UK, which has a very anti-immigration agenda.

Ford: That’s right. And at this point in time, Lee Anderson was actually a Labour councilor, which shows you some of the changes that this sort of set in train. But the point is, if you’re a university graduate, socially liberal person like David Cameron, you wouldn’t see many of these kinds of people, the leave people, in your social networks, so you would underestimate their presence in the electorate. So, leave won, even though society was becoming more liberal, because A: it started in a very liberal place. And the change took a long while to run, and B: the people who triggered the whole referendum process didn’t have a good awareness of quite how much of this sentiment was really out there and how potent it was.

Edmonds: And we’ve become more liberal since Brexit, is that because we’ve taken back control?

Ford: I mean, it has been one of the biggest surprises I would say, of my career as a researcher. I thought that the consequence of the referendum would be a kind of legitimation of that more nationalistic anti-immigration view and that that we kind of entrenched those views, particularly until the thing was done, because of course, nothing changed on that day in June, it was then a long and arduous process to get to any kind of substantive policy change. Immigration policy didn’t change until 2021. Instead, what happened very quickly, and very broadly, was people started reporting more liberal views about immigration, across the board. The share who said they were worried about it as a problem dropped like a stone, the share who said it was economically harmful, dropped like a stone, the share who worried about its impact on culture dropped like a stone, leave and remain voters alike.

I think we’re still unpicking why that happened. There are probably different things for the different sides of the debate. So, for leave voters, I do think what this highlights is that symbols and prospects and directions of travel are as important as the now. The reassurance that we have spoken, and control will be reasserted, serve to reassure people that this will be a process that was very much more under national control in the future and that made them more relaxed about what’s happening in the now.

Also, I think it highlights that opposition to immigration is not context-free and inflexible. So if people think the government is pulling a lever and deciding to let these people in on this basis, and we see when we asked about specific immigrant groups as well, you ask about immigration to the NHS, everyone’s very happy with it, because they see it as very beneficial, see the argument for it, and they know that these visas are being issued by the government. You ask about small boat migration at the other end of the spectrum, very unhappy a majority about that, because it feels like and is a form of migration that’s out of the government’s control and there’s a kind of failure of policy rather than an outcome of policy. So, the control thing was one thing.

There’s always been an asymmetry in immigration, the people who don’t like it are much more vocal than the people who do. What changed with the referendum is that people who were like pro, the free movement, EU status quo realized that all of that can be taken away, that they weren’t necessarily going to get their way and all of this, and that kind of reinforced their commitment to their values. So, then they were like, doubling down on immigration is a valuable thing for society and something I want to see maintained because for the first time, in a very long time, they were faced with the prospect of their sort of values being sort of infringed upon in that way.

Edmonds: This track that we’ve been on since World War II, where we’re becoming ever more progressive, you see that continuing into the future?

Ford: I think it is a very dangerous thing to do to project any change into the future forever. A lot of social science has come to grief for this because turning points are hard to spot. These things have a lot of kind of demographic momentum. So there’s a kind of default argument for they’re likely to continue and do they have since 2016, for example. So if we were having this conversation in 2016, I would say to you, well, by 2024, we’re going to have more graduates, the youngest cohort coming through seems to be a good deal more liberal than their parents or grandparents, are going to have more people with migrant heritage and ethnic minority, all of that suggests a continued drift in the liberal direction. And that’s what’s happened.

But sometimes you can get reversals. So one of the things I’ve been very interested in, in the last couple of years is that the evidence, for example, that socially conservative ethnic minorities in the US might be a lot keener on Donald Trump than we would imagine them to be given the nature of the politician that he is. And when you look at, for example, ethnic minority voters in Britain, they’re a lot more religious, they’re a lot more family oriented, they’re very economically right wing, and they’re very socially conservative and a lot of the hot button social issues that have come up in recent years. So they, for example, could become a group that end up shifting to the right, but if that happens, something will have had to trigger it to happen, and we couldn’t predict it. So on the one hand, we have demography. I think of it like continental drift, this kind of powerful, slow force. But on the other hand, we have things that are happening in politics and society, which are more like the climate and the weather, they’re more changeable, they’re more short term, and they can pull against that longer term pressure.

Edmonds: We’re speaking in mid-2024, when the Conservative Party has a flagship policy, as they call it, which is to send asylum seekers to Africa, to Rwanda. If we are becoming more progressive, how do you explain this? They must believe it’s a vote winner.

Ford: This is true. But then if I may add another observation on to this and the fact that this is never or very seldom picked up upon, it tells its own story, I think it is our first ever ethnic minority prime minister promoting this flagship policy. And our first three ever ethnic minority home secretaries, three in a row, who have been charged with implementing it. So, on the one hand, you have a policy which looks straightforwardly like a kind of lightning rod for intolerance against outsiders. On the other hand, you have a series of politicians from groups who, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, would have been marginalized as outsiders now at the very center of the establishment. So, you get two very different stories there about identity and social change.

But why Rwanda? And why do they think it’s a vote winner? Well, again, this comes back to the question of, what is it that immigration symbolizes rather than what is the direct effect? If you look at, say, immigration into the NHS, immigration into the universities, these are much, much larger flows of migration, and people are quite happy with them, because they see this as a process that’s under the government’s control, that’s delivering for the country. It’s a kind of win-win, it’s a win-win for the migrants coming here to make better lives themselves. It’s a win for us.

What a lot of people see when they see people arriving on the beaches in Dover, is they see chaos and criminality and exploitation of the generosity of our asylum arrangements. Now we can debate whether or not that’s a fair judgment to make about any of these things, but it is for a lot of people their kind of immediate and emotive reaction to this. This is not a system, it’s a system failure, and that’s why policies that are designed symbolically to reassert control often poll very well.

Edmonds: Much of Western Europe is now multicultural, like Britain. How do British attitudes on immigration compare to attitudes in France, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere?

Ford: We could do a whole other podcast on this, this is a fascinating topic. The first thing to note is the liberal shift I talked about — these generational liberal shifts values is that you see them in most Western European countries with large migrant populations, because you’ve got very similar dynamics going on. Minority communities growing up, lots more social contacts, education levels rising, liberal values rising and so on. What you see in relative terms is that 15, 20 years ago, roundabout the time of the accession countries joining in 2004, in the 1990s, Britain had some of the most negative attitudes in Western Europe. Since then, Britain has changed faster than most of its Western European peer nations. So, it’s moved from bottom of the pack, to sort of middle, top half of the pack. So, we’re still not like the most liberal on immigration, Nordic countries tend to be more liberal as well. But we’ve moved towards the liberal end of the list.

The other thing that’s also worth noting is that we score very highly on another measure, which is probably less good in a political sense, which is polarization. So if you look at the variation in attitudes between groups, Britain, along with I think Sweden, are some of the most divided countries, liberal groups, like university graduates are really, really pro, and then older school leavers, older socially conservative voters are really, really, anti. That can make the politics of this just much more emotive, much more high voltage because the division is just much bigger.

Edmonds: Let me ask you one final question. Most social scientists are of the left, lean soft left, sometimes more left than soft left. This is an interesting area because there are some right-wing academics who look at immigration and attitudes to immigration. But it strikes me as an area in which motivated reasoning or motivated argument is a real danger in that you can cherry pick the data to produce the conclusions that you want. Are you aware of that in your own case? And do you do something to mitigate it?

Ford: Oh, yeah. I mean, if I’m honest, I think one of the reasons I wanted to research this and then go on to research the radical right is I wanted to challenge my preconceptions. I didn’t want to just adopt a kind of lazy, liberal graduate stereotype about people who clearly thought very differently to me, I wanted to sort of try and unpick it. But one of the things I’ve learned is, the story is always complicated. It’s one of the things that makes communicating social science research both challenging and rewarding is how do you tell a complicated story clearly, but without losing that vital nuance. But however well you do it, what gets heard, is out of your control.

And so when I started researching, for example, changes in attitudes to race, was one of the first articles I wrote, and I said, well, basically, there’s been this extraordinary shift, attitudes used to be really, really negative, and then much less negative now. And the message is basically things are still not good, but they used to be a hell of a lot worse.

And that message seems to manage to annoy everybody, so that the very liberal people would be like, how dare you focus on an improvement, you should be emphasizing how bad things are, not that they’ve improved, that undermines the fight against racism or whatever. Whereas more conservative people would say, how dare you say things are so bad and downplay this improvement?

You know, kind of up to the point about reflection, I feel like you’ve almost got to aim for the situation where you’re getting canon from both sides. And the sort of most firebrand people on both sides. If they’re both finding something to dislike in what you’re saying, you’ve probably arrived at a good balance. But I think it is a really, really difficult area, because you always have to be conscious and this is such a hard thing to do, of the water you’re swimming in, in terms of the people you’re around, the people you habitually communicate with.

I think it was easier when I was younger, because I could go back and see my family and I’ve got lots of family who’ve got working-class backgrounds. But my dad was a doctor, I’m sort of a classic middle-class boy, but lots of my cousins and stuff like that, that would help to keep me grounded. Whereas now I’m a bit older, less time with family, more time circulating around in university campus crowds, so you’ve got to be constantly on your guard. These people are very nice people, but they’re not the only people out there.

Edmonds: Rob Ford, Thank you very much indeed.

Ford: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Welcome to the blog for the Social Science Bites podcast: a series of interviews with leading social scientists. Each episode explores an aspect of our social world. You can access all audio and the transcripts from each interview here. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @socialscibites.

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Biden Administration Releases ‘Blueprint’ For Using Social and Behavioral Science in Policy
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May 17, 2024

Biden Administration Releases ‘Blueprint’ For Using Social and Behavioral Science in Policy

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Tavneet Suri on Universal Basic Income
Social Science Bites
May 1, 2024

Tavneet Suri on Universal Basic Income

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There’s Something in the Air, Part 2 – But It’s Not a Miasma

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Robert Dingwall looks at the once dominant role that miasmatic theory had in public health interventions and public policy.

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To Better Forecast AI, We Need to Learn Where Its Money Is Pointing

To Better Forecast AI, We Need to Learn Where Its Money Is Pointing

By carefully interrogating the system of economic incentives underlying innovations and how technologies are monetized in practice, we can generate a better understanding of the risks, both economic and technological, nurtured by a market’s structure.

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Alex Edmans on Confirmation Bias 

Alex Edmans on Confirmation Bias 

In this Social Science Bites podcast, Edmans, a professor of finance at London Business School and author of the just-released “May Contain Lies: How Stories, Statistics, and Studies Exploit Our Biases – And What We Can Do About It,” reviews the persistence of confirmation bias even among professors of finance.

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