Community Experiences of Sectarianism

This study explored community experiences and perceptions of sectarianism, based on in-depth qualitative research within five case study communities across Scotland. The insights obtained provide depth and context to other research about sectarianism, including quantitative survey and national criminal offending data.

13. Signifiers

13.1 Various signifiers mark out polarised identities in Scotland at the community level. Many Scots still find sectarian significance in particular markers of group identity such as the colour of clothing, songs, tunes and flags, the name of the school attended, and the name and spelling of the surname.

Oh it is so obvious, isn't it? ... I think a combination of your name and your school gives the game away for 90% of the time.
(Man, Interview 7, Glasgow)

13.2 He spoke of a 'Glaswegian, a West of Scotland' compulsion to seek out information betraying a person's religious background, adding, 'I have no idea why, I suppose it is just an insecurity amongst people'. Several participants explained that asking someone's football team affiliation was used as a tactic to discover someone's religious background.

13.3 These were not necessarily understood Scotland-wide: it is interesting for example, how often 'green' was mentioned in the Glasgow and North Lanarkshire case studies, but rarely so in the Dundee and Edinburgh - even though one of Edinburgh's main two football teams has a green and white strip.

13.4 In contrast, one woman participant in the Glasgow case study recalled a story overheard in a Rangers affiliated bar in the area; in it a man described how he chastised his nephew for wearing a green t-shirt, presumably because of the colours affiliation with Celtic/Irishness. She went on to mention how her friend was refused admittance to a Rangers-affiliated pub in the east end of the city due to his shoes having green and white laces, even though he himself was a Rangers fan.

Another participant described how in her job in a central Scotland shoe-shop, one customer refused to try on a pair of green trainers, even though they were only to be used to identify the size of his feet. A participant in Glasgow described how he and his friends were made to feel uncomfortable to the point of leaving a Rangers affiliated bar because they were wearing too many items of clothing containing the colour green, with one customer loudly saying that there was, 'too much green in the room.'

13.5 These stories were told to us after we asked for examples of 'sectarian behaviour'. What was intended may have been different from the impact that it had. It is possible that the people who were singling out the colour green may have intended it as legitimate sporting partisanship, while some of the observers saw it as sectarian bigotry. But, equally, the participants who gave us these examples had not chosen to be involved in sporting partisanship at the time; these incidents for them had been an unwelcome intrusion as they went about their everyday lives.

13.6 Several participants thought that someone's name can be an indicator of their religion. Another signifier often mentioned was the school one attended: attendance at a Catholic school would generally be taken to mean that the person in question was themselves a Catholic.

13.7 Some participants from areas with a large Catholic population stated that most people assumed they were Catholic because of their home town. However, none of the Glasgow participants mentioned the areas of Glasgow in which they lived as being a marker of religion: in fact the opposite was mentioned when a participant stated that the schemes around Parkhead where he grew up were mixed with Celtic and Rangers fans.

13.8 All of these distinctions, though, were cut across by age, gender and football affiliation among others. There is no simple east/west, north/south or island/mainland division.

13.9 These shared meanings about markers are an important part of escaping overly-subjective discussions about sectarianism. Without some understanding of context, there is a risk that an analysis uninformed by local knowledge and experience will disproportionately focus on what the individual person intends. Or, the impact on the audience may be dismissed as a matter of individual sensitivity. Alternatively, it may suggest that there is sectarian meaning in an encounter, when this does not reflect what the people present themselves thought.

13.10 This is not to say that all research participants' accounts of sectarianism are equally valid as objective accounts or equal proof that a phenomenon exists. What we are presenting is an analysis of community understandings. Personal stories need to be understood as part of individual and community narratives, or much of their meaning is lost.

13.11 This is particularly important given the 'discursive deficit' we mentioned in chapter 3. One possible reason we have identified for sectarianism being seen as a contentious issue is because it is currently poorly understood in Scottish society. Not only is there widespread variability in people's understanding of what constitutes sectarianism, but our participants also often did not classify certain forms of prejudiced behaviour that were indirectly based on ethno-religious identity as sectarianism.

13.12 For example, one participant (Interview 4, N Lanarkshire) identified a variety of regular problems in her community such as fighting between Catholics and Protestants, Celtic and Rangers pubs divided along sectarian lines, football strips as religiously identifiable and antagonistic, local clustering of Protestants and Catholics in Scotland and many other verbal and material incidents of conflict. She was however happy to suggest towards the end of her interview that 'sectarianism' is 'not a problem' in Scotland, and that she felt that Scotland was today a fairly liberal and progressive society - despite the manifest stories of sectarian conflict and prejudice mentioned throughout her interview.

13.13 This speaks to the problems of identifying and defining 'sectarianism' in Scottish society, and also to the lack of a regular everyday discourse about sectarianism.


Email: Linzie Liddell

Back to top