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.

1. Introduction

1.1 We present here our findings from the qualitative study commissioned by the Scottish Government (Justice Analytical Services) to provide an understanding of the nature of sectarianism in a range of communities across Scotland, including those where it may be most visibly prevalent. The team of academics commissioned to carry out this research were drawn from the disciplines of law, music, social geography, cultural studies, and communication and media studies. The study was commissioned on 14 March 2014, to conclude in spring 2015.

1.2 In this chapter we will set out the background to the study and what we were asked to achieve. The chapters that follow will consider our methods, comment on the conduct of our fieldwork and present our analysis of the data collected.

The brief

1.3 The project's brief was to consider personal experiences of sectarianism as broadly as possible. This was to include perceptions of prevalence, trends over time, contact between different communities, marriage and social networks, work, housing, education, jokes and banter between friends/acquaintances, and consideration of it within different social settings (such as sports clubs, cultural and community associations, as well as the workplace).

1.4 The Scottish Government did not ask that the study provide a representative account of the nature of sectarianism in Scotland (a separate project was commissioned to do that, carried out by the social research institute ScotCen). Rather, what was sought was a more in-depth understanding of how sectarianism may (or may not) manifest itself within the lives of individuals within particular communities. The purpose of the study was to provide depth and context to research findings from other projects, such as national surveys of victimisation and perceptions of sectarianism, and criminal offending data.


1.5 In August 2012, the Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs established an independent Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism in Scotland. As part of its work, the Advisory Group made recommendations regarding any further research that would be needed to guide further policy development. They identified gaps in which evidence was lacking and highlighted a need for qualitative research that explores if and how sectarianism affects particular communities, and how it may form part of people's everyday experiences.

1.6 The need for this research was also identified by the Scottish Government's research branch in Justice Analytical Services, as set out in a 2013 report that called for research to test whether, which and how individual communities are particularly affected by sectarianism. It suggested that such research should 'focus on geographies within which distinct Catholic and Protestant communities live, either separately or side-by-side' and that '[i]n-depth qualitative research at a local level could help test whether social fractures exist, how that impacts on communities and what could be done to address this.'[2] The focus, they thought, should extend beyond west-central Scotland, where most research has been done, to consider other pockets of Catholic communities, including new migrant Catholic communities.

1.7 The Scottish Government then commissioned a number of research projects. These dealt with a range of issues such as analysing information from the 2011 Census and adding new questions to the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey and the Scottish Household Survey. Three in particular were commissioned to look more deeply into the roots of the problem. One was a national survey of nationally representative study of public attitudes and experiences of sectarianism, carried out by the Scottish social research institute ScotCen.

1.8 The second project was to consider the community impact of marches and parades (including Loyalist and Irish Republican processions). Its task was to inform discussion about three key aspects of a march or parade: the importance of celebrating identity and freedom of expression for those who take part; the duty of the local authority to prevent crime and disorder and protect public safety and the right of affected communities to express thoughts and beliefs.

1.9 The third project was this one on community experiences of sectarianism. The first project focuses on robust estimates across the whole Scottish population; the second, although considering important aspects of the impact of sectarianism on different groups within communities, was not designed to provide an understanding of everyday experiences. This third project was to provide the Scottish Government and its partners with a more comprehensive understanding of public perceptions and experiences of sectarianism, where and how it manifests itself within particular communities in Scottish society, the impact and consequences of this and what more can be done to tackle it.

Research objectives

1.10 The specific objectives of our study were:

  • To focus on developing an understanding of perceptions of sectarianism in Scotland based on everyday experiences within communities
  • To provide a more detailed account of communities' perceptions of the scale and nature of sectarianism in selected areas of Scotland than has been available before now
  • To explore and report on understandings and experiences of sectarianism in under-researched locations, in particular those where distinct Catholic and Protestant communities live, either separately or side-by-side, and where there is a history of sectarianism that appears to have persisted in some form until today
  • Similarly, to explore and report on understandings and experiences of sectarianism in areas where it is considered to be less of a problem
  • To compare the perceptions and experiences of Catholics and Protestants in west-central Scotland with those in other areas of Scotland to see what, if any, important differences exist
  • To compare perceptions and experiences of sectarianism among different ethnic Christian groups (including recent migrants)
  • To explore and report on how sectarianism is manifested in different social settings and the varying ways in which it is expressed and understood
  • To include the experiences of as broad a range of the Scottish population as possible, taking into account the key equality characteristics
  • To identify the impact and consequences of these experiences for these communities, and provide insights into how these communities believe they can be strengthened to tackle Scottish sectarianism in its various manifestations
  • To draw the findings into a narrative grounded in robust data that can enhance the value of and provide a context for findings from other research, in particular large quantitative studies

1.11 The scope of the project was not such that it can provide large-scale quantitative data. Rather, its role was to provide a sturdy foundation of in-depth community-based personal accounts that will complement and enhance other studies. The methods were not designed to capture a representative sample: rather they were designed to gather a well-targeted group of the diverse Scottish population, in particular Catholics and Protestants of various ancestries.


Email: Linzie Liddell

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