An Examination of the Evidence on Sectarianism in Scotland

This is a review of existing research and survey data on sectarianism in Scotland.


This review has revealed that, while there is plenty of evidence that people believe that there is a problem of sectarianism in Scotland there is much less to demonstrate that people have experienced this. The extent to which perceptions of sectarianism reflect actual experience of sectarianism is something that is very difficult to establish given the current state of the evidence-base. A key priority should therefore be to improve that evidence base and to be able to establish some robust data, not just about perceptions but also about the experience of sectarianism.

In an effort to develop the evidence base on sectarianism, Justice Analytical Services have added a new module to the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey (SCJS) which asks victims of non-criminalised pestering, harassment and intimidation if they thought this might be related to sectarianism (along with other forms of prejudice such as race, religion generally, gender, disability or sexual orientation). A similar module on harassment was included in the survey in 2008/09 and suggested that 15% of the population had been insulted, pestered or intimidated by someone who was not a member of their household and that, of this 15%, around 5% stated (when prompted) that this might have been related to their race or religion or related to sectarianism. The new module will allow us to disaggregate this further and will also go further by collecting more detail about the incident or incidents: by what means it took place (including on-line), what type of behaviour was involved and where it took place. Respondents will also be asked how much they personally worry about being insulted, pestered or intimidated on the basis of these things. Data will be available at the end of 2013.

Walls and Williams80 argue that their own qualitative research on discrimination within the workplace suggests that there is a case for a more 'thorough quantitative estimation of discrimination occurring in the present day, with sufficient power to detect even low levels of prevalence'. The new module in the SCJS will go some way to providing this but collecting similar data on a wider range of discriminations would also be helpful. The Scottish Household Survey (SHS) is perhaps the most appropriate vehicle for this. The SHS is designed to provide accurate, up-to-date information about the characteristics, attitudes and behaviour of Scottish households and individuals on a range of issues, including social justice. Statistically reliable results are available for larger local authorities on an annual basis and for all local authorities, regardless of size, every 2 years. The survey has, for a number of years, asked respondents if, in the last three years, whilst in Scotland, they have experienced any kind of discrimination or harassment and if so, whether that was because of their religion (it also asks about other forms of discrimination, such as gender, age, sexual orientation and ethnicity). From 2012, at the request of the Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism in Scotland, these questions have been extended to include sectarianism, to provide separate estimates of the prevalence of harassment and discrimination and to collect some information about the context of the discrimination. (There is less need to collect information about the nature of harassment since data on this is being collected in the Scottish Crime and Justice Survey.) Results will also be available in late 2013.

The survey also provides a base from which to commission more detailed follow-up research on sub-samples of respondents to the survey and so there would be potential to conduct some qualitative research with those who indicate that they have experienced sectarian discrimination. This might help us to understand more about the exact nature of the discrimination, by whom the respondents were discriminated against, why respondents attribute their treatment to religious discrimination and how this form of behaviour impacts on them.

Another useful source of survey data is the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey (SSAS). This is an ideal vehicle to explore whether respondents think or behave in a way that could be considered sectarian (rather than whether they have experienced sectarian discrimination themselves). Questions on religious discrimination have been included in previous modules but a dedicated module on sectarianism could help test the extent to which sectarian attitudes and behaviours exist in modern Scotland. The evidence base would be greatly improved by including some questions about the extent to which Catholics and Protestants mix socially, about attitudes to this and other forms of engagement between the two groups and about attitudes to potentially offensive or discriminatory behaviour. The content of the 2013 have already been finalised but there is an opportunity to develop a module for the 2014 survey.

Collecting national data about the experience and extent of sectarianism will go some way to helping us to quantify the nature of the problem in Scotland but it will not help us to test whether, which and how individual communities are particularly affected by the issue. Recently commissioned Scottish Government research on the community impact of marches and parades (including Orange Order and Republican processions) may provide one perspective on this but is unlikely to capture the full range of issues. In the first instance research should focus on geographies within which distinct Catholic and Protestant communities live, either separately or side-by-side. In-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. Assuming research of this nature reveals that there are social fractures, a longer-term research agenda would need to build geographical and perhaps even ethnic comparisons. Reflecting the geographical concentration of Catholics, most research on sectarianism has centred on west central Scotland. However, it would be useful to consider whether the experiences among Catholics living in other areas of Scotland are different in any important respects. There are concentrated pockets of Catholics in Edinburgh, Fife and Dundee. With regard to ethnic comparisons, it may also be worth exploring whether new Catholic migrant communities, such those from Eastern Europe, have experienced discrimination on religious grounds.

Another priority should be to continue to monitor the data on structural disadvantage, in particular to monitor the age effects apparent in some of the data and, over time, to test whether the improving position of younger cohorts of Catholics is maintained as they age or whether, as some commentators have suggested, disadvantage emerges only in later life. The results of the 2011 Census are expected to be available in 2013. An immediate priority should therefore be to up-date the analysis of the Census and to explore whether the patterns seen in the 2001 data prevail. The potential for using the 2011 Census data to explore the relative impact of demographic differences and religion on outcomes for Catholics and those of the Church of Scotland has already been noted.

Finally, an important point that emerges from the evidence is that, despite the limited evidence of sectarian behaviour in Scotland, there are strong perceptions among the general population that it is a problem. This will have implications not only for Scotland's reputation as an inclusive and equal society but also for feelings of safety and inclusion. Even if future research reveals that sectarianism is not a significant feature of modern Scotland, it will still be important to try to understand the way in which perceptions are shaped.


Email: Ben Cavanagh

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