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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .


Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland
Edited by Gillian Robinson, Deirdre Heenan, Ann Marie Gray and Kate Thompson

(Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1998)
208pp. Hb.: ISBN 1-84014-094-1.



This book is the seventh and (sadly apparently) last, in a series of social attitudes surveys in Northern Ireland that began in 1991. While the editors and contributors have changed over the years, the format has remained largely the same and the series has been an invaluable resource for social scientists during the last decade. This volume makes good use of the 1996 Northern Ireland social attitudes survey to gather data on an eclectic grouping of social issues such as community relations and trust in the political process. However, the book also covers slightly less mainstream interests with chapters on the growth of home ownership and a particularly fascinating study of attitudes to the countryside.

The volume begins with that hoary old chestnut of community relations, which has been the backbone of the whole series and encapsulates the strengths and weaknesses of the format. Authors Joanne Hughes and Paul Carmichael make good use of comparisons between the 1989 and 1996 data to suggest that there is room for cautious optimism that community relations have improved over the period. While the authors make good use of the data, they are not quite sure what the figures mean, concluding; "When asked the question 'Have community relations improved?', it is really difficult to provide a definitive 'yes' or 'no'." (p.16) While it is fair to assume that the readers are mature enough to make their own judgement about this using the data provided, this chapter illustrates the limitations of the whole volume as an analytical tool. Essentially, it provides a snapshot of public opinion which can be compared with other snapshots, allowing core themes such as community relations to be examined longitudinally. However, it is not made clear whether the 1996 survey was carried out before or after Drumcree II, when community tensions reached a particular peak. This timing is clearly relevant for other chapters in the book, such as Martin Melaugh's 'Belief and Trust in the Political Process'. This relates to another problem, which is that the authors are expected to use data from 1996 to extrapolate beyond it to bring the story up to date. So, to take the chapter on community relations as an example, while comparisons of the data sets from 1989 and 1996 'indicate a discernible shift towards greater tolerance and mutual understanding', (p.1) the author's qualitative observations do not substantiate their own quantitative findings. 'Arguably Northern Ireland is becoming more, rather than less polarised. As the summers of 1995, 1996 and 1997 attest, beneath the veneer of improving relations and emerging harmony, many of the old prejudices, suspicions and hatreds remain.' (p.17) The point here is that there is some tension between the data set gathered in 1996 and the book which is published in 1998. This is not to underestimate the value of the data, which will be of great use to social scientists interested in Northern Ireland. It would also be unrealistic to expect such a major survey to be constantly updated. The point is that this book can best be appreciated if it is used as a companion to other sources, especially the previous volumes in the series, and more recent survey evidence, rather than as a stand-alone publication. As such, it is an important addition to the academic literature on Northern Ireland.


Feargal Cochrane, University of Lancaster



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