The age we are living in is the ‘Information Age’. It is a time of digital communication and endless data. It is characterised by a stark reliance on quantitative analysis and interpretation. We have seen the culmination of this in the recent referendum in the UK. The referendum was the ultimate poll, an opportunity to answer a question based on a binary outcome. The result has precipitated a deep fracture in our society with ‘Remain’ voters at 48% on the one side and ‘Leave’ voters at 52% on the other.
We are increasingly reliant on quantitative data, in particular polls, to analyse our society. Polls provide useful and important data, but they should be treated with caution, particularly as questions are often simplified in order to gain a yes/no/maybe-style answer. They operate in a vacuum leaving aside a complex set of influencing factors and an array of outcomes in favour of a simple set of answers. They also have a tendency to be used as a proxy for other concerns. So, if the question is: ‘Would you like more control over [X]?’ it is likely that our answer regarding [X] will be determined by the degree to which we are seeking control in our own life, or that of those around us, rather than the question in contention.
The danger with this quantitative, binary approach to decision-making is that we fail to acknowledge the messy complexity of our lives and our opinions, and the multiple potential responses to the choices we face. Once the polling is complete and the answer is triumphantly produced, politicians proudly announce that they are following the mandate of the people and set to work to put in place policies in response. But what if the polls are out of sync with reality? What if they are answering a completely different set of questions altogether?
Viewed in this way, the Leave vote in the EU referendum is perhaps unsurprising. The UK is one of the most diverse countries in the world; it is also one of the most cripplingly unequal. Remain voters were unfazed by diversity and less likely to personally feel the harsh effects of inequality. Their vote to remain was to retain the security they had come to appreciate in our modern, globalised world.
Leave voters were railing against a deep-seated anxiety about globalisation – a last ditch attempt to turn back the clock, to return to that elusive ‘golden age’, to live a life that is utopian in its appeal. The older age demographic voting Leave is illustrative of this aspiration. Other Leave voters were indeed seeking to ‘win back control’ – to take control of their debt, the precarious nature of their employment, their lack of stable housing, their struggle to provide for their children, to take control of their depression, their ill-health – the list is endless. They listened to the promises and voted, as we would most likely all do in the same circumstances, to lessen the impact of inequality.
The reality is that our lives have been irrevocably and irreparably changed by globalisation. We will never, ever return to a time that is untouched by the movement of people and the effects it has on our society. Correspondingly, unless drastic, sincere efforts are made to halt inequality, we will continue to deplete people’s resources, fail to offer them respect and offer them little or no recognition in our society. A society that is grossly unequal will fracture and undermine our existence more than ever, regardless of whether we leave or remain in the EU.
A corrosive effect of the ‘quantification’ of the world around us is that we increasingly view issues in black and white and become ever more retrenched in a binary, one-sided viewpoint, lacking insight into the lives and experiences of others. The Remain camp is as guilty of this as the Leave camp. As the separate sides deride one another and seek to bombard the other with evidence-based facts to persuade them, we become more polarised and struggle to empathise with one another. We retreat into our own camp, lose our sense of perspective and deplete our compassion as a result.
As a qualitative researcher I think of quantitative data as the black and white – the essential, the analytics, the framework. Numbers are fundamental to our existence; they truly make our world go round. But when left to rule, they can become a tyranny. Qualitative data counterbalances numerical data with words, emotion and creative expression. It provides the colour, the inspiration, the intuition, the detail, indeed the soul.
We need to explore and reflect on people’s hopes, fears, identities and dreams. The data this yields may not give us a yes or no answer, but it is illustrative of people’s perceptions and aspirations. It will uncover the values we as human beings share and it will guide decision makers to respond to our needs and support us to realise our common goals. This will lead to informed decisions about how to ensure our security and provide hope for our loved ones, regardless of which side of the political spectrum we are on.
Some of us are naturally more quantitatively inclined, others more qualitative. I see this in my children when I tuck them up in bed at night. One of my sons loves numbers and delights in telling me that he loves me a million times a trillion times a squillion squared plus one! My other son is rather more enigmatic telling me that he loves me how the stars glow and as much as sharks swimming in the sea. I am truly blessed to be on the receiving end of such profound professing of love, but it only serves to remind me that we need to take steps to understand each other’s viewpoints. We should embrace a world that is analysed and understood both quantitatively and qualitatively.
We have seen the effects of a purely quantitative analysis of our society in the outcome of the referendum. The tyranny of numbers has been unleashed on us all. It is a decision that we will have to live with for many years to come. It is hard to imagine that inequality will be significantly reduced, given the energy and resources that will be channelled into extracting the UK from the EU. But, judging progress on tackling inequality in recent years, remaining in the EU may not have made a significant difference to inequality either (see: Britain’s wages are the most unequal in Europe).
We cannot change the decision to leave the EU, certainly not without the political will to do so. But, we can embrace a richer, more illustrative account of our society. One that tells stories, explores shared aspirations, exposes our values and our dreams. One that highlights experiences of inequality, embraces our understanding of our identity, and uncovers our aspirations for our communities and ourselves.
We need to usher in the second wave of the Information Age – a time of deep listening and of bridging the divides that are threatening to tear our society apart. We need to capture our human interest in ways that are engaging, creative, imaginative and enthralling. We need to evoke empathy and we need to give people a voice. And above all, we need to ensure that those voices are listened to and that the realities of inequality are exposed and discussed in our society. Our currency is not numerical, but instead lies in the transformative power of stories.
“Stories matter; many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”