Making social science accessible

21 Oct 2019

Politics and Society

UK-EU Relations


Brexit continues to be an emotional rollercoaster, causing upset, anger, frustration and fear, as well as sometimes indifference and boredom.

It is vital that research explores the ways that people are living with and managing Brexit in their everyday lives.

We are currently working on a project that seeks to understand the impact Brexit is having on people’s everyday family relationships.

We have been following a small number of families as they live their lives in ‘Brexit Britain’.

Families have taken part in interviews and videoed themselves watching television in the style of Channel Four’s ‘Gogglebox’; they have kept diaries, and they have allowed us to ‘hang out’ with them as they go about their everyday lives.

We have found that the emotional challenges brought about by Brexit need to be understood as embedded within people’s ongoing relationships and everyday lives.

Whilst Brexit has brought about significant anxieties for many of our participants, these are lived with amongst the other ongoing trials of contemporary life such as work, housing, illness and relationships.

Indeed, rather than creating new familial divisions, we found that Brexit more often exacerbates existing splits and fissures.

Brexit fatigue?

Whilst we hear a lot about the notion of ‘Brexit fatigue’ – that people are sick and tired of hearing about Brexit – a key theme of our research has been a more general and profound tiredness exacerbated by efforts to keep up with Brexit politics.

Ingrid, a 45-year-old white woman working as an HR advisor agreed to film herself ‘Gogglebox’-style, so we set up a camera in her living room and asked her to start recording whenever she was settling down to watch the news.

Ingrid dutifully did this, filming herself sat in front of the television on three separate evenings.

Out of over an hour and half of footage, two thirds captured Ingrid asleep in front of the television, sometimes with a laptop open on her knees.

Ingrid had made an active decision to turn on the camera, to make time for the news, to sit and to watch expressly to contribute to a Brexit research project.

All the indicators are that she wants to engage with Brexit in these moments – and yet sleep still takes over.

When we chatted about how Ingrid had found the ‘Gogglebox’ experience, she told us about her ‘nodding off’, explaining that she was tired after a busy week at work which included a requirement to reapply for her job.

This example epitomises the challenge of keeping informed about Brexit amongst the other challenges of day-to-day life in the UK.

Everyday life can be exhausting, and Brexit exacerbates this slog.

Family tensions

Many participants experienced challenges and tensions in their personal relationships over Brexit.

Georgina is a 42-year-old white woman who is a support worker for adults with learning disabilities.

Though Georgina voted Remain, her mum and brother voted Leave.

Georgina struggles to understand their voting decision stating, “I just think it’s awful and terrifying…my brother thinks it’s going to be kingdom come”.

Georgina also felt let down when her mother revealed her voting decision at a family get-together, believing that she must have voted this way to please her brother.

Rather than interpreting these fissures as newly created by Brexit, it was clear from talking with Georgina about her family that these tensions were embedded within webs of family relationships that were already strained.

For example, Georgina says of her brother “I don’t think he’s ever quite forgiven me for being born”, and explains that relations with her mum are “a bit strained” because “she sides with [my brother] sometimes…well, a lot”, often ‘pussyfooting’ around his ‘temper’.

Thus, whilst not necessarily creating new divisions, Brexit can bring underlying issues powerfully to the fore, as a period of intense public debate matches forcefully with long-held private family negotiations.

The emotional burden of Brexit uncertainties

Those participants who are EU migrants felt much ‘closer’ to the ramifications of Brexit decision-making, or indeed non-decision making.

It is here that we see Brexit creating new fears and tensions.

Basil is a 41 year-old EU national who has lived in the UK for twenty years, working in marketing.

His wife Beth is British, 33, and is an academic. They also have a 1-year-old baby.

The couple had been set to take part in the ‘Gogglebox’-style element of the project, but when we contacted them to make final arrangements, they pulled out.

They explained that things had become ‘emotional’ – Basil had very recently received his ‘settled status’, and the fast approaching Brexit deadline had suddenly made Brexit feel ‘hugely personal’.

When previously interviewed, Basil talked about not wanting to apply for settled status until he knew for sure what was happening, not wanting to leave his rights in “the hands of some people in government which I don’t trust”.

Given the continuing uncertainties of the current negotiations, it appears Basil has felt the need to make a concession on a point of principle.

In this tumultuous context, evening television watching time has become sacred – a safe bubble where Basil and Beth can switch away from Brexit and rest.

Here we also see the ways that living with Brexit is embedded within everyday life – the harried life as working parents of a one-year-old.

However, for Basil, Brexit has stirred up new issues of identity and belonging.

Brexit and everyday life

As much as the examples above reveal the emotional turbulence of Brexit, it is vital that we attend to the everyday mundane ways in which families are living with these challenges.

In doing so we have revealed ways in which Brexit can exacerbate feelings of exhaustion, frustration and relationship tensions.

We also see how the emotional burden of uncertainty created by Brexit maps onto everyday family life.

Brexit may not always be at the forefront of people’s minds, but it emerges at specific times, presenting a challenge to the management of ongoing relationships and the pursuit of mundane activities.

By Dr Adam D Carter, Research Associate at the University of Sheffield and Dr Katherine Davies, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sheffield. 


Sanchismo reloaded: what’s going on in Spanish politics?

Of course the pandemic was political: the Covid Inquiry and the constitutional question

Do Labour supporters back a softer Brexit?

Is immigration costing the Conservatives votes?

Has Reform UK really come of age?

Recent Articles

Subscribe to our newsletter

* indicates required