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Explaining Social Divisions in the Netherlands

Inaugural Lecture by Jochem Tolsma
15 September 2023
Jochem Tolsma

Social divisions in the Netherlands are growing: more and more, we find ourselves in bubbles of people who resemble us. At least, that's the image portrayed by the media. But is this accurate? Not entirely, argues sociologist Jochem Tolsma. In his inaugural lecture on October 13th at the Academy Building in Groningen, he elaborates on this.

Segregation, inequality, and polarization pose a threat to society. They erode social cohesion, lead to group conflicts, endanger democracy, and hinder economic development. Sociologist Jochem Tolsma has been researching these phenomena for over fifteen years. On October 13th, he shares the key insights he has gained in recent years during his inaugural address and discusses his future research plans.

More Divisions? 

Tolsma: "My research focuses on social divisions between groups. Unfortunately, the term 'social divisions' is used very loosely. I argue that we can only speak of social divisions in society when there is inequality, segregation, and polarization among the same groups. I investigate which groups in Dutch society experience social divisions, such as between those with theoretical and practical education or between people with and without a migration background. Additionally, I examine whether and why these divisions are increasing."

Diverse Networks 

The media portrays an image of growing social divisions. However, according to Tolsma, this image is not entirely accurate. While his research indicates an increase in inequality, he finds no evidence of increased social segregation. "We are indeed living in more segregated ways — for example, in terms of where we live, in the workplace, and in schools — but this has not yet affected who we associate with. Our friendship networks are no less diverse than before. Thus, there is an increase in spatial segregation but not in social segregation." Tolsma also believes there is no solid evidence of increasing polarization, despite the visibility of individuals with extreme opinions in the societal and political discourse.

Assessing Others 

In the future, Tolsma plans to delve into the question of how well people can assess each other's viewpoints. "It is often assumed that people are aware of each other's attitudes, but our ongoing research suggests that they may not be very good at it." That study shows that students correctly assess whether their fellow students agree or disagree with statements about migration and integration in only 65% of cases. "I want to investigate why this is the case. Do we assess people who are similar to us better? Do we assess friends better than sports buddies? It doesn't seem that way. I also want to understand the consequences. Do relationships break down due to incorrect assessments? Do people adapt to their perception of the other person's attitude or the actual attitude?"

Inspiring Environment 

Since March 1st, Tolsma has been serving as a professor of 'Social Divisions between Groups' at the Department of Sociology at the University of Groningen, alongside his work as an associate professor at Radboud University Nijmegen. "Groningen is undoubtedly the place to study social networks. It's an inspiring environment, and collaboration here is very enjoyable."

Jochem Tolsma's chair is made possible by the James Coleman Association, the alumni association of the Interuniversity Center for Social Science Theory and Methodology (ICS).

Last modified:20 September 2023 11.08 a.m.
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