A handshake between one person with a white shirt and one with a checkered shirt
Photo: Dan Kosmayer

“We find a relationship between the class composition of people's social networks and their own political attitudes. Those who have more social ties to workers have views that are more typical of the working classes, while those who have more contacts in middle-class circles think more like the middle class, and this regardless of which social class the individual belongs to himself or herself. Peoples’ views seem to be influenced by whom they hang out with. Political divides between social classes are consolidated as part of the process, since the overall pattern is that people have more social ties within their own and neighboring classes”, said Arvid Lindh, researcher in sociology at the Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI) at Stockholm University, and one of the authors behind the study.

Researcher Arvid Lindh at Stockholm University
Arvid Lindh, PhD in sociology at the Swedish Institute for Social Research at Stockholm University. Photo: Daniel Rossetti

In the study, individuals were divided into different social classes according to their own occupation. Occupations with higher qualification requirements and more favorable employment conditions were included in the middle class, while occupations with lower qualification requirements and less advantageous employment conditions were included in the working class. The researchers then examined the relationship between individuals' own class position and the class position of their friends and acquaintances. To investigate political attitudes, the researchers measured people's views in two main dimensions of Swedish politics. One socio-economic dimension, covering attitudes to economic redistribution, and one socio-cultural dimension, covering support for immigrants were examined.


"Opinions are not only influenced by one's own interests"

As in previous research, the study finds that which social class people belong to is relatively important for the political attitudes they hold. Workers lean more to the "left" on socio-economic issues concerning redistribution issues but more to the "right" on socio-cultural issues regarding support for immigrants. The middle class lean more to the right on redistributive issues but more to the left on socio-cultural issues, although there are clear differences in attitudes within the middle-class. Middle-class individuals in sociocultural professions tend to lean more to the left on both socio-economic and socio-cultural issues compared to managers and business professionals.

Reseracher Anton B Andersson at Stockholm University
Anton B Andersson, PhD in sociology at the Swedish Institute for Social Research at Stockholm University. Photo: Leila Zoubir

“Those who have friendships that extend across class boundaries also tend to have views that are more similar to those typical of other social classes. This indicates that views are not only influenced by own interests and experiences in working life, the social circle is also important”, said Anton B. Andersson, researcher in sociology at SOFI and another of the authors behind the study.

The largest social gulf is found between the socio-cultural middle class working in the health care and cultural sectors and manual workers employed in the manufacturing industry.

“The least common are social bonds between individuals in the socio-cultural middle class and individuals in the manual working class. At the same time, it is important to emphasize that it is common to socialize across class boundaries in general, so it’s not the case that the working class and the middle class live completely separate lives”, said Anton B. Andersson.


Relationship between social segregation and political divides

In the study, the researchers also find a relationship between social segregation and political divides. Results indicate that class divides in political attitudes are greater than they would be in a hypothetical situation without any class segregation in networks.

“At the same time, one can flip it around and speculate in whether class-political conflict might have been greater if the working class and middle class did not socialize as much across class boundaries as they do today. It’s also important to remember that class differences in political preferences are not necessarily something negative. In a well-functioning democracy, conflicting interests and experiences can coexist and often be reconciled in a constructive way via the political system,” said Arvid Lindh.    
Researchers now hope that the results of this study can help to nuance the debate about political polarization in society.

“There are marked political differences between social classes in Sweden. But if one by polarization mean that different groups live completely separate social lives with diametrically opposed political views, our study does not support that worldview in terms of the distance between the working class and middle-class”, said Arvid Lindh.


How the study was carried out

The study uses data from a survey collected by Statistics Sweden in 2013, supplemented with information from register data. The dataset contains a representative sample of the Swedish population with a response rate of approximately 50 per cent. The study focuses on the 1.475 individuals who were employed at the time of the survey. The data material is one of the few that includes detailed information on employment situation, personal social networks, and political attitudes. The political attitudes examined includes attitudes to economic redistribution and support for immigrants. The results are based on multiple regression analysis, where one can control for a number of other explanatory factors, such as income, education, gender, age, immigrant background, and place of residence. The causal relationship between social ties and political attitudes can possibly go in both directions, but the study does not determine whether it is primarily so that your views are influenced by who you socialize with, or if it’s primarily the case that you get to know others who think like yourself.


Read more about the research

Lindh, Arvid, Anton B. Andersson, and Beate Volker. "The Missing Link: Network Influences on Class Divides in Political Attitudes" , European Sociological Review , https://doi.org/10.1093/esr/jcab010


Arvid Lindh, PhD in sociology
Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI)
Stockholm University
Phone: +46(0)8-16 23 86
Email: arvid.lindh@sofi.su.se