As a concerned citizen, you might feel angry about youth unemployment in your country being too high, your local sports centre closing down or the polar ice caps melting. But what are you going to do about it? For example, do you intend to vote in this month’s European Parliament elections, to make your voice heard and influence key decision makers? When it comes to political engagement, what factors will ultimately determine the course of action you choose to take?
Political engagement – and the reasons why some citizens go to the ballot box while others take to the street – is the subject of POLPART, a new five–year research project led by Bert Klandermans, Professor of Applied Social Psychology at the VU-University, Amsterdam (The Netherlands). The project received an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) and was launched in January 2014. It will blossom from the seed of one simple but potent idea: that sooner or later, everyone cares about something enough to become politically active. The issue at hand is predicting what form this activity will take.
‘The founding notion of this project is that people have a choice,’ says Prof. Klandermans. ‘They can choose to get involved in politics; they can choose to join a political party; or they can do neither. What motivates someone to get involved in a social movement? And on the other hand, what motivates someone to withdraw entirely from the political process?’
A European dimension
The May 2014 European Parliament (EP) elections have provided POLPART with a useful starting point. ‘We really didn’t plan on starting this project in the year of the EP elections – it just sort of happened!’ says Prof. Klandermans. ‘At the same time of course, these elections are very interesting – this is politics at a different level (compared to local and national politics). It is another possible level of political engagement, and we certainly intend to monitor the results.’
POLPART encompasses four subprojects: a meta-analysis of publications on movement and party politics; comparisons of political participation over time and countries; focus group discussions; and surveys of 1,000 citizens.
‘I think the third subproject – focus groups – will be interesting with regards to the European Parliament,’ says Prof. Klandermans. ‘We are going to discuss what choices citizens would make, and engaging in politics through the EP will be one of the options. My guess is that many citizens will feel that they do not really know the workings of the EU, and I think we will find that many will not have thought of the European Parliament as a possible option. They may think about national parliaments, but less so the European Parliament.’
Understanding the national context
The project focuses on eight countries: Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland and the UK.
‘An important aspect of this project will be the international element,’ says Prof. Klandermans. ‘We imagine that the political choices people make are rooted in the political history of their country. In Hungary, people make different political choices to people in Brazil. And in Switzerland, there is the added dimension of referenda; another means of participating in the political process. The Netherlands is also interesting – no other mature democracy in the study has such a substantial radical right party. Why is this?’
The research team have started the project with certain expectations of what they will find. They will investigate, for example, if it is true that post-communist countries are generally more cynical about politics and less trusting of their political leaders. They expect that through focus groups and citizen surveys, this will be borne out. The team also expects to confirm that citizens in mature democracies on the other hand are more likely to engage in party politics.
A new way of understanding political behaviour
The project aims to develop a framework to better understand why citizens engage in politics the way they do. This promises to bridge an academic gap in the social sciences, whereby sociologists on one side focus exclusively on social movements while political scientists on the other focus solely on political parties.
Bridging this conceptual gap could help to strengthen our understanding of the real world. Take the continually evolving situation in eastern Ukraine. ‘Many years ago – in 1989 – I attended a workshop in Germany on East-West relations and protest movements,’ says Prof. Klandermans. ‘Not a single expert predicted that the Wall would come down in half a year. I imagine that six months ago, few could have predicted the current situation in Ukraine. So I hope that at the end of these five years, we will have a clearer understanding of some political processes in both within and outside the EU countries.’