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Teaching political scientists a lesson

Teaching political scientists a lesson

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Wishful thinking

Imagine you, a researcher, are given a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? Political scientist Arjan Schakel would like to prove that many social researchers take the wrong approach in their research into voting behaviour. To do so, he needs tens of millions. 

Schakel is convinced that there is a case of ‘methodological nationalism’ in his field. This stands for the political scientists' tendency to always look at a country. Schakel would rather look at regions, areas with a minimum of 150 thousand inhabitants, the layer between local and national.” This layer is seldom researched: “In the Netherlands there has no research ever been carried out into voting behaviour during provincial elections. We know that they vote, but we don't know why. It is the same abroad. The importance of this layer is heavily underestimated.”

Research from a national perspective is certainly important, Schakel says, “but by only concentrating on that, you overlook all kinds of things. Also from a theoretical perspective. It is a vicious circle: national data arise from national hypotheses, which lead to new national hypotheses that are again tested with new national data.”

The fact that regions are important, also to understand national voting behaviour, can be seen in places like Catalonia, or Scotland as a region of the United Kingdom, Schakel says. “Those regions are perhaps even more important than the country.” Schakel gets up from his chair for the fourth time to lay his finger on the map. This time he gets a stool to point at an area at the top of Norway. “The national government decided in 2015 to reduce the number of regions from 19 to ten. In the most northern region, Finnmark, a consultative referendum was held in 2018 on the merger with other regions. More than 80 per cent said ‘we don't want that’. Both the politicians and the researchers did not expect this. And why? Because we know so little about regions.”

Methodological nationalism is not so strange, says Schakel. “Roughly forty years ago, regional politics was much less important in EU countries. There were also fewer regional elections. In the course of the years, regions have been given more power and greater responsibilities: for example, more and more regions are now allowed to impose taxes, choose their own infrastructure, environmental and transport policy, and make their own economical planning. There really is something to vote for. Figures also prove this importance: of those in the current 28 European member states eligible to vote, 53 per cent were allowed to vote at both national and regional elections in 1979; in 2014 this was 83 per cent.”

Schakel would like to take on the regional research himself. To do so, he would have to distribute 400 thousand surveys: a thousand in each region of Europe. A lot would be needed for this: an infrastructure and a standardised questionnaire in many different languages. Also, in order to end up with a representative sample the respondents would have to be carefully selected. And there would need to be enough time to collect the surveys and process them. Cost: tens of millions, Schakel thinks.

“What I want to know? Personal characteristics such as age and education level, past voting behaviour in both regional and national elections, media consumption and how long they have been living in the area. Also, do they speak a regional dialect? Do they feel more connected to the country or the region? Those kind of things.”

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