How would you explain your research?
How do people that grew-up in dictatorships view democracy? We would expect that they embrace democracy and the introduction of democratic processes, as it liberates them from repression. Interestingly, the opposite seems to be true.
In my ESRC-funded project on the legacy of authoritarian regimes on democratic citizenship, I show that people who were socialized during a repressive regime tend to be more critical about democracy and have lower democratic support. This is due to the indoctrination of the dictatorship that crystallises certain political beliefs and values that are not compatible with democracy.
To demonstrate this, I used a ‘large-N’ quantitative approach to harmonise a large set of available survey data to estimate longitudinal statistical models across nearly 100 countries. These findings are important if we want to understand whether new democracies will flourish or falter again. The political civic culture of a population that believes in and supports the pillars of democracy is fundamental for democracies to consolidate.
More generally, my research sits at the intersection of political behaviour, comparative politics and research methods. In my research I use advanced statistical methods to analyse how individuals form and retain their political attitudes and identities over time and across different political systems.
What inspired you to pursue this area?
I grew-up in the former socialist part of Germany and spend my youth in the democratic, unified Germany. When growing-up, I often had fierce discussions with my parents and grandparents about politics. It seemed that there was a huge generational divide at home with the older members of the family defending the old socialist regime and being very critical with the new democratic institutions. For me this was very puzzling as I felt that, thanks to democracy, I had more opportunities and freedom than they’d had.
In my PhD, I tackled this question systematically to investigate whether this is a more general phenomena. Sure enough, it seems to be true across all of central Eastern Europe. Older generations that grew-up in the socialist times are much more critical with democracy. This might also explain why we see democratic norms such as freedom of the press and division of power being so readily challenged in Hungary and Poland that are governed and still run by these socialist generations.
How will your research affect the average person?
I am currently preparing a new research project as the next question that arises naturally from my previous research is: how can we then teach ordinary citizens democracy in countries that have endured repression and that are moving towards democracy? The objective of this new project is to evaluate the effectiveness of educational intervention programs to overcome political ideas and values that have formed during the former dictatorships.
Based on this research, I plan to co-develop with non-academic partners a Democratisation Manual that will outline the most effective training programs and interventions to foster a democratic political culture in transitioning countries. These programmes will have direct impact on the democratic education citizens living in these countries will receive.
What's been the greatest moment of your career so far?
Being an academic and doing research is a process of small steps, so it is difficult to point out specific moments. Often we don’t see tangible outcomes of weeks and months of work, which can be utterly frustrating. But the moment, when you get an article accepted in a prestigious journal, a grant proposal accepted that allows you to pursue your research, or colleagues and students referring to your ideas and findings are very rewarding.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
Pursuing an academic career is a big decision, as it requires a long investment into your education with an uncertain, but highly rewarding outcome. It is difficult to make it, as there are few jobs and it can take a while to get a permanent position. But don’t get me wrong, I think that being an academic is a very exciting job.
What's the biggest challenge in your field?
Political science is currently in upheaval. With Brexit and Trump, 2016 is for political science what 2008 and the economic crisis was for economics: unexpected. We are suddenly faced with lots of questions and don’t always have clear answers.
- Is democracy still the best form of government?
- Does it work?
- How does globalisation challenge our modern societies and political systems?
- Where does populism come from, does it undermine our societies and how can we combat it?
- Is it the end of the European integration?
- Is it the end of traditional political parties?
- Are people actually still interested in being part of the democratic process or are they all turning away?
There are also exciting new opportunities, such as the rise of Big Data that allows us to study politics, institutions and its citizens in new and innovative ways. Many of these opportunities are linked to new and exciting forms of interdisciplinary work.