The Crisis of Masculinities – A Brief Overview

The so-called crisis of masculinity has drawn much attention and concern by politicians, academics, the public, and most dominantly, the media. This crisis is characterised by a widely perceived fear, uncertainty, and hysteria about the alleged decline of traditional Western manhood, threatened by women’s emancipation and other, “new” forms of masculinity. The men’s-rights promoter and sociologist Walter Hollstein describes it as such:

“Men used to be the ruler of the world for centuries, hunted in the wild, protected women and children, and made fields arable. Men were considered the creator of culture. Nowadays everything has changed. Men are stigmatised as oppressors. They are accused of abusing women and children”[1]

To understand where this perceived crisis actually comes from, whom it concerns, and what its risks and implications are, it is necessary to give it greater scrutiny, and dissect some of its main (mis)conceptions. This article will first highlight some examples of the crisis, then trace its structural roots, and look at the way it is used to the advantage of politicians and right-wing movements, and finally it considers some of the crisis’ less examined dimensions, particularly in the field of intersectionality and displacement. The article does not attempt to be exhaustive, but offers a brief overview of different masculinities and the challenges they undergo through historical, economical, and societal changes. These changes require a redefinition and renegotiating of traditional ideals of masculinity, in order to move beyond the so-called crisis.

Failed heroes and shamed abusers

Incidents like the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne in 2016, and the #metoo movement stirred new discussion on a heterosexual man’s conflicting role as simultaneous protector and abuser of women. On the one hand, German men were criticised for being unable to protect their women,[2] when many were sexually assaulted on New Year’s Eve by groups of men, reportedly from a North African immigrant background. The media presentation of these incidents revealed a racial dimension of the crisis, in which the non-white, foreign man – the black or oriental “Other” – is portrayed as a savage, dangerous sexual predator, whilst the civilised, white German man has to play the noble hero by saving women from this threat. Protests against the so-called “Rape-fugees” and comments by the publicist Cora Stephan, who said German men all acted as “Weicheier”[3] (cowards) are well known.

On the other hand, #metoo, the Twitter hashtag that made the frequency and ubiquity of sexual harassment visible, unveiled many, often white, powerful men, like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Matt Lauer as sexual abusers. This caused uneasiness among those who feared to lose their job after intimidation, sexual harassment and misuse of their power position at the workplace. Many men felt shamed, stigmatised, and accused for a certain masculine behaviour that used to be completely acceptable, and even glorified by popular characters like James Bond, or the male protagonists in Alfred Hitchcock movies. Moreover, french female activists like Catherine Deneuve and 99 other prominent women added fuel to the fire by claiming, somewhat clumsily, that men should not lose their “right to pester” women, hinting at a “wave of purification”, where even gentlemanlike behaviour is reprimanded.[4] Also other men, who do not necessarily demonstrate aggressive masculine behaviour, seem unsure about how to talk to or flirt with women, without being accused of intimidation or harassment. Though these fears seem somewhat exaggerated, the lack of insight on the differences between flirtation and intimidation has led many teachers, activists, and academics to call for better sex and consent education at an earlier age.[5] The #metoo movement has been effective in making women feel heard and believed, creating more discussion, and bringing more justice to these issues, but has also caused alienation and a greater opposition by those who feel that their traditional norms and values are under attack. The victimisation of this being a men’s “crisis” is highly problematic, as it shifts attention away from the real victims of sexual assault, and gives certain men, especially from the Alt-Right movement, an incentive to act out their toxic masculine behaviour more determinedly. The agenda of Alt-Right movements will be discussed below in more detail.

The structural roots of the crisis

Male insecurities about being a “real man”, a protective father, a dominant leader, a breadwinner for the family, and, ironically, at the same time sexually attractive to other women are nothing new. In 1994, the psychotherapist Roger Horrocks was one of the first to talk of a “crisis” for men in Western cultures. In many of his male patients he observed insecurity and self-destructive behaviour, as they could not live up to the ideals of masculinity that patriarchal society expected of them.[6] This leads to the simple paradox that men feel broken by their own privileged position of power, which advocates domination, a rejection of the feminine and homosexual, and a denial of all vulnerabilities and weaknesses.[7] But even before the 1990s have conceptions of masculine identity become more challenged and precarious. During the Belle Époque, from the end of the 19th century till the outbreak of the First World War in Europe, the appearance of the New Woman and outspoken homosexuals like Oscar Wilde seemed to pose a threat to the patriarchal order and traditional gender relations.[8] Other scholars argue, that in the 1980s in America, the end of the Vietnam War resulted in a generational conflict between sons and their negatively perceived father figures.[9] These fathers returned home as veterans, traumatised and confused about what it actually meant to be an honourable man, and simultaneously muted and invisible in a society, which looked on them as failures or unaccomplished.[10] This illustrates that not only man’s relation to women can become de- or constructive to his own sense of self, but also their relation to their older brothers, friends, and fathers. Nowadays, scholars like to point at rising suicide rates, educational underachievement, gang membership, alcohol and drug abuse, prison sentence in one’s twenties, and violent extremism[11], to show that men are much more susceptible to this than women, and that these problems may already start in their early childhood. Interestingly, educational underachievement and the lack of male role models at kindergartens and schools, where they are often treated by teachers as if they are girls[12], are the more recent phenomena that seem to aggravate male insecurities, and leads to the feeling of being misunderstood. However, some of the aforementioned problems, like violence and drug abuse, may either be a cause or consequence of the crisis of masculinity, where societal changes, gendered expectations, and biological determinants are all deeply intertwined, and hard to distinguish. This suggests that the crisis on an individual level is not necessarily new, but may be present in all societies that put high expectations on an idolised form of manhood. Of course, not every man experiences these difficulties in his adolescence, and even if they suppress their vulnerabilities, feel emasculated, or insecure this does not always have to result in a crisis. There is not one single masculinity, nor are all masculinities toxic or aggressive. Instead, we should see them as multiple, fluid, complex, and capable of change.

Weaponization of male insecurities

The societal aspects of the crisis nowadays can be traced back to the dramatic changes of the public and domestic sphere in the West. Despite the persisting gender wage gap, sex segregation in certain professions, and a lack of women in leading or managerial positions, women’s educational, economic, and political opportunities have slowly, but decisively improved in most countries. Next to that, there is an active feminist and gender-right movement at universities, in social media, and in the general public, that vehemently aims to dismantle patriarchy and man’s sense of entitlement. Though these thoughts are widely popular in the humanities and social sciences, for instance, it can cause polarisation and resentment elsewhere. However, the widespread unease and panic over the perceived erosion of man’s privileges is, again, not only about women’s emancipation and gender right activists, but also about a new hegemonic model of masculinity that has emerged through globalisation. The sociologist Michael Kimmel argues that this hegemonic masculinity is best exemplified by a cosmopolitan, wealthy businessman with liberal tastes in consumption and sexuality, and conservative political ideas.[13] Those who cannot identify with this model of success, or have been left out and disappointed by global changes, try to redefine their wounded masculinity, by rejecting this elitist, Western ideal. Among these may be the ordinary, white, lower class workers, who supported Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, as their manual labour seemed to have lost its dignity, and they were scorned as uneducated by the elite in the metropoles. Calls to make “America great again!” and to bring back the British empire during the Brexit campaign express a longing to re-establish an old patriarchal order. Yet also in Russia, the Middle East, and Central Asia men have a strong resentment against the feminised politics of the West, its allegedly “softened” men, and its tolerance for homosexuality. Kimmel observes that this is especially the case for right-wing extremists, whether they are neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, or Taliban members in Afghanistan.[14] Although these are quite strong examples, one could argue that there is the desire to reassert one’s masculinity in opposition to the establishment, or any other scapegoat that made them a “loser” of the globalised world.

Vietnam Memorial

With the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States, there is a dangerous trend that masculinity is victimised, and thereby used as an excuse to further discriminate women and certain “others”, who do not fit the category of the dominant, traditionalist male. This allows politicians, group leaders, and opinion-makers to transform and mobilise this so-called crisis into hatred and aggression against liberals, immigrants, homosexuals, and women, in particular. Especially alt-right movements, among which online forums like Man Going Their Own Way and the Red Pill, are notable for this kind of agenda. They claim to advocate a more positive identification model for men, but express misogynist ideas, deny the existence of gender inequalities, and celebrate radicalised young men, like Elliot Rodger, who targeted a sorority house with a gun, in his own frustration over his own virginity.[15] Interestingly, Rodger claimed to be the “true victim”[16] of this crime, which highlights the danger and delusional nature that self-victimisation poses to a perceived identity crisis. Yet this radicalisation and misogyny does not only take place in the hidden corners of the internet, but also in public spaces, most notably, during the presidential elections in America in 2016. Trump’s infamous sexism, his bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy”, his portrayal of Mexicans as “rapists”, and his claim that Senator McCain was a “loser” for being captured in the Vietnam war, all surprisingly did not prevent him from becoming the next President of the United States.[17] In contrast, his rhetoric seemed to resonate with widespread fears about the decline of American manhood, and was either praised for showing real manliness, mocking elitism and political correctness, or apologised as innocent banter. Trump knows about these fears, and is able to weaponize them. Many of his voters were longing for the punishment of those who dared to deprive men of their collectively imagined glory and superiority. The “lock her up” chant, and the multitude of sexist abuse which presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received exemplify perhaps best this aggression and search for revenge. With this, also women who have internalised age-old misogyny, felt that Trump was a suitable leader to punish the elite and heal a degenerated America. Trump’s performance makes him the archetype of toxic masculinity, and further feeds and reaffirms Western men’s insecurities and fears. On a more positive note, it could also encourage people to distance themselves from this toxic behaviour.


Masculinities in displacement

Whilst much of scholarly research has been done on white, heterosexual masculinity, it is also interesting to focus on the men from other cultures, now living in Europe or the United States, to see how they experience this so-called crisis, to what extent it is different, and which other factors play a role in shaping their sense of manliness. This could be about the Mexican immigrants in the U.S., or the people from Syria, Afghanistan, Mali or Eritrea who arrived in Europe because of the so-called refugee crisis. As the term suggests, this is where two crises meet, or where one generates another. Complex social identity markers, such as gender, religion, and ethnicity, become intertwined with migration and the trauma of displacement, and are therefore renegotiated again, by one self, and by the perceptions of others. The aforementioned anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe, and its problematic relation to local masculinities, causes the paradox that newly arrived refugees are expected to integrate and redefine their own identity in a culture that is often alien and hostile to them. On top of that, their countries of origin are often marked by much stronger gender divisions in the public and domestic sphere, and higher expectations of masculinity and femininity, relating to family honour, religion, and culture. This is also reflected in their migratory journey, as many young men come to Europe first to build up a life there, so they can bring their families later via a safer route, or send remittances to their home. In addition to these high expectations on their ability to provide for the family, their sexual success is also put into question by Western societies who tend dismiss “other” men (Muslim, Middle Eastern, Central Asian…) as oppressors of women, and are therefore sceptical towards any form of sexual relationship with them. In a study on Iranian men in Sweden, the anthropologist Shahram Khosravi argues how these men become displaced from their power position at home, where they enjoy a controlling gaze on women, into a position, where they become the object of the Swedish majority gaze.[18] This renders them invisible as an individual, but visible as a stereotyped migrant. Their masculinity that was highly regarded in Iran, is now seen as primitive, compared to the “civilised” Swedish masculinity.[19] Many migrants from Muslim-majority countries experience this racism, discrimination, and Islamophobia, and continuously struggle to balance their own cultural learnings with those of the receiving country without giving up too much of their fundamental values.


There is an abundance in masculinity studies, and this text aimed to address a few of the main themes concerning the so-called crisis of masculinity. With all the variations, it is crucial to remember that the crisis concerns multiple masculinities. It is in a close interplay with other identity markers, and is therefore experienced differently by men from diverse cultural, class, sexual, ethnic and educational backgrounds. Nevertheless, as the rate of extremism, violence, suicide, and radicalisation is disproportionately high for men, it is necessary to become more self-aware of the patriarchal forces that shape one’s ideals of manhood. More education and deliberation on this issue could foster the development of a healthy masculinity that embraces certain vulnerabilities and characteristics, but also acts inclusively, without marginalising women and others. Finally, promoting a dialogue between men from different cultural backgrounds, local men, and also women with traditional or strong feminist ideas could pave the way towards more mutual understanding and greater social cohesion.




[1] Qtd. in Pohl, R. (2015). „Gibt es eine Krise der Männlichkeit? Weiblichkeitsabwehr und Antifeminismus als Bausteine der hegemonialen Männlichkeit.“ Vortrag zum „Frauenempfang“. Rathaus Nürnberg. 26.03.2015.

[2] Seidl, C. (2016). „Wo sind die echten Männer?“ FAZ Feuilleton. 01.03.2016. Available at:

[3] Ibid. 1.

[4] Poirier, A. (2018). “After the #MeToo backlash, an insider’s guide to French feminism”. The Guardian. 14.01.2018. Available at:

[5] Paiva, L. (2017). „Schools can help prevent more #metoo stories” Education Week. 17.11.2017. Available at:

[6] Horrocks, R. (1994). Masculinity in Crisis: Myths, Fantasies, and Realities. St. Martin’s Press: pp. 1-210.

[7] Ibid, 25.

[8] Mafi, M. (2012). The Crisis of Masculinity and the Outbreak of the First World War. Available at:

[9] Karner, T. (1996). ‘Fathers, Sons, and Vietnam: Masculinity and Betrayal in the Life Narratives of Vietnam Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’ American Studies, pp. 63-94.

[10] Ibid. 65-66.

[11] Hopkins, P.E. (2009). ‘Responding to the crisis of masculinity: the perspectives of young Muslim men in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Scotland.’ Gender, Place and Culture, 16.3, pp.299-312; McDowell, L. 2000. The Trouble with Men? Young People, Gender Transformations and the Crisis of Masculinity. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 24.1, pp.201-209.

[12] Winters, B. (2017). ‚De juf wil van elke jongen een meisje maken‘. Algemeen Dagblad. 18.03.2017. Available at:

[13] Kimmel, M. (2010). ‘Globalization and its Mal(e)contents: Masculinity on the Extreme Right.’ In: Misframing Men: The Politics of Contemporary Masculinities: pp. 143-160. Rutgers UP.

[14] Ibid, 148.

[15] BBC, (2018). “Elliot Rodger: How misogynist killer became incel hero” 26. April 2018. Available at:

[16] Ibid, 2.

[17] Johnson, P. E. (2017). ‘The Art of Masculine Victimhood: Donald Trump’s Demagoguery’ In: Women’s Studies in Communication 40.3. pp. 229-250.

[18] Khosravi, S. (2009). ‘Displaced Masculinity: Gender and Ethnicity among Iranian men in Sweden’. In Iranian Studies 42.2 pp. 591-609.

[19] Ibid, 591.

Charles Edward Lindblom, In Memoriam

On January 30, 2018, Charles Lindblom died at the age of 100. His ideas on, among others, policy making processes, democracy, the limits and possibilities of social and political science, impairment, and usable knowledge play a pivotal role in Social Science Works. Together with Rune Premfors and Ross Zucker, Hans Blokland wrote an In Memoriam for the American Political Science Association for which Lindblom served as president in 1980-1981. The In Memoriam originally has been published in PS: Political Science & Politics (Vol.51, No.2, April 2018).  Below the article with some added pictures.


Charles Edward Lindblom, APSA President (1980–1981)

One of the great social scientists of the twentieth century, Charles Edward Lindblom, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Economics and Political Science at Yale University, died on January 30, 2018, at his home in Santa Fe, NM. He was born on March 21, 1917 and was thus approaching 101 years. According to his family he passed away quickly and peacefully, as if “he had decided it was time for him to go; so he did.”



Charles E. Lindblom was born and raised in Turlock, CA, a small town founded and in its early days dominated by a group of Swedish, fundamentalist immigrants. Lindblom’s grandfather (on his father’s side), John Gustaf Lindblom had left a poor farmer’s life in western Sweden in the early 1880s and settled as a homestead farmer in Minnesota. In 1911 his son, Charles August Lindblom, now married to Emma Norman Lindblom, followed a large group of other Swedes to seek a better life in California. Soon after their arrival the family bought a small grocery store, an enterprise which eventually engaged the whole family—parents and their four children—including Charles Edward. The store provided the Lindblom family with a modest living for many years, but during the Depression in the early 1930s it went bankrupt, a catastrophic event particularly for the father, Charles August, who never really recovered from it and died in 1941, at the age of 57.

Charles Edward was a successful high school student in Turlock, and his mother Emma wanted her son to go on to college. She had even saved from the modest family income for that purpose. In 1933, Charles Edward was able to enroll at Stanford University. He was a successful student there as well, majoring in economics, and upon graduation in 1936, he went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago. To support himself he soon after began teaching economics at the University of Minnesota. The Minnesota faculty included a number of well-known economists but a special problem followed from the fact that they were part of the University’s Business School. To some mainstream faculty, young Lindblom soon stood out as an unorthodox and even dangerously radical teacher. Particularly challenging to many was his preoccupation with Oskar Lange’s ideas on market socialism. Eventually he was fired, as Lindblom put it, from the University of Minnesota. In 1945, he finally finished his dissertation in labor economics at the University of Chicago, and began his long career as a teacher and researcher at Yale University.

Ed Lindblom in 2000

At Yale, Lindblom initially worked in the Department of Economics. Although he found Yale to be a more diverse place than the University of Minnesota, he was also viewed by many there as too unorthodox in both research questions and methods to fit in. He was soon told that the chances were slim that he would be able to pursue a successful career leading to a tenured position in economics. Fortunately he had early on teamed up with Robert Dahl in the Political Science Department. Together they developed and taught the graduate course that would end up as their landmark book Politics, Economics, and Welfare (first published in 1953). Lindblom was then offered a joint, tenured position in economics and political science in the Political Science Department, a position that was eventually upgraded to the most prestigious professorial chair at Yale, a Sterling Professorship. His successful career at Yale formally ended in 1987, when he retired at the age of 70. He had acted as chair of the Political Science Department (1972–74), and he had been director of Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS) from 1974 to 1980. Lindblom had very much inspired the creation of ISPS, the purpose of which was to stimulate interdisciplinary work in the social sciences at Yale and research issues of public relevance. Lindblom had also engaged in a wider professional setting, as president of the Association for Comparative Economic studies and also of APSA in the early 1980s.



Lindblom’s academic career runs parallel to that of Robert Dahl (1915–2014) and Robert Lane (1917–2017). The three of them arrived at Yale University in the late forties and together made its political science department the center of the discipline for a long time. Together Dahl and Lindblom established their name with Politics, Economics, and Welfare: Planning and Politico-Economic Systems Resolved into Basic Social Processes (1953), a masterly and highly influential book (in countries like the Netherlands as well) on societal organization or ordering. In it they exhaustively weigh the pros and cons of four different techniques of social control and coordination: market, hierarchy (in particular bureaucracy), polyarchy, and bargaining. The care they put into the examination of which technique or combination of techniques would optimize particular outcomes in different domains of society is second to none. The market technique is an impressive, extraordinarily powerful instrument with which to coordinate and control activities. Nevertheless, like the other techniques, it has important shortcomings and cannot be applied unconstrained in every sphere of life. The book strongly defends a social-democratic position since for Dahl and Lindblom it is in the end politics that decides which (combinations of) social instruments are to be used in which domains to accomplish politically-decided social goals.

The attention of Dahl has always been primarily focused on the political theory of pluralism; Lindblom has mainly dealt with the policy processes within the societies described by this theory, and, as usual within pluralist thought, he assumes that citizens do not agree on a definition of the common good and that society consists of a large number of competing and cooperating groups and institutions trying to reach their own objectives. Like pragmatists James and Dewey, Lindblom further believes that values and goals cannot and should not be defined abstractly, but only in a specific context. Also, despite differences of opinion about the goals of policies, agreement can often be reached on their instruments. Closely linked with pragmatism is his belief that policy makers have too little knowledge and information about society to make responsible comprehensive and far-reaching decisions. Therefore, it is better to try to solve manageable, short-term problems through cautious processes of trial and error. In this spirit, Lindblom makes a powerful plea for incrementalism: piece by piece, in an endless, continuous stream of marginal policy adjustments and enhancements, policy makers should seek to improve the existing situation, in the awareness that our knowledge and skills are extremely limited and that consequently large leaps forward are almost always doomed to failure. Lindblom defended this position among others in “The Science of ‘Muddling Through’” (1959) that is one of the most cited and reprinted social science articles of all time. Critics of Lindblom have often confused incrementalism with conservatism. A plea for incremental steps, however, says nothing about the speed at which these steps should follow up, about their direction.

Another characteristic of Lindblom’s thinking is that he extends the analogy between the economic market of goods and the electoral market to the formation of policy. Stakeholders negotiate with each other on a market about the instruments and goals of policies and in a manner similar to the economic market. Individual actions are unintentionally coordinated. This process will also by and large ensure that the different values held within a community are proportionally represented by the resulting policies. The structure of the policy market, however, is again not given for Lindblom: politics can and should regulate this market. It needs to be regulated which parties are active, and how strong their relative positions are. If, in existing negotiations between stakeholders, particular interests, values, or goals are not adequately taken into account, it is the job of politics to strengthen the position of those groups that represent these interest, values, or goals.

Consequently, for Lindblom policies are not always the outcomes of decision-making processes in which the preferences of electoral majorities are decisive. Instead, policies habitually come about in an ongoing negotiation process between passionate minorities. Nevertheless, the resulting policies to a large extent reflect the prevailing values and beliefs in society and usually can count on the support of majorities. In addition, Lindblom argues that a political decision-making process in which many independent civil organizations participate, not just prevents the concentration and abuse of power, which is the usual perspective of the pluralists; he argues that such a decision process also brings forth significantly more rational, more balanced and legitimate policies than hierarchically-controlled systems. The elaboration and justification of these theses is the leitmotif of Lindblom’s work in the 1960s and 1970s. This happens especially in his A Strategy of Decision: Policy Evaluation as a Social Process (1963), The Intelligence of Democracy: Decision Making through Mutual Adjustment (1965) and The Policy-Making Process (1968).

It is noteworthy that many of the ideas on policy making that Lindblom developed in the 1950s and 1960s became almost commonplace in the 1980s and 1990s. Lindblom himself, though, got in another state of mind. Manifestations of this are Politics and Markets: The World’s Political-Economic Systems (1977), his APSA-presidential address “Another State of Mind” (1982), Inquiry and Change: The Troubled Attempt to Understand and Shape Society (1990) and The Market System: What it Is, How it Works, and What to Make of It (2000).

In the sixties, Lindblom seemed to suggest, along with many other pluralists, that there were no groups or institutions on the policy market that possessed significant privileged negotiating positions. When this would be the case, a new interest or pressure group would almost automatically develop to recover the balance. In his later work, this suggestion goes unequivocally off the table. Corporations in particular have incomparably more political resources (money, knowledge, organization, networks) and therefore political power, than other interest groups. In addition, and importantly, their representatives will always find a more than willing ear at the government, which for its public legitimacy has become highly dependent on the functioning of the private sector. Governments fall at high unemployment rates, and in their communications with government, corporations therefore have a “priviliged position.”

Lindblom also considers it naive to assume that companies are entirely at the mercy of the market and that therefore ultimately consumers decide their policies. Entrepreneurs take many decisions with far-reaching consequences for individuals, groups, and even societies, on which the market, or the consumers, hardly have any influence. This includes decisions about the location, the technology to be used, the product development or innovation, the staffing of the management, the remuneration structure, or labor relations. In our liberal political systems, the decision authority over these social issues has been largely transferred to individual entrepreneurs. Consequently, according to Lindblom, these systems have two de facto elites: a political elite that still somewhat, but much too limited, can be held accountable by the citizens, and an economic elite, that largely has free rein. The economic elite has a huge influence on the values and ideas in which people are socialized, values and ideas which invariably confirm the power position of the elites.

Ed Lindblom in 1975

The economic elite did not like Politics and Markets. The oft-cited final words of the book are: “The large private corporation fits oddly into democratic theory and vision. Indeed it does not fit.” When democracy means that those who exert power should be democratically accountable, then corporations should also be put under democratic control. Likewise, democracies should not allow corporations to use their resources to influence public opinion. Corporations are not citizens. There was considerable irony then when Mobil Oil Corporation bought a lengthy ad in the New York Times on February 2, 1978 to criticize the book and its author. Lindblom wrote a response, but was informed that it would only be published if he paid for the ad.

The same willingness Lindblom demonstrates to rethink earlier positions is also shown when contemplating the kinds of knowledge that the social and political sciences are able to produce. He was years ahead with his severe criticism on the ways the social and political sciences have made themselves socially and politically irrelevant and with his inquiries into what kinds of usable knowledge would really contribute to the needed changes in our societies. Inquiry and Change: The Troubled Attempt to Understand and Shape Society (1990) and Usable Knowledge: Social Science and Social Problem Solving (1979), written together with David Cohen, exemplify this.

As part of his overall examination of the uses of knowledge in society, Lindblom had an abiding concern about the impact of defective knowledge upon citizens, students, voters, and consumers. This concern stemmed from several sources, prominent among them a skepticism, long developing in him, toward authority and presumed-to-be authoritative knowledge. In Slices, his self-published memoirs from 2004 (free available at, Lindblom writes that while in college at Stanford, he “abandoned faith . . . as a disposition to believe in anything without some empirical tests, and, in addition, faith considered as a virtue. I opted for skepticism and inquiry” (71).

Many years later, in Inquiry and Change, Lindblom thoroughly laid out the complex process of impairment of knowledge in various areas of life, including politics and political science. Regarding the current mass media, he stated that they mostly amplify the power of elites to disseminate, misrepresent, deceive, and obfuscate on a vast scale; and, in so doing, they transform the power of elites to influence people and impair their knowledge (1990: 100–117). In an interview Blokland had with Lindblom in November 2000, he powerfully summarized his position on elites and impairment:

”[I see] a long, long historical process of an intermittent, unending struggle of masses trying to restrict elites and elites trying to preserve their advantages. This is not a unusual idea, but a very standard interpretation….Obviously there is much more to social history than this, but it is a crucial element. Elites maintain their advantages most effectively by pretty crude threats of violence and violence….These methods, though, are rather costly and relatively ineffective. So the elites have to find more humane, less objectionable, less conspicuous, and less, now outright illegal, methods. And so, as a principal device for maintaining their advantages, they try to capture the mind. They preach the gospel of deference, competence, obedience, the merits of hierarchy, the merits of inequality, the dangers of equality, the dangers of skepticism, and the need for faith….It all adds up to, not a deliberate conspiracy, but a kind of tacit understanding of what elites perceive are the messages that are most effective for maintaining their favored position in society. And you see the efficacy of it in the extent to which it succeeds. We have a society, which….is deeply suspicious of equality, even though it seems obvious that having more equality would be very much an advantage. A society today can be easily stirred up by fears of more equality. You see societies committed to a deep respect for hierarchy and deference to political leadership. You see it in the both irrational and deeply dangerous commitment to nationalism and patriotism….My argument is that nobody escapes the onslaught, the unilateralness of the messages, subtle, explicit and implicit, hidden and open, to teach these alleged virtues. That the elites come to believe them, of course, themselves, I mean they impair their own capacity to think straight. And that these impairments, these incapacities to see the world clearly, to appraise such alleged virtues as hierarchy, obedience, faith, inequality, representing a kind of floor-level, ground-level impairment of our capacity to act straight even in political and economic policy. We don’t have good economies, we don’t have good political systems, we do not have good policies because we are so impaired in our capacity to appraise and design good policies.”

Even later in life (2013), Lindblom commented on the ”mammoth corruptions and denials of today,” suggesting that he perceived a new regime of political dishonesty and indoctrination from what he had subsumed under the heading of “circularity in polyarchy” back in 1977. He leaves behind an illuminating paradigm for exploring processes of impairment of knowledge; but great increases in recent years in the production and magnitude of defective information and disinformation may call for revsions that ratchet up this framework.



Among his contributions to pluralist theory, we would be remiss if we failed to mention his contribution, along with Dahl, to giving a name to democracies as they exist in the real world. They felt it important to distinguish such systems from ideal democracy or the direct democracy of ancient Athens. And they made the impactful decision to call this phenomenon “polyarchy,” meaning pluralistic rule. Language’s power is such that the term was fixed in the mind as an essential connection between democracy and pluralism. And the term gained considerable currency in the field. How well has it held up in recent years? Increasingly, extreme political inequality in the US could render continued use of the term polyarchy problematic. Since extreme political inequality could undermine pluralism or overwhelm it, some scholars now limit their use of the term “polyarchy” or even abandon it, applying instead terms like oligarchy or plutocracy to the United States.

Did astronomic rise in political inequality in recent years lead Lindblom to doubt that polyarchy is still the right word for designating the American political system? Did he think polyarchy could still be maintained under such extreme conditions of political inequality? Comments that he made in recent email exchanges—like “Every day becomes more frightening . . . What is in store for great grandchildren?”, and “down, endlessly down” do not leave one sanguine on the matter.



Conservative critics of Lindblom have found it informative to point out that Lindblom is a closet collectivist, socialist, or communist. In fact, Lindblom did not have much use for the terms capitalism and socialism. He preferred instead to devise a different set of economic system types, including market-oriented private enterprise systems, socialist market systems, planner sovereignty market systems, consumer sovereignty systems, among others. These alternatives show that he distinguished the basic alternative systems into different forms of markets rather than different forms of property; and that he distinguished these forms of markets by the extent to which authority replaced market in each one, not so much by the extent to which they either relied on social or private property, though this was still a factor to some degree. Thus downplaying property, both private and social, he could not have been in the vanguard of socialism. Moreover, he was non-committal as far as private and socials forms of property, neither arguing for private property nor for social property; and you cannot be a socialist or a capitalist if you do not take a stand on property. As disappointing as it may be to anyone seeking to provoke ideological conflict, the closest Lindblom gets to being a Marxist is in being a “Marketist,”—someone with a deep faith in markets, despite serious qualms arising from their many defects. As a political economist, what he was promoting was careful, judicious, non-ideological—that is, pragmatic—consideration of the extent to which market should replace authority, or vice versa. By setting forth a slew of alternative political-economic systems, rather than seeking to prove the superiority of one over another, he laid the foundations for two new fields of inquiry: varieties of democracy and markets, and varieties of capitalism.



When Lindblom discussed academic topics, he was ruthlessly looking for answers and truth. He could not always hide his “disappointment” when people came up with views that did not really make sense. He always asked the next, and ultimately the last question: “How do you know?” You need a stomach to endure this, and many people did not always have it, as Lindblom himself realized. When he was at work, he did not have much patience, but as soon as work was over, he was one of the kindest and most attentive men we ever met. Also for this reason, he was celebrated by his students. He was known for commenting in great detail on papers and thesis drafts, making himself available for one-on-one meetings, writing eloquent recommendations, assisting them in their job search, and in general, sticking by them for the duration. Lindblom was invaluable to his students for the knowledge of the subject matter that he would impart. But students would also learn how high academic standards could be—which was no less valuable to them intellectually. In conversation, Lindblom would train his cold gray-blue eyes upon them with an intensity of concentration that made the gaze of other people seem idle. His look conveyed that you were expected to do your very best work; that, if ever you could say something profound, this was the time to do it; and that, if you couldn’t, don’t even think about wasting his time. Students quickly found that they were being taken more seriously than they had ever been before. This respect and seriousness inspired students to go beyond their known capacities.

Ed Lindblom and Rose (and the author).

In his private life, Lindblom was cherished for his capacity for friendship. Most important here, obviously, was his wife Rose Winther, who was the love and inspiration of his life. “I have neither had nor wanted my own life since Rose and I wed over 60 years ago,” he wrote in Slices (2004: 10). “Life with Rose,” he wrote after her death in 2003, “was life in a garden now closed” (2004: 10). She was his companion, confidant, restorer, adviser, and friend. The death of Rose after 50 years of marriage was devastating to him. But after an extended period of intense grief, he somehow managed to pull through, enjoying a good part of his final decade and a half of life.

“Ed” was a person of absolutely outstanding character. He believed in “mutual adjustment” and he was appreciative of his colleagues’ talents and accomplishments, but, in the end, he made his own judgments no matter what anybody else thought and no matter what convention stood in the way. He always went with what he thought was right and true, not just in the world of ideas, but also in personal life. He was no bending reed. Integrity was the path he’d chosen in life, and, where most people are corruptible to some degree, straying from this path was out of the question for him. Honesty was his policy. The current era of mendacity, he must have found appalling, so antithetical to him it was.

One has to reach for extremes if one wants to capture who this man was. Ordinary just was not him. He was a kind of extremist—not of the sort we see in politics today, but one who was extremely good, kind, generous to a fault, objective as a person could be, extremely learned and able, and yes, acutely aware of the need for mutual adjustment.

We, like many others in his wide circle of colleagues, friends, and former students, sorely regret his passing even as we rejoice in having had the privilege of knowing him.


—Hans Blokland, Social Science Works

—Rune Premfors, Stockholm University

—Ross Zucker, Touro College and University System


Originally published in:  PS: Political Science & Politics, Volume 51, Issue 2, April 2018, pp. 454 – 8.

How to deliberate fundamental values? Notes from Brandenburg on our approach.


People hardly ever change their mind. The more they feel forced to justify themselves, the more they feel questioned, criticized, disrespected, and the smaller the chance that they will open their mind to other positions. This certainly is the case when values are involved: values – ideas on the good life and the good society – are pivotal for defining someone’s identity, and therefore their self-respect. Open, direct queries on values are almost always taken personally.

Since 2016 we organize series of deliberative workshops in Brandenburg with refugees between 17 and 28 years.[i] In the workshops we discuss, among others, ethical and political pluralism, democracy, civic society, freedom (of expression, association and religion), personal autonomy and emancipation, respect, human rights, identity, socialization, masculinity, femininity, sex equality, and homosexuality. Hence, values and perspectives were deliberated that are pivotal to the western cultural tradition and that a number of newcomers do not or do not entirely share. At least, that’s the impression held by many Germans, Europeans and Americans.

Our aims are to further integration and civic participation, and to counter populism and radicalization. We try to develop new ways of meaningful citizen participation and to advance new strategies to strengthen civic and political competences.


Deliberation is a political communication where, via an open and courteous exchange of ideas, views and values preferences are discovered, understood, contextualized and developed. Deliberation is not about the translation of undisputed, fixed preferences of individuals into collective decisions and policies, but about the mutual reflection and development of “volitions” regarding the public cause.


The projects have been made possible by the Integrationsbeauftragte des Landes Brandenburg (Ministerium für Arbeit, Soziales, Gesundheit, Frauen und Familie), the Brandenburgischen Landeszentrale für Politische Bildung, and the Ministerium für Bildung, Jugend und Sport.

The participants of the 14 series of workshops we implemented so far came from a wide variety of countries:  Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Ghana, Nigeria, Kenia, Cameron, Chechnya and Germany. We tried to recruit mixed groups, also comprising German people. In open pluralist societies where people with very different orientations have to live together, and often also want to live together, workshops where the participants reflect this diversity are ideal. All participants volunteered.[ii] The majority arrived one to two years back in Germany. We mostly spoke German and occasionally English, and sometimes we made use of a translator. We met on several occasions, during the day, in the evening, during holidays or over weekends. On average we deliberated for about 15 hours in total. The number of participants ranged from 5 to 18 people per meeting.

We also organized 10 series of workshops with German citizens from different parts of the country, volunteers assisting refugees to integrate in German society.[iii] This project was supported by the Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge. These groups had each 10 to 18 participants, predominantly well educated women (in Germany mostly women volunteer in the civil sector). We met also for about 15 hours in total and discussed the same themes, as well as, how to deliberate these themes with other people. The motivation behind these workshops is that in their communications with refugees many German volunteers and professionals have noticed to fell short on arguments and methods to discuss the themes mentioned above in a meaningful way.

Obviously, as the surge of political estrangement and populism in almost all Western democracies shows, more than just talks with newcomers are called for. It is about time that Western citizens themselves start to communicate with each other about the values, ideals, ideas, and perspectives that are supposed to hold their societies together. In this context we also organized two deliberative events with German radicalizing citizens that on the internet had shown sympathy for right wing populist standpoints. The prime goal of the project was to find new ways to get into contact with citizens that see themselves as political alienated or unrepresented, and to reengage them in the democratic discourse. We particularly explored the possibilities of social media, also trying to counter the much discussed “filter bubbles” or “echo chambers” where people predominantly receive messages that reaffirm and strengthen their pre-existing opinions. Together with the participants, we wanted to examine their take on contemporary society – which problems, challenges, opportunities and perspectives they see, and how these hang together.[iv]

So far the deliberations have strengthened our beliefs in the possibility to talk with people from all walks of life and from different cultures about critical topics in earnest and thoughtful ways; on condition that participants are taken seriously and the social context in which the deliberations take place is inviting, accommodating and courteous. We addressed demanding subjects, but our participants proved very able to discuss them with eloquence, respect and often deep insight. Sometimes we disagreed, but our disagreements never closed doors for enduring engagement.

How did we do it? What did we learn? Below, we concentrate on our workshops with refugees. We start with an explanation of our scholarly points of departure and motivations. After that we describe our deliberative approach. We illustrate this approach by going into a typical deliberation on democracy and pluralism. And we conclude with some remarks on what we can reasonably expect of 15 hours of deliberation on fundamentals like democracy, freedom and human rights.


1 Scholarly points of departure

At the start of every series of workshops we make explicit what our intentions, goals and assumptions are. For obvious reasons, the refugees in our workshops were often suspicious, even scared of those they view as authorities in Germany. They don’t like to talk about politics and values with strangers. Typically they came from countries where expressing views on politics meant trouble. Trust had to be built up. A good start here is explaining who you are, why you are doing this, what your assumptions are, and what you want.

Why do we organize these deliberative workshops? Obviously, our participants were keen to know. As social and political scholars we are interested in democracy, political participation, civil society and, especially, in finding new ways for political and social engagement. Many of the debates in Western social and political science and philosophy in the last decades have centered on concepts like citizenship, social cohesion, social capital, or deliberation. Apparently, there is a widespread concern about “diminishing democracy” (Skocpol 2003), about citizens participating less and less in social and political associations, about citizens understanding less and less about social, economic and political processes and structures, and about citizens becoming more and more receptive to easy answers to complicated problems. We urgently need to find new ways to participate meaningfully in social and political activities and, by participating, to increase political competence (Dahl 1950, 1989, 2000; Lindblom 1990; Wolin 1960; Bay 1965; Fishkin 1995, 2009; Putnam 1993, 2000; Gutmann and Thompson 2004; Dryzek 2005; Blokland 2006, 2011, 2016). Therefore, we do not organize these deliberative workshops just for refugees and migrants, but also for native Germans and other Europeans. We do not think that refugees are a particular “problem”, no more, at least, than natives.

On top of that, we have a special interest in normative or philosophical questions like, What is freedom? How far does the freedom of expression go? Do people have the freedom to build organizations aimed at dismantling democracy? What is democracy? To what extent should the state stay neutral towards different ways to live a life? Are there values or ideas that are shared by everyone in the world? Are people really that different? Citizens in our societies need to talk much more about this kind of fundamental topics. For too long we avoided discussions on basics, because we were afraid that these would never lead to any workable consensus and would only create conflicts that could escalate. For many years, avoiding discussions on fundamental values was also the advice of many political scholars (cf. Blokland 2011: 40ff).

Not talking about fundamental issues creates societies without knowledge and understanding of their own foundations, and, consequently, societies that in the end are unable to justify and defend themselves. Moreover, this abstinence nurtures political communities without the ability to decide what is important and unimportant, and to decide in which directions it should steer itself. Not talking about these fundamental issues creates societies at the mercy of blind social and economic structures and processes that few understand, societies that broil hidden and undirected resentment, societies that fall apart. Obviously, in political communities that undergo quick change, for instance because of the migration of substantial numbers of people or because of rapid economic transformations due to globalization and technological innovations, there is a need to discuss and to delineate what binds people together.

Furthermore, we believe that most people are able to think sensibly about topics like these and are capable to reach agreements or workable compromises. Also in our workshops we have found that many people, certainly the young people we talked with, have an interest in thinking and deliberating about these topics – and often simply like to play with big ideas – provided that the social environment in which they are invited to do so is right. In this context, the confrontational, hostile election campaigns and debates that have become common in many Western democracies are counterproductive from the perspective of democratic deliberation: they close citizens’ minds. They are also dangerous because they undermine the pillars on which democracy rest: the willingness and the ability to listen, to discuss, to evaluate, to compromise and to tolerate.

A next set of assumptions we communicated explicitly to the participants is, firstly, that we believe that we can learn something valuable from almost every other culture. We think that contemporary Western culture has important shortcomings and that we as Europeans or Westerners can learn a lot from other cultures, for instance, with respect to community, hospitality, solidarity, or “companionship”. Our Western civilization went wrong in important ways, destroying not just the natural environment but also key conditions of human wellbeing (Lane 2000), and it is time to correct the course of blind rationalization we have taken (Blokland 2006). Other cultures could inspire us here. Therefore, we did our best not to enter our deliberations with a superior, paternalistic, Eurocentric perspective: let us tell you what to think and how to organize your life. This arrogance is out of place.

But, secondly, we also made clear that we are not cultural or ethical relativists; neither are we postmodernists. Not everything goes. A pluralist midway exists between absolute cultural relativism and absolute ethnocentrism, and this midway is what we have to respect as our common ground (Berlin 1997, Taylor 1992, cf. Blokland 1997, 1999, 2011). [v] We believe there are values which are universally recognized, and we believe we can rationally discuss and criticize values and cultures. Values unavoidably clash and have to be balanced. Values have distinct weights in distinct contexts and, consequently, are balanced differently in different contexts. Nevertheless, the values, their frictions or clashes, and the need to balance them, are universally recognized. We also do not balance them at random, but in reasoned ways. In addition, there are ideas on democracy, pluralism, freedom, tolerance and gender – ideas also grounded in German, European and international law – that have a well thought-out, plausible, scholarly basis. We can explain, justify, and defend these ideas and show how they are interrelated and mutually supportive.

With scholars ranging from John Stuart Mill (1859) and Karl Mannheim (1940), to Isaiah Berlin (1988), Jürgen Habermas (1981), Robert Dahl (1989) and James Fishkin (1995) we believe that ideas and values only survive when we discuss them in the open. These ideas and values, and this open discussion, have been eroded from within by those who believe values and the ways we balance them cannot be rationally defended, and by those who have never been challenged to do so. Therefore, an unexpected but welcome outcome of an open exchange with refugees coming to Europe could be a better understanding of our own European cultural tradition and identity. The open discussion with representatives of other cultures about pivotal values will broaden our own minds, will relativize, but also revitalize our own cultures. It could help us to trace back and to redefine the European identity that should form the fundament of a European Union.


2 Deliberative approach

2.1 Mutually building up an argument and an understanding

Typical for our deliberative communications is that we do not “teach” or “lecture” the participants via, what the Germans aptly call, “Frontalunterricht[vi]” what is right or wrong, and correct or incorrect. In many educational settings, even at universities, it is still the norm that an authority is standing in front of a group of people delivering a long monologue telling students what to think. Numerous European “integration-courses” are like that, and their number seems to be on the rise, under the influence of anti-migration populist movements. They do not work because in the end they are often based on disrespect, and easily recognized as such.[vii]

Instead, we try to build up, together with our participants, a mutual understanding of pivotal values and concepts. In collaboration with the participants, we try to explore, to examine, and to think through their often hidden assumptions, their explanations and justifications. Together with the members of our workshop, we explore how ideas on concepts like democracy, freedom, tolerance and emancipation hang together, feed each other, are ultimately based on our understandings what it means to be a human being and what it means to live in a decent society. Together we try to develop an understanding of a complex web of mutually reinforcing values, ideas and perspectives.

Usually we ask our participants what comes to their mind when we say, for instance, “democracy”. For that matter, we could also start with “freedom” or with any other “essentially contested concept” of our political and cultural tradition. Characteristically, these concepts are strongly interrelated and get their meaning in a somewhat consistent and coherent network of related concepts. Any discussion of a particular concept creates at some point the need to discuss the other concepts as well (Blokland 1997: 6-7). As inferred above, these concepts always get their meaning or definition in the context of a social and political theory, a theory that ultimately rests on visions on man, society and world. Since these visions are inescapably philosophically inspired, these meanings are always open to debate. But this does not imply that every meaning given to these concepts is equally plausible.


2.2 Starting with abstract values and perspectives

In the process of deliberation it helps to start with abstract values like democracy and freedom, and then slowly translate the insights we developed collectively into concrete issues. Immediately bringing topics to the table like arranged marriages, head scarves and burkas, not to mention homosexuality or the right to express very unpopular opinions and the right to offend and to insult, is often counterproductive: people get into fights on symptoms and not on causes, they disagree immediately, cannot track the sources of their disagreements, and stop communicating, feeling misunderstood, misjudged, disrespected.


2.3 Discussing normative ideas, not empirical situations

For the same reason, we invite the participants to discuss normative ideas and not empirical situations or states of affairs. Immediately going into the supposed reality of Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Brandenburg or Pennsylvania leaves implicit the measures used to evaluate the respective situations and creates intangible, unsolvable disagreements.

People often immediately translate normative questions to their own personal experiences. Democracy? We do not have that in Nigeria, Afghanistan or Syria; or Brandenburg or Pennsylvania for that matter. It is all one big sham. It is a lie. Discussion closed. Understandably, participants are also regularly tempted to bring the discussion back to the question: who is to blame? This is not very productive either: people easily feel attacked and get emotional, much stays implicit, and what people have in common and what they agree about, stays out of sight.

We often have to explain in our workshops that there is a difference between empirical and normative questions, that there is a difference between what is, and what should be, and that we want to talk about ideals, about what we think constitutes a Good life and what constitutes a Good society where this life is possible. When we would like to agree about how to live together, we first have to make explicit our normative ideals on life and living together and have to try to reach a minimal, workable consensus on this.

Not surprisingly, it turned out that our participants share, with other refugees and with us, a lot of ideas about the good life and the good society. Finding this out together, already takes away a lot of anxiety for both sides.


2.4 Setting cornerstones

Furthermore, in the process of jointly searching plausible understandings of concepts like democracy, freedom, identity, emancipation we mainly ask questions, and we allow ample room for the participants to do the same. It is again a matter of respect to give the participants the opportunity to influence the agenda: it is a dialogue. As social and political scholars and as ethical and political pluralists, we do have some cornerstones that we want to set, and our questions are not randomly formulated, and if necessary we steer the discussion in the direction to get to those foundation stones, but how the house looks like between the cornerstones is open to debate.


2.5 Overcoming language and knowledge barriers

Most of our participants select themselves. Consequently, they are probably more than averagely motivated to talk about these kinds of topics. For this reason, they can be considered as potential “multiplicators”, relatively influential people starting deliberations in their own communities, spreading the ideas we collectively developed in the workshops. Still, despite their high motivations, they are not trained social and political theorists. In our deliberations we need to adjust to their abilities and knowledge. We usually cannot deliberate in the same language as in this article; we constantly have to adjust to the available language skills, to the existing knowledge and to the available abilities to reason in abstract terms. This all varies per person and per workshop. Apart from asking a translator to clear up communications, we constantly need to be ready to use other formulations, other telling examples, and other indirect ways to get messages across. For this purpose we also make use of short documentaries, clips, pictures, drawings and cartoons. Moreover, we always have ready some provoking citations and theses to start the conversation or to keep it going.


2.6 Creating a safe and inviting environment

People do not like their values, hence their identity, to be questioned. Any setting that gives people the feeling they are under attack, that they are not respected, is not productive from a deliberative perspective. Also therefore, we invest in creating a friendly environment where people feel at home and that invites them to reflect. The style of chairing a meeting obviously is crucial here. But also eating and drinking together, as the Greeks knew, is important. Equally important is being in a place that is neutral and warm, like a community center or a library. We also prioritized taking refugees out of their refugee-home: we address them as citizens, not as refugees-with-a-problem.

Furthermore, the refugees often had bad experiences with politics and with formulating standpoints on politics, values and worldviews. Participants regularly seemed afraid that the expression of views could have personal consequences for their position and status in their new home country. Thus, we needed to make clear that we were not a government body, but an independent civil organization and that we had no connections to the “Ausländerbehörden” (Foreigners Authority). True, we depend on state subsidies for this project but in our classrooms we are successful in keeping the state out. Everything that we would discuss, would stay between us: we would inform nobody about an individual’s opinions and everybody would stay anonymous.

Related to this, we show respect by making plain that we are not social workers working on personal problems, but social and political scientists and philosophers. We bring to the table what we think can be plausibly defended, by general standards of sound reasoning and empirical justification. We can understand that many refugees have had terrible experiences and are traumatized. We feel bad for them, but in our workshop we are not going to talk about that. We do not define them as people with a social or psychological problem, but as citizens able to deliberate sensibly about fundamental topics. In fact, most of the refugees are relieved to be treated this way.[viii]


2.7 Preventing direct comparisons and confrontations

We try to avoid unproductive tensions and frictions by going into comparisons: at our place, in our superior Western world, women have the same rights than men, theoretically. Tell us, how is the situation in your native country or culture? Even when people are not content with features of their native culture or country, they will feel tempted to defend these features abroad. They often feel personally attacked. Therefore, instead of talking about women rights in Afghanistan, Iraq or Eritrea, we talk about the ways the rights of women historically have developed in a country like Germany. When did women get the right to attend a university, the right to vote, the right to open a bank account, the right to buy a car, the right to report rape in a marriage? We show our participants empirically how women have entered the labor force, how careers and specific jobs became also available for women (in principle), and how the roles of men and women have evolved over the years.

Previously, we discussed with our participants socialization and identity, and tried to show how identities are to an important extent the product of socialization, how everybody is a product of his family, neighborhood, culture, tradition, religion and time. We explored how identities are socially constructed, how people can have several identities at the same time (a father, a musician, a lover, a Muslim, a sportsman, an American, etc.), how people play with their identity, and how identities are evolving, always in flux.

The general observation is: societies and people change, people rethink values, norms, habits, expectations, also when these values, norms, habits, expectations are based on specific, seemingly unshakable, interpretations of holy books like the Bible and are enforced by churches and other tradition bearers.

Nonetheless, the fact that the ideas and laws in the Western world on the positions of men and women have changed profoundly, does not mean that all change has to be welcomed. For instance, Western societies still have not found a balance between career and family. The expectation that women have a career as well as a family, has not be paired with the corresponding acceptance that men have to take a care role in their families often at the expense of their careers. Hence both sides are faced with unattainable standards and scant political support. This has created an overburdened society, where family life has been eroded and where, partly as a consequence, a decreasing number of people want to have children. In this sphere, Western societies need to learn, to adjust, and to change.


3 Excursion: Deliberation on democracy

The above is somewhat theoretical, so let us give an example how a deliberation might unfold in practice. We did not always completely accomplish the following deliberation, which predominantly has to be read like a kind of road map, but sometimes we certainly came close.

We usually start a deliberation by asking the participants the meaning of a concept like “freedom” or “democracy”, as remarked above. Some of the participants habitually answer that democracy is about elections and voting. We go with this answer, just to start the discussion. When it is about voting, should the majority then always decide, we ask? Yes, the reply regularly is, that’s democracy. The people should decide! But what when the majority decides that the minority should give up its religion? Or that the minority should no longer be allowed to speak its own language? Or should no longer have the right to vote? Some participants saw this trouble coming, they often fled from countries where majorities or dictators did not respect minority rights. No, that’s not democracy, most participants would recognize. But why exactly is this the case, we ask? And are there any other topics they would not want to be decided on via majority decisions? Why these, we question? More and more topics are usually brought up by the deliberators. They then often start to talk about constitutions, about having inalienable rights that cannot be taken away from them. They frequently also start to talk about freedom, respect and equality. Some values – think of language, culture and religion – are that precious to people, that they will never accept majority decisions on them. Taking “democratic” decisions on these issues undermines respect for the “democratic” procedure to come to collective decisions, they would feel disrespected in their humanity, they would feel their freedom to live their identity curbed, they would feel treated unequally to other people, people belonging to majorities whose languages, cultures, religions, or identities are apparently considered superior to theirs.

Time to bring the discussion back to voting. Is democracy just about voting or does it need something more? Voting on what, we ask? We need alternatives to vote on, somebody declares, real alternatives. In our native country it is always the leader who decides from of which alternatives we are allowed to choose. They call it democracy, but it is a sham. But what exactly are real alternatives, we propose to ponder? How do you know which alternatives are preferable? And how do you get significant alternatives? We need an open discussion; we have to talk it over, some reply. We also need to learn, at school and from each other, others fill in. Ignorance and democracy do not go well together. And for this open discussion we need freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of the press. We then also get alternatives, some participants assure, because people have different ideas. And when we allow people with comparable ideas to unite, to organize, we get organizations like political parties that can offer alternatives at elections.

Thus, we conclude together, democracy is not just about voting, but also about discussion, about the open exchange of ideas and visions, for which we need freedom of expression and association. And when we finally vote, we do not take decisions on every possible topic via majorities. People have rights which cannot be taken away from them, and about some topics is it better not to vote at all, but instead to let the people or particular minorities decide for themselves.

Apparently, we deliberate, we need freedom for democracy to function. At the same time, democracy is no guarantee for freedom: democratic majorities are an enduring threat to the freedom of minorities. Power seems to be the problem, irrespective where is comes from. Sometimes we cite on a PowerPoint the American president Woodrow Wilson, who stated a century ago: “Liberty has never come from the government. Liberty has always come from the subjects of it. The history of liberty is a history of resistance. The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it” (1912).

So, a democracy needs to control power, we need to disperse it. How can we do that, we ask our workshop members? Somebody repeats we need a constitution where rights are defined which no democratic government can overrule. And we also need, somebody else fills in, an independent authority that makes sure that the constitution is respected: an independent judicial system. And we need a parliament that keeps the government under control! And we need regular elections so that we can vote governments out of power that abuse their power or that we do not like for other reasons. And we need the freedom to criticize the government, we need a free press, and we need the freedom to associate ourselves with likeminded people into political parties, and other civil organizations, that keep an eye on government, other authorities, and each other.

People by now regularly get overexcited at the thought of disempowering government. A picture emerges of a democratic society were everybody expresses opinions, debates the opinions of others, where every power is curbed by other powers, and where at the end of the day nobody can get anything done. We throw in another theses: A multitude of political parties, civic organizations, and press creates predominantly confusion and disorder, weakens the nation and makes it impossible to make correct and clear decisions.

Many participants, natives and migrants, have heard this argument before. But how to counter it effectively? We need to bring the discussion to an even higher level. First we need to ask ourselves why we allow this cacophony or plurality of competing ideas, values, perspectives, interests, actors and powers to develop. Chaos seems to be the result. It is time to discuss pluralism and monism, a philosophical issue about which many of our participants love to talk about, despite the fact that it also regularly bewilders them. It is an issue that comes back in many other discussions: freedom, tolerance, civil society.

We start again with a provoking thesis: Every question has only one right answer and all correct answers can be ordered in one coherent, consistent system. Some people, philosophers for instance, have more knowledge of all the correct answers. These people should rule.

Most participants have to chew on this. Many, Westerners and non-Westerners alike, have a strong temptation to agree with the first thesis. We then ask these people: “What is the need of a discussion or a vote, or a democracy at all, when all questions have just one correct answer?” Good point. For what kind of questions do we have answers that have some universal validity or plausibility, answers we do not need to vote on?

When we feel the group can handle it, we bring up and discuss the difference between scientific and philosophical questions. Even for PhD students this often proves to be a difficult issue. Science is about empirical observation and logical reasoning, we explain. For philosophical questions we do not know, or do not agree yet, how to answer them. “Where is my coat?” is a scientific question. We can come to a generally accepted answer via observation (“look, it is hanging there on the wall!”), or via logic (“I cannot find it here, but I left home wearing a coat, so I must have left it on the SBahn”). But how to answer questions like: what is the meaning of freedom or democracy, is freedom more important than equality, how should we distribute our national income, what is a good life, what is a good society, is there a reality behind or above the reality we observe, is there life after death? Some people believe they know final answers here, but the simple fact that they are not able to convince all the others of its truth, begs the question.

We return to the thesis and introduce the difference between monists and pluralists. Monists think that all questions, even ethical questions about right and wrong, or questions about beauty, have only one correct answer and that all these answers can be organized in one consistent, coherent and frictionless system. Often they also believe that some people have more knowledge of the ‘correct’ answers. We can leave government to them.

Monist can be found all over the world and at all times, we stress. The history of thought in the West is a history of a battle between monists and pluralists, and only recently the pluralists got the upper hand. But still, monists can be found everywhere, and often at unexpected places.

Pluralists think that ethical questions often have several plausible answers. They think there are many different values, each itself worthwhile, but that these values often clash. When that happens, compromises have to be made, values have to be balanced. We cannot have it all. And this is a tragic truth, typical of the human condition.

We ask the participants whether they can think of examples of values that collide and have to be balanced. We propose freedom and equality as examples: The freedom of the wolves is the death of the sheep. Unlimited freedom leads to inequality and consequently to the diminishing of the freedom of those at the bottom. Trying to get a more equal society diminishes the freedom of the winners. Another example: the wish to have an adventurous life with constantly new experiences is at odds with the wish for security, continuity, serenity.

We get back to democracy: Many questions in a democracy are philosophical by nature. Are there any experts, we ask, on the question how much money should be spend on education, defense, the building of roads and bridges, art and culture? Are there any experts with ultimate, universal answers to the question whether we as a society, a democratic community, should focus on economic growth or should prioritize happiness? But what is happiness, and how could governments contribute to it? We ponder, every question a society needs to answer, even the ones that seems entirely technological or scientific, have a philosophical or political component. What decisions with regard to nuclear power cannot be left to experts? Is the question how many hospitals should be built in a country, purely technological or scientific?

Democracy apparently exists because we do not have purely scientific, objective answers to many questions we need to answer in every society. We do not accept that specific people have a bigger say in providing answers to these questions, we do not accept self-appointed authorities, we demand that every person has an equal say, an equal vote. For the same reason we value freedom, another topic that we go into at length: there are no final, universal and eternal answers to the question how to live one’s life, each person has to make up, and is able to make up, her own mind, and therefore it is a matter of respect to leave people room to make their own decisions.

People get tired. It’s time for lunch!


4 What effects to expect?

Illustrated above is the way we try to investigate together with our participants how values and concepts hang together, and constitute an interwoven, mutual reinforcing, to some extent consistent and coherent, set of values, norms, ideas, concepts. Just by asking whether democracy is about voting or discussion, and whether majorities should always have their way, we entered into discussions on minority, constitutional and human rights, into discussions on freedom, autonomy, equality, pluralism and monism, relativism and absolutism, tolerance, dispersion of power, political parties, civic society, etc. On top of that, we tried to show how this all hangs together. One topic leads to another, and many ideas are interrelated.

Still, research has shown over and over again that people have a remarkable ability to be and remain inconsistent. They also have a great capacity to ignore facts that contradict their standpoints. Although guilty of this habit themselves, academics, politicians, journalists and other opinion-makers are regularly amazed by the inconsistent and incoherent thinking of people not working with ideas on a daily basis. Explaining to people that they are inconsistent rarely makes them admit their flawed reasoning. Usually, this explanation is experienced as an insult to their intelligence. Consequently, their intelligence and self-respect needs to be protected at the costs of consistency or plausibility. Hence, wallowing in inconsistencies and fact-denial is hardly ever productive in the context of deliberation. It is better to illustrate how consistency looks, and in doing so to seed some doubts, doubts that may become effective later, in a different context.

Again, people do not change their mind easily, and even when they did change their mind, they will not readily admit this. Therefore, it is very difficult to find out to what extent people have come to other positions during deliberative workshops. We do not try to answer this, for instance by bluntly asking participants at the end of our meetings how much they have changed. They do not know, they do not want to tell, and changes might appear much later, silently, working in the background. Nevertheless, we ask our participants to fill in a feedback form with closed and open questions where we ask more indirectly how they experienced the workshops. We report on the results in a separate article.

What can you expect of in total about 15 hours of deliberation? First of all we want to show and to experience that it is possible, useful, enlightening and even entertaining to discuss with other citizens fundamental values, ideas and perspectives that too often are not talked about in our societies. It is a general experience in citizenship, deliberation, reflection, civility, social and political participation that hopefully will prepare the ground for many more deliberative exchanges.

Consequently, the aim of our deliberative workshops is not just to communicate ideas and values hold pivotal for an integration into European culture, but to create a social setting in which people are able to discuss these ideas and values freely and courteously. We offer an experience and training in the communication of often very sensitive topics, topics that can lead to misunderstandings, frictions, conflicts and radicalizations. The workshops aim to help people, migrants as well as natives, to express and openly discuss in a respectful way ideas, values, orientations, and habits that often stay implicit and therefore develop into unproductive, disruptive conflicts. We try to resolve frictions, before they become unmanageable struggles.

We cannot be certain that all the participants fully understood everything that was put forward during our deliberations. But even when not everything is fully comprehended, the experience that it is possible to talk sensibly on this kind of topics, is essential. The discussions on homosexuality are an extreme example: in many cultures nobody ever talks about the topic, it is a taboo.[ix] Some participants might have talked about it openly for the first time. We might not have changed their mind. But we certainly demonstrated that one can have a consistent, coherent discussion on it. The rest hopefully comes later.

Perhaps counterintuitively, we have found that in comparison to their colleagues with a migrant background, the German participants in our workshops did not always have more elaborate, thought through answers to many of our questions. Often they were also amazed by this themselves. An important motivation of our German volunteers to participate in the workshops was precisely that they regularly had experienced in their encounters with refugees, that they were short of answers when the refugees were asking them about democracy, freedom, tolerance, equality between the sexes, or homosexuality. The situation is not different for many other citizens.

Last but not least, what we in the end can achieve and aim for is to seed some doubt, to create some cracks and open windows for reflection. By going into democracy, ethical and political pluralism, freedom, tolerance, or identity we show that there is not much we can be really certain and therefore dogmatic about. Values clash and need to be balanced. Values have different weights in different circumstances. Consequently, balancing values is a continuous endeavor. We want and we need freedom because there are no eternal, universal truths about how to live one’s life. We want and need democracy basically for the same reason: we need a procedure to reach compromises and agreements because people have different, regularly conflicting, ideas, interests and values, and because there are no king-philosophers or other dictators that know all. Identities are, to an important extent, the product of coincidental times and places; they are flexible and changing. Autonomy means that one understands under the influence of which factors one’s identity has been formed.

Consequently, much is fluid, unstable, in the process of change. But this does not mean that anything goes: on the contrary, there is a constant need to talk things over, again and again, and we can do that in sensible, fruitful ways.

This willingness to reflect, rethink, reconsider and deliberate we found abundant among the participants of our workshops, wherever they came from. Certainly young people are still looking for answers, refugees from wars and extremism have a lot to think about, and people entering other cultures are searching for something to hold on. As a society we need to invest in these people, as we need to invest in our native citizens that have forgotten to ask themselves the very same questions we are asking the refugees. We basically have to choose between easy, invalid answers to more and more complex questions, on the one hand, and the opening of new meaningful ways of social and political participation and of strengthening political competence, on the other hand.


Potsdam, February 2018


Thanks to Sarah Coughlan, Nils Wadt, Jesse Kalata, and Johannes Kuhnert for their comments on earlier versions of this paper. Also thanks to the many participants of our workshops for sharing their thoughts with us. Obviously, only the author is responsible for the content of this paper.



Ackerman, Bruce and James S. Fishkin. Deliberation Day. Yale University Press, New Haven & London. 2004.

Bay, Christean. 1965. Politics and pseudopolitics: a critical evaluation of some behavioral literature. The American Political Science Review, Vol.59, No.1, 39-51.

Berlin, Isaiah. 1988. ‘On the pursuit of the ideal’, in The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas. London: John Murray. 1990.

Berlin, Isaiah. 1996. The sense of reality: studies in ideas and their history. London: Chatto & Windus.

Berlin, Isaiah. 1997. The proper study of mankind: an anthology of essays. London: Chatto & Windus.

Blokland, Hans T. 1997. Freedom and Culture in the Western World. London & New York: Routledge.

Blokland, Hans T. 1999. Berlin on liberalism and pluralism: a defense’, The European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms; Journal of the International Society for the Study of European Ideas, Vol.4, Nr.4, 1999, pp.1-24.

Blokland, Hans T. 2006. Modernization and its Political Consequences. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Blokland, Hans. T. 2011. Pluralism, Democracy and Political Knowledge. Burlington (VT) and Farnham: Ashgate.

Blokland, Hans. T. 2015. Some important lessons from political science on political participation and democratization

Blokland, Hans T. 2015. Why social scientists should help people to find out what they want.

Blokland, Hans. 2016. Debating values and cultural identity with newcomers and natives in Europe.

Blokland, Hans T. 2016. How to debate values in a diverse Europe.

Blokland, Hans T. 2017. “Taking people seriously: a new approach for countering populism and furthering integration.”

Blokland, Hans T. 2017. Deliberation against Populism: Reconnecting Radicalizing citizens in Germany and Elsewhere.

Bohman, James and William Rehg (eds). 1997. Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics. Cambridge (mass.) and London: the MIT Press.

Dahl, Robert A. 1950. Congress and Foreign Policy. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Dahl, Robert. A. 1989. Democracy and its Critics. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Dahl, Robert A. 2000. On Democracy. New Haven & London: Yale university Press.

Dembinska, Magdalena and Montambeault, Françoise. 2015. “Deliberation for Reconciliation in Divided Societies,” Journal of Public Deliberation: Vol. 11, No. 1, Article 12.

Deveaux, M. 2003. A Deliberative Approach to Conflicts of Culture. Political Theory 31 (6), 780-807.

Dryzek, John S. 2005. Deliberative Democracy in Divided Societies: Alternatives to Agonism and Analgesia, Political Theory, 33 (2), 218–42.

Elster, J. (ed.). 1998. Deliberative Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fishkin, James S. 1995.  The Voice of the People:  Public Opinion and Democracy.  New Haven: Yale University Press.

Fishkin, James S. 2009. When the People Speak: Deliberative Democracy and Public Consultation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fishkin, James S., Robert C. Luskin, Ian O’Flynn and David Russell. 2012. Deliberating across Deep Divides. Political Studies. Vol.62, No.1, pp.116-135.

Fishkin, James S. and Peter Laslett (eds.), 2003. Debating Deliberative Democracy. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gutmann, Amy and David Thompson. 2004. Why Deliberative Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1981. 1981. Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns. Vol. 1: Handlungsrationalität und gesellschaftliche Rationalisierung. Vol. 2: Zur Kritik der funktionalistischen Vernunft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Kanra, B. 2012. Binary Deliberation: The Role of Social Learning in Divided Societies. Journal of Public Deliberation. Vol. 8, No. 1.

Lindblom, Charles E. 1990. Inquiry and Change: The Troubled Attempt to Understand and Shape Society. New Haven en London: Yale University Press.

Lane, Robert E. 1972. Political Man. New York: Free Press.

Lane, Robert E. 2000. The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Mannheim, Karl. 1940. Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction. London: Routledge.

Mill, John Stuart. 1859. On Liberty.

Mouffe, C. 1999. Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism?, Social Research, 66 (3), 745–58.

Nanz, Patrizia and Claus Leggewie. 2016. Die Konsultative: Mehr Demokratie durch Bürgerbeteiligung. Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung.

O’Flynn, I. 2007. Divided Societies and Deliberative Democracy, British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 37, No. 4, 731–51.

Putnam, Robert D. 1993. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Putnam, Robert D. 2000. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Putnam, Robert D. (ed.) 2002. Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Raphael, C. & Karpowitz, C. F. (2013). “Good Publicity: The Legitimacy of Public Communication of Deliberation”. Political Communication. Vol. 30, No. 1, 17-41.

Ryfe, D. M. 2005. Does Deliberative Democracy Work? Annual Review of Political Science, 8(1), 49-71. doi: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.8.032904.154633.

Sanders, Lynn M. 1997. Against deliberation, Political Theory. Vol.25. No.3, pp.347-76.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. 1942. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (third impression). London: Unwin University Books, 1981.

Simpson, Paul L.; Guthrie, Jill; Lovell, Melissa; Doyle, Michael; and Butler, Tony (2015) “Assessing the Public’s Views on Prison and Prison Alternatives: Findings from Public Deliberation Research in Three Australian Cities,” Journal of Public Deliberation. Vol. 11, No. 2, Article 1.

Smith, G., & Wales, C. 2000. Citizens’ juries and deliberative democracy. Political Studies, 48, 51-65.

Skocpol, Theda. 2003. Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Steiner, J. 2012. The Foundations of Deliberative Democracy: Empirical Research and Normative Implications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sunstein, C. R. 2009. Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Susskind, L., McKearnan, S. & Thomas-Larmer, J. (Eds.). 1999. The Consensus-Building Handbook. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Taylor, Charles. 1992. Multiculturalism and ‘The Politics of Recogniti­on’: An Essay by Charles Taylor, with commentary by Amy Gutmann (ed.), Steven, C. Rockefeller; Michael Walzer and Susan Wolf. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Williams, R. 1961. The Long Revolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1984.

Wolin, Sheldon S. 1960. Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.



[i] Descriptions of the projects can be found here:

[ii] We will publish a separate article on the, often challenging, recruitment of participants.

[iii] A description of this project can be found here:

[iv] For an overview see: Blokland, Hans. 2017. Deliberation against Populism: Reconnecting Radicalizing citizens in Germany and Elsewhere.

[v] cf.

[vi] Teacher-centric learning

[vii] For an example, watch this video from the Guardian on an integration project in Norway. Every migrant in this country is obliged to attend classes on female rights and respect for women. The lessons were made compulsory after a string of sex attacks by migrants in Stavanger. Jenny Kleeman meets the students and asks whether “western” values can really be taught in a classroom.


[viii] For more on this topic see: Blokland, Hans. 2017. “Taking people seriously: a new approach for countering populism and furthering integration.”

[ix] In the survey that we ask people to fill in at the beginning of the workshop, we ask people to react to the statement “Homosexuality is an illness that can be cured.” On a scale of 5 (1 = completely disagree, 5 = completely agree) refugees scored on average a 3, Germans a 1. On the open question in the feedback form whether there were any topics they had felt uncomfortable to talk about 20% named homosexuality as such a topic. We will report on this issue in a separate paper.

Equipping Civil Society for a Data-Driven Future

Civil society organisations in Germany need to be directly empowered to use data, in order to maintain their scope for action in a digitalised world.

The rise of data-driven decision-making has made huge impact on government and business over the past decade. Major shifts in society and economy driven by technological advances in the collection, analysis and use of large data sets has become commonplace. Debates over the use of social media data to effect democratic elections, the rise of the data-driven FANG corporations (Facebook, Netflix, Amazon and Google) and the use by governments in the West of large data sets to guide policy making have fundamentally changed the way we understand and interact with human relations. Secondary effects, including the flourishing of innovation techniques based around iteration and immediate feedback inspired by Silicon Valley (Design Thinking, “Lean Startup” methodology, agile approaches) further shape the way that audiences, consumers and citizens are understood and served. Civil society organisations will need support to keep pace with developments in the private and public sectors, so that they can continue to mediate between increasingly complex social groups and sectors in a digitalised future.


Many civil society organisations have been exposed to the collection and analysis of large data sets through the application of impact-oriented methodologies to make civil society activities more efficacious. Organisations like Phineo in Germany, NESTA in the UK and Ashoka globally advocate for more impact orientation and more impact measurement, to increase transparency, efficaciousness and purposeful social change. Funding decisions will be increasingly based on the ability of civil society organisations to prove their impact qualitatively, or even more convincingly, quantitatively. However, currently the vast majority of civil society organisations are unprepared for the importance that data collection and analysis will play in the future- in a recent survey from the BetterPlace Lab only 25% of civil society organisations in Germany felt prepared for the increasing influence of impact measurement on funding decisions[i]. Perhaps even more crucially, civil society organisations are not prepared to take advantage of the potential of big data to increase, or even just to maintain, their current sphere of action.


Specifically in Germany, awareness of data protection topics is pronounced. Civil society organisations normally know how important the protection of personal data is, and have developed the relevant competencies to do so. There is also a good understanding of simple data manipulation tasks, such as with Excel. Many non-profits have, however, a very limited understanding of the potential of data in their work, and the competences that they would need to do so. For example, abilities in the use of external sources of data, the connection of multiple sources of data together, the interpretation of data and the recognition of complex relationships in data, the visualisation of data and the use of large data sets are very limited” (Helene Hahn, Open Knowledge Foundation Deutschland e. V.[ii] (translated by the author)


The production, analysis, and criticism of data-based policy, the representation of the interests of civil society actors and their beneficiaries in a data-driven polity, and the development of innovative, robust and scalable solutions to social problems will all increasingly require a data literacy from civil society organisations that is currently not there. Organisations that I work with are all currently performing these crucial roles in society, but their ability to mediate between state, business and communities is becoming more and more dependent on their ability to use data.


Through my work with civil society organisations I see the potential for data collection at every scale, as well as the barriers that organisations have to taking advantage of this potential. As an example, working with a consortium of small, neighbourhood organisations supporting a struggling inner-city primary school in Berlin, we developed a simple quantitative tool, including questions for parents, teachers, pupils and civil society stakeholders. We translated the questions into, along with German, Arabic and Turkish, on order to reach all of the important stakeholders. With relatively little effort we were able to identify five clear areas where the local organisations and the school could work better together, as well as indicators of which activities could potentially affect the most change. With the clear indications produced by the statistics, we were able to convince all important stakeholders of the necessity for action.


The challenges faced by these actors are very common in big cities in Germany, and a scaling of this tool would almost certainly lead to improvements in education and neighbourhood solidarity. More importantly the questions we asked indicated major problems on a regional and a national level, most importantly around migration and integration, but also in terms of urban development, which local actors could not solve. However, if this tool was used by twenty schools throughout a single Bundesland, or through the whole of Germany, we would have enough data that could be used to effect policy change on a national level.


The role of smaller civil society actors to effect policy change, to mediate between interest groups, the state, society and business, could be strengthened through data literacy and the ability to produce, criticize and analyse data. However, there are major barriers civil society actors need to overcome to take advantage of these possibilities.


Primarily, civil society actors themselves need to increase their data literacy, by learning the basics of statistical operations and understanding the terms used in the growing field of data science. This need cannot be met by pro-bono or other external advisors- in order for civil society actors to be able to analyse external data sets, to set the data agenda in their organization, and crucially recognizing the potential that data offers, they must be comfortable at least with basic concepts like statistical significance and effect size, and they should have an understanding of what machine learning, data analytics and data mining are, and which sources for data there are that are relevant to their work.


Additionally, many civil society organisations have serious reservations about using data that need to be settled before they can take full advantage of it. Many are concerned about data security, knowing what data they can collect and how. Many are concerned about alienating their beneficiaries, and striking the right balance between useful and usable data and maintaining trust. These concerns can be met with more training and understanding of how data can be securely collected and stored, transparently handled and how target groups can be reassured and trust can be maintained.


A serious issue for the collection and application of impact are the current existential fears held by civil society organisations regarding funding. Whilst impact orientation and the use of research techniques offers major benefits when it comes to funding decisions, quantitative data should be used as one of many tools for measuring social benefit, and the limitations of quantitative tools to measure, for example, culture or complex social change should be recognised. Funders need to act with sensitivity when working with organisations to carry out impact measurement activities, and organisations need to develop an understanding of what quantitative practices can achieve before quantitative impact analysis can achieve its full potential. Crucially, the use of impact measurement and quantitative impact measurement needs to be implemented internally within organisations, where it also has the potential to have the most benefit, before it is used across the board to measure success and inform funding decisions.


Finally, civil society organisations need digital tools designed specifically for them, developed in cooperation with them. The needs of civil society organisations in data collection, analysis and visualization are very different from academic research institutions and commercial enterprises. Flexibility is a requirement, but more than anything tools should take into account the amount of organisations working independently on the same goal, and should offer clear structure. Tools should take advantage of this local repetition and allow cooperation between organisations to create robust and representative data sets. They should try to make the most of cooperation by allowing transparency when it makes sense, whilst still recognizing the needs of organisations to have control over their data. The limited resources of civil society organisations, and the efficiency with which they work, should be taken into account when it comes to training and knowledge requirements to use the tools.


Civil society organisations urgently need tools and methods that empower them to use data to mediate between groups and institutions in an ever more complex society. They need to learn through doing, ideally using impact measurement as an introduction as this is a skill that they will need to rapidly learn to maintain funding. They need support that focuses on cooperation between organisations, in order to create robust data sets as well as build a more networked civil society to leverage their diverse skills and competencies and their combined size. Civil society organisations need to recognize the skills that they lack and focus on acquiring them, no small feat in the current climate of limited resources. Funders need to recognize the role that they can play, by building trust through support of supported organisations to acquire these skills and a recognition of a broad spectrum of appropriate tools to measure impact, in which quantitative impact plays an key role.


If civil society organisations are equipped in this way, the potential for increasing the sensitivity and responsiveness of social policy is enormous. The ability of civil society organisations to make visible and suggest solutions to social and economic problems which would otherwise be ignored can be strengthened. The increasing complexity of modern societies can be moderated by active citizenship through associations and NGOs that can marshal similar data resources as think tanks, business interests and the state. Without these key tools, and access to a language increasingly necessary for decision making, we will leave the decisions to those who can talk data.



[i] Digitalisierung in Non-Profit-Organisationen, Strategie, Kultur und Kompetenzen im digitalen Wandel, BetterPlace Lab December 2017, available here on the 13.02.2018:

[ii] Ibid.

Branding of cities: to whom is the city advertized and what fundamental idea lies behind it?

By Oktay Tuncer

“Good advertising does not just circulate information. It penetrates the public mind with desires and belief”, is one of the famous quotations of 20th century-advertisement and branding Guru, Leo Burnett. As a resident of the German capital one cannot help but being struck by the overuse of the city image by Berlin-based companies. In their ads – this applies to newspapers as well as to beer brands – pleasant feelings go along with values such as freedom, pluralism and whimsicality, and are depicted as unique for the city. In subway billboards or in cinema commercials before the film starts the unorthodox and avantgardist lifestyles of a diverse cast are shown to the viewer.

More than just a marketing campaign for private companies this kind of branding by the city-image has become mainstream urban policy conquering Western cities. In 2009, a promotion campaign under the name be Berlin was initiated by the city government of Berlin. On the homepage the objective is described as follows: “to strengthen the positive image of Berlin and to publicize the city nationally and internationally as domicile, location of economic activity and destination for the many tourists.” This statement is telling about the priorities of city officials.

On one hand, many people are convinced that such an approach of branding the city and the policies it spawns are cost-preventing and do not have any negative effects. On the other hand, in the long run these policies do effect how urban policy is perceived and effect the decision-making on how the city should be engineered. This ambiguity is an interesting case for it exemplifies how a policy approach becomes broadly accepted and also how a debate is cut short by not making the underlying ideology explicit. Without seeing the ideological foundation of a policy measure one cannot understand its long-term implications on society or, in our case, on the city and the urban debate. More concretely, we assert that the social questions which draw through the city are pushed aside and a blind eye is turned on issues such as inequality and segregation.


An approach to shape the city

In the be berlin-campaign´s promotional video a couple of locals appear and tell their stories about how they help shaping the city. We see an immigrant kiosk shopkeeper, a high-school student who has recently won a science sponsorship award and the head of a big high-tech company who tells the viewer about her company´s success. These components strongly hint at an urban policy approach which is based on a theory known as the Creative Class Theory. The theory was developed by US urbanist Richard Florida at the turn of the millennium and instantly took off among urban policy elites in the Western World. To summarize Florida´s initial observation, creatives are highly concentrated in some metropolitan areas and these same places are locations of technological and social innovation and success. The conclusion he draws from this is the following: “creativity is the principal driving force in the growth and the development of cities, regions and nations today” (Florida 2005). Another argument for this is the growing number of people employed in the creative sector, he observes. In the end, these reflections lead him to the suggestion that cities should try to attract creatives if they want to experience economic growth and do not want to be left behind in today´s world. He then offers a toolkit for urbanists how to achieve this, naming talent, tolerance and technology as three key factors – which are advertised under the catchy title “the three Ts”. The be Berlin promotional video demonstrates how politics and government officials have embraced these ideas. The immigrant shopkeeper represents the city´s tolerance and pluralism, the awarded high-school girl stands for talent and dynamic youth and lastly, technology is an important industry in Berlin, we learn from the high-tech company executive.

A 2007 article from mainstream German weekly news magazine der Spiegel further substantiates to what extent the assumptions of the theory are accepted. It reads: “Social tolerance, technological development and a bank of talent are proven factors in determining the economic success of a region. A new study ranks Berlin at the top, suggesting the economically weak city may soon be poised for a boom driven by the creative class.”

Berlin is far from being the first city to go this path, many US cities were forerunners. By now, the approach is widespread and we see many examples all over the world. In the rethinking of Singapore´s urban space and implementation of gay-friendly policies or the construction of Arts and Entertainment districts in Baltimore Florida was involved directly. Other famous examples are Memphis and Toronto for urban locations which were attempted to be turned into creative cities as means of economic development strategies.

Many of the Creative Class theory (from here on: `cct’) proponents remark that, in an era of “fast policy”, these interventions offer solutions to economic problems that are relatively easy to implement, seemingly any city can adopt and – the cherry on the cake – they come with a beneficial byproduct: declaring the city as a creative location. There is not much to argue against new museums or cultural centers or even “support for small-scale projects that encourage art and culture to blossom within walkable, mixed use neighborhoods” (Moss 2017). Herein lies the strategic importance. There is no categorical rejection from any population group or partisan group with regards to these projects.


The subtle long-term and structural consequences of the approach

Since the proposed measures do not deal directly with inequality and segregation, scholars have decried them as “cappucino urban politics with plenty of froth” (Peck 2005) or dismissed them as “neo-neoliberal extensions to market-ideology” and put them in the tradition of gentrification literature (Paddison 2014). There is no denying that the measures can be emancipatory to some extent. Yet, this is rarely the case for people who do not stem from the Creative Class themselves. The way in which Little Britain´s `white trash’ population was “socially engineered out of existence” is an example for this. In the end, the city government demolished their public housings and built mixed communities in their place (Paddison 2014). A similar process took place in Pittsburgh. Geographer Patrick Vitale from East Connecticut State University assesses the implementation of development programs in Pittsburgh: “Contrary to the media hype, Pittsburgh’s tech-driven story is all too common: the city was remade for businesses and wealthy homeowners. And poor and working-class residents have been left behind.” It is the creative elite which is supported by these development policies. Doctors, bankers, and engineers find prosperity within the city whereas “residents suffer from the same (or worse) poverty, racial injustice, and environmental degradation.”

Initially, a trickle-down economy was part of the cct and assumed to set in as soon as the creatives took hold of the cities. By accommodating the needs and desires of the creatives trickle-down benefits should arise for the low-income workers and the impact would effect all sectors of urban economy generating a widespread urban revival. This did not occur. In reality, we see that a large number of “underlabourer” and low-skill jobs are created but the necessary reflection on the serious downsides of this is missing (Peck 2005). Higher housing costs make sure that the blue-collar and lower-skilled workers do not profit from their wage increases but, contrary, get pushed more and more to the outskirts of the cities. Investment in `cool’ districts, as Florida himself reflects self-critically, has done little for the urban middle class and the working class: “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits to service and blue-collar workers”

In Berlin, the resounding social problems persist: poverty becomes concentrated in some districts which, according to a city official, leads to destabilizing dynamics in these. The urban social planning programs cannot counter the number of challenges they are faced with. Karl Brenke from the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) sees gentrification as the reason for this development.

The economic assumptions do not hold empirically. Florida acknowledges in his new book released in the wake of last year that he has been “overly optimistic” with his ideas. The downsides of these policy prescriptions are crucial, such as the creation of a greater number of low paid working class and service sector jobs designed to support the occupational and personal needs of newly arrived high-skilled creatives. Furthermore, the tendency of the measures to be responsible for rising rents and the intricacies this brings along for the poorer population cannot be overlooked.

Striking examples for the failure of the creative city approach include local artists from regions subject to the policies complaining about displacement and exclusion (Moss 2017), the Rustbelt cities which now confirm that they are still left behind (and once were enthusiastic about their rise through creative city policies), and the much expected trickle-down effect which did not occur in cities like New York, London and San Francisco. The social crisis of the 21st century urban space persists and has become worse in some parts.

It is worthwhile, in this case, to examine the academic assumptions in order to understand how the theory spreads and to put them to the test. The case is telling about how politics and science are intertwined and makes a statement about the role of ideology. As the geographers Chris Gibson and Natascha Klocker note attentively: “For all rapid international diffusion of Florida´s prescriptions, little critical attention has been paid to structures and networks that support, sustain and profit from their circulation” (Gibson/Klocker 2004).


A look at the theory´s underlying assumptions

The conception of class contains theoretical fuzziness and establishes a form of political favouritism. The arbitrary attribution of creativity generates a class category in which high-tech developers, artists and real estate professionals are put together. Class consciousness does not exist – except when one assumes that the finance professional and the poet have comparable objectives (Markusen 2006). Assuming that these occupations all have creative capacity and others do not, is also problematic. Why is an airplane pilot not part of the creative class whereas bankers and engineers are?

Distinctive occupations are merged into one category with educational attainment being the only linking factor (Markusen 2006).  The positive effect of the creatives on urban growth perishes when controlled for the average educational attainment in the city (Glaeser 2005). Ultimately, the construction of the creative class as a societal driving force serves mostly to rename a staff of elites – be it cultural or economic – and to provide them with theoretical and economic significance, and thus with political power.

Another debatable issue is the question of how we measure and read the relationship between creatives and economic growth. The assumed socioeconomic process is validated by the ‘right’ choice of indices. The positive link between urban economic growth and the existence of a creative class seems solid if we look at inner city property development, urban labor markets for high-tech employees or the number of start-ups. Also increased housing prices are proposed by Florida as indicators of economic growth. He calls them the “real demand for place” and indicator for “attractiveness” of various places. We have here a set of indicators of “how the market views the attractiveness of various places” (Markusen 2006) which, however, makes the whole approach somewhat tautological. One could also look at outcomes like unemployment rate or real wage of workers to see if economic development in terms of living conditions ameliorates. But examining outcomes which hint at nothing else than gentrification only proves that more well-educated and wealthy people (creative class) have moved to the place and hence, nothing is proven. On top of that, other critics have argued that the direction of the assumed mechanism could be exactly the other way around (Markusen 2006). There is no convincing argument that the economic success of cities is not prior to the presence of creative people.

Finally, the social theory carrying the cct is telling. There are two societal frameworks which make up a fitting setting for the cct: post-scarcity and the experience society. Essentially, the post-scarcity assumption is that we are living in a society where there is no shortage of the most important goods (Peck 2005). Industrial capitalism has brought us so far that we do not have to fear scarcity anymore. Coherently, having experiences becomes the center of our daily life (Schulze 2000). They are the means by which we distinguish ourselves, express our personality and define our identity. Obviously, no society is either 100 percent free from scarcity nor completely centred around experiences. However, these premises build up the world in which the creative class policies make sense. If there still was scarcity the neglect of social policies would not be tolerable. A shift from economic growth issues to lifestyle issues make cultural policies more important (Florida 2012). Without the assumed relevance of “experiences” many cultural policies, and notably the eventification and branding of city space, would be out of place.



The creative class bias is as rooted as ever in Berlin. Throughout the 2000s a huge part of the city treasure was saved for creative city projects and policies (Juhnke 2016). The result was that many young artists were attracted, up to the point where their activities made 20 per cent of the city´s GDP.  Between 2009 and 2012 the sector grew by almost a third (Juhnke 2016).

On a more concrete level, the displacement of artisan shops and retailers is significant. A recently published article in a city magazine illustrates how such local shops struggle more and more to keep their spots in the trendy Kreuzberg district in view of horrendous rent risings and shortenings of contract durations. They have founded an alliance to organize protest and to get in touch with government officials but an effective measure against the unaffordable rise of rents is not at hand. The question emerges for whom the city is shaped.

Even if cultural policies are a priori not a bad thing, it cannot be neglected that a push is taking place to engineer the city for the gusto of already privileged people. The discourse of creativity simply sidesteps many of the concerns of 21st century´s distributional questions. One reviewer states that the function of the theory is to put an “egalitarian gloss on contemporary conflicts” between the upper 1 per cent of the population and the working class (Moss 2017).

Today, the pro-gentrification, neoliberal policies can be sold as efforts to promote creativity (Moss 2017). These policies “work […] through interurban competition, gentrification, middle class consumption and placemarketing” (Paddison 2014). Their assumed academic assumptions provides them with a sort of justification and power. It is these assumptions however, which are shaky, at best.



Florida, Richard (2005): Cities and the creative class. Routledge, London, New York.

Florida, Richard (2012): The Rise of The Creative Class. Basic Books, New York

Gibson, Chris & Natascha Klocker (2004): Academic publishing as a `creative’ industry: some critical reflections. Area, vol. 36(4), 423-34

Glaeser, Edward L. (2005): Review of Richard Florida’s “The Rise of the Creative Class”. Regional Science and Urban Economics, vol. 35(5), 593-596

Juhnke, Sebastian (2016): Locating the Creative Class: Diversity and Urban Change in London and Berlin. Thesis submitted to The University of Manchester, School of Social Sciences

Kratke, Stefan (2011): The Creative Capital of Cities: Interactive Knowledge Creation and the Urbanization Economies of Innovation. Wiley-Blackwell, Malden

Levine, Marc (2004): La « classe créative » et la prospérité urbaine : mythes et réalités. Conference presented in Montréal, 20 May 2004, part of the series « Villes Régions Monde », at the Centre-Urbanisation, Culture et Société.

Markusen, Ann (2006): Urban development and the politics of a creative class: evidence from a study of artists. Environment and Planning A, vol.38, 1921-1940

Moss, Geoffrey (2017): Artistic enclaves in the post-industrial city : A Case Study of Lawrenceville Pittsburgh. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, New York

Paddison, Ronan (2014) : Cities & social change : Encounters with contemporary urbanism. Sage, Los Angeles

Peck, Jamie (2005): Struggling with the Creative Class. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, vol. 29(4), 740-770

Schulze, Gerhard (2000): Die Erlebnis-Gesellschaft : Kultursoziologie der Gegenwart. Campus-Verlag, Frankfurt

How Postmodernism Advanced Populism: An Inside Story From The Netherlands



There are many factors that explain the upheaval of populism. Postmodernism is one of them. In the Netherlands, certainly the columnist represented and helped to shape the postmodernist mood, a mood characterized by skepticism, subjectivism or relativism and a general suspicion of reason and logic.[i] In doing so, he prepared the ground for right wing populists like Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders. Likewise, he fueled populist attacks on “quality”, be it represented by the liberal arts, science, politics, or journalism. An inside story about the arts from the Netherlands, not in the form of a column, but in that of blog.


The Column

There probably is no culture in which the columnist plays such a central role as they do in Dutch culture. This opinions salesman flawlessly represents the postmodern phase of the Dutch cultural tradition, a tradition defined by merchants and preachers. The columnist publishes, usually on a weekly basis, a piece of approximately 550 words in which he, in an ironic, indignant or enraged way, proclaims an opinion. The small number of words available to him, offers the welcome excuse for the lack of substantiation and depth. It is the opinion that counts, an opinion that stands for freedom, democracy, emancipation, empowerment, independence, (post-, so real) modernity.

One can, however, never be quite sure whether these opinions are sincerely meant. The reader knows that the columnist predominantly makes a living via the manufacture of opinions, inside and outside his column. And the columnist knows that the reader knows this. Therefore, one should not take everything all too seriously.

In connection, it is rarely the case that the columnist possesses a specific competence, knowledge or experience that would justify offering him a national platform from which he can proclaim his thoughts. More and more often he is a columnist because he is a columnist. In this respect he is comparable to Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian: he attracts attention because, for unclear reasons, he managed to do so in the past. This all does not mean that columnists are powerless. On the contrary, together they shape the political culture, especially the beliefs people have about appropriate and useful political communications.

The columnist, finally, we no longer only hail in the newspaper columns. He can be found wherever there are microphones, cameras and audiences. Not just in newspapers, the opinions of columnists often have pushed the actual news articles to the margin.[ii] He has also taken over most talk or information shows on radio and television. His attitude of mind has spread as an oil slick over Dutch society.



Geert Wilders

Geert Wilders is the columnist of Dutch politicians. He has all kinds of opinions and refuses to substantiate them. His party program stretches a mere 269 words; the length of a mini-column.[iii] Just as the columnist shies away from the essay and the book, Wilders bypasses parliament. Form is more important to him than content. Content cannot be rationally justified anyway, which explains why his political standpoints form an disjointed, inconsistent brew of sentiments. The deeply outraged opinions he espouses are meant to draw attention, they are used in the battle for seats and power. They do not compose a coherent and consistent whole on the basis of which the present social constellation could be interpreted and understood, and the country could be governed. Just as in the case of the columnist, everything that Wilders proclaims amount to very little. Both Wilders and the columnist have never borne any responsibility and both know the world mainly through hearsay. Their statements have never needed to be translated into policy.

Just like the columnist, the populist proclaims his opinions in brutal, oversimplified and noisy language. And just as in the case of the columnist, the listener cannot be really sure if they are sincere. Also the voter and the populist politician know this from each other. For example, it is difficult to imagine that many fully believe in Wilders’ proposed ‘kopvoddentax‘ (literally, head rag tax), the tax that Wilders proposed on wearing headscarves. Or in the “millions, tens of millions of Muslims” that according to Wilders should be deported from Europe. But it is good that, so the thinking goes, for once, it has been said out loud! It is the standpoint that counts, a standpoint which, exactly, stands for freedom, democracy, empowerment, independence, emancipation, and (Western) modernity.

The columnist is the expression and catalyst of a postmodern culture in which the populist politician thrives. They are not really fond of each other, Wilders and the columnists, columnists who are consistently qualified by Wilders as “the left church”. And yet they belong together, they need each other, they reinforce each other.

If Wilders ever leaves politics, he will become a columnist.


Subsidized arts

Wilders also does not like subsidized art and culture. Art and culture, to Wilders’ mind constitute “a left-wing hobby“, a hobby of the faithful of the left church, a church of which the columnists, in Wilders’ experience, are the preachers.  “We are for a sparkling democracy, with plenty of referenda”, writes Wilders in the column that serves as his party program of 2011. “Not the political elite, but more often the people should be able to speak out; together, citizens know better than the left cabal.” Therefore, Point 7 of the current party program states:  “No money no more to foreign aid, wind mills, art, innovation, public radio and television, etcetera.”[iv]

Scribbles by Sean MacEntee

With regard to the subsidized arts, the Dutch citizens have already voted with their feet: most of them stay home. Just a very small, highly educated and well paid public still makes use of it, and Wilders knows it. Only the complacent paternalism of the left cabal can explain why this supply is still subsidized with the hard-earned tax money of “Henk and Ingrid”, the supposedly average Dutch taxpayers for which the Party for Freedom fights. As far as Wilders is concerned, the art subsidies can be completely abolished. If certain expressions of art were really valuable, then “the people in the country” would be willing to pay for it and they would thus survive on the market.

In 2011, when this issue was played out on the political agenda, the traditional political parties wanted to avoid a fundamental discussion on the topic – the danger was that by doing so they would be portrayed as elitist and paternalist; wiser to go with the flow. Consequently, in 2011 the ruling Christian-democrats (CDA) and Market Liberals (VVD) agreed to cut the budget of the arts by about 20%. Furthermore, the VAT on “cultural” activities (tickets for theatres, museums, etc.) went up from 6 to 19% –  the same tax one pays for eating out or attending a soccer game.

Columnists wrote many angry commentaries, accusing government of shallowness and tastelessness. Gratefully, Wilders welcomed these condescending attacks: so you want to say that all the hardworking people in the Netherlands that I fight for, are shallow?


The legitimization of cultural policy

Almost three decades ago I was invited to work for the Dutch Ministry of Culture. I was completing a dissertation (Freedom and Culture in Western Society, Routledge, 1997) in which the legitimation of cultural politics played an important role. The department I worked for was responsible for long-term policy development. The first question the director asked me, was: “What do you think, how long will we  be able to keep the walls standing?”

In the course of the eighties, inside the Ministry of Culture, there was growing awareness that the existing cultural policies were more and more difficult to legitimate. Research had shown that the group that was taking advantage of the subsidized arts reflected the average Dutch citizen less and less. The public in attendance at theaters, art museums and concert halls increasingly belonged to the best paid and educated strata of the population. The culture that was offered in these temples had also slowly become more and more complicated, academic, modernistic, or avantgardistic. Axiomatically, this supply obstructed the cultural participation of relatively broad segments of the population.

One of the causes of this development was the way decisions were taken on art subsidies: more and more these decisions had been farmed out to councils where art experts jointly decided what deserved the support of the state, and more and more these connoisseurs had been applying rather narrow standards of “quality”: artistic products predominantly had to be “innovative”, “unprecedented” or “original” (compare, by the way, what has happened in much of the social sciences); craftsmanship or being part of a tradition was considered to be less and less important.

Going to the Dogs is a 1986 play by Dutch writer, artist, and television director Wim T. Schippers. It premiered on 19 September to a sell-out audience in the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam, with six German Shepherds, allegedly trained as actors by the Amsterdam police, as the performers. (Wikipedia)

A related problem was the changing self-image of the artist. Artists came to depicted themselves less and less as representatives of a cultural tradition expressing esthetically its intrinsic values and certainties, or as members of a cultural community critically but engaged reflecting on its indorsed truths and untruths. Instead, artists more and more saw themselves as outsiders, or, maybe better: as superiors. Fewer and fewer artists went in conversations with the broader society, whose members were invariably considered smallminded, petty and shallow. More and more they communicated with and reacted to each other. In this way a complacent “art-art” developed that became less interesting, relevant and understandable for society at large (compare again what has happened with the social sciences).  Society still had to pay for it, though.



In two ways the gap between the arts and the general public could have been made smaller. In the first place, the policymakers could have tried to strengthen the cultural competences of the public via cultural education. The fact that so many people do not participate in cultural activities, is not the consequence of informed, intentional choices, but of unfamiliarity and unawareness. Cultural education could have strengthened the knowledge and experience needed, and would consequently have increased the freedom of the individual to make autonomous choices, choices not predetermined by, especially, social background.

Unfortunately, this policy option received severe resistance in the world of academics and columnists. Here, the idea had spread that the motivation behind cultural participation, certainly participation in what was considered “bourgeois” culture, was “distinction”: people went to art museums or concert halls to experience and to show their superiority over other classes of people. The existence of measures or standards of quality that were not entirely sociological and subjective, was denied. Especially the French cult sociologist Pierre Bourdieu[v], who later denied he had ever taken this position, made a name with this attack on the idea of quality. The upshot was that policies aimed at the dissemination of culture were denounced as elitist and paternalistic.[vi]

Obviously, the problem with this standpoint was that it made every cultural policy suspect. One can acknowledge that individuals and groups have always used the arts to assert their social and political superiority, and one serves the emancipation of their victims when one exposes this hypocrisy. But when one leaves it like that and only acts as the great debunker – the favorite pose of the columnist – then one stands with empty hands when a populist like Wilders comes along drawing the logical conclusion: shoot down this pompous emptiness!

A second policy option motivated the artist, via public debate and all kinds of social and economic incentives, to see himself somewhat more as a member of society, a member that fulfills in this society an indispensable function and therefore deserves to be supported. Artists can state that their art worlds constitute a social lab where new forms and thoughts are developed and tested, they can assert that they help us to reconcile with the irreconcilable, that they move us with unexpected beauty in a barbaric existence, that they express truths in powerful, evocative ways, truths that can only be inadequately expressed with non-esthetical means. This is all very true, but this also needs on a regular basis to be demonstrated in actual practice, and this not only for an international, but small inner circle, but for substantial minorities of the societies artists ask for support.

This road turned out to be impassable as well. Politics was trying to create an art of the state, the general response was, a politically sanctioned or approved art. However, in his creative work the artist should be totally free, autonomous and sovereign. This, indeed, stood for freedom, empowerment, emancipation, democracy, and modernity.

Arte Moderna by Claudio

One of the incentives that were considered to bridge somewhat the gap between the arts and the general public was the introduction of the obligation for the performing arts to earn 15% of their budget themselves. The art scene reacted furiously. In a nationwide newspaper advertisement, the interest group of the Dutch art institutions (“Kunsten’92”) declared: “Unacceptable impoverishment of culture” (June 13, 1992). The quality newspapers Het Parool (March 4, 1992), De Volkskrant (June 2, 1992) and NRC-Handelsblad (June 8, 1992) respectively titled: “culture robbery, insult, savage cuts”, “Cut in subsidy causes landslide”, and “disastrous measures”.

Twenty-five years ago Dutch politics was still dominated by moderate, civic centrist parties. Their representatives could still be intimidated with texts like the ones above. Usually, they went into reverse. These times are over, as the recent severe cuts in the cultural budget showed. Today, all Dutch men and women are columnists. Everybody is free, autonomous, independent, authentic and unique. Everybody has got an opinion of his own and not a single opinion has more weight than another opinion.

The general opinion today is; that cultural subsidies are theft.

How can we return this genie to it’s bottle?


Thanks to Nils Wadt and Sarah Coughlan for their comments on a first version of this article. Obviously, only the author stays responsible for its content.



[i] Postmodernism is a late 20th-century movement, Brian Duignan writes, “characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.” It forms a frontal attack on the assumptions of the Enlightenment: There is no reality independent of human beings, everything is a conceptual construct. Consequently, there is no truth about which people using different language games could agree. Reason and logic do not create progress, are not universally valid, and are just conceptual constructs of the western powers that be. Language does not refer to a reality outside itself but is semantically self-contained or self-referential. The effort to create theories describing and explaining reality leads to conformity and oppresses, marginalizes or silences other discourses. This all leads to metaphysical, epistemological or ethical relativism. In the words of Duignan: “Postmodernists deny that there are aspects of reality that are objective; that there are statements about reality that are objectively true or false; that it is possible to have knowledge of such statements (objective knowledge); that it is possible for human beings to know some things with certainty; and that there are objective, or absolute, moral values. Reality, knowledge, and value are constructed by discourses; hence they can vary with them. This means that the discourse of modern science, when considered apart from the evidential standards internal to it, has no greater purchase on the truth than do alternative perspectives, including (for example) astrology and witchcraft.” ( Postmodernism as a philosophical movement lead by thinkers like Lyotard, Lévinas, Derrida, and Foucault had some coherency and consistency. The adherence to some of its core ideas was much more common. This general postmodernist mood was widespread among academics, journalists, students, artists, opinion leaders in places like Amsterdam.

[ii] For instance, De Volkskrant, one of the few quality newspapers in the Netherlands, currently counts more columnists (more than 150) than journalists.

[iii] The title of the Party Program of the PVV is “Nederland weer van ons!” (Netherlands should belong again to us!)

[iv] In Dutch: “Geen geld naar ontwikkelingshulp, windmolens, kunst, innovatie, omroep enz.”.

[v] Bourdieu, Pierre. 1979. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (La Distinction: Critique Sociale du Jugement), Boston: Harvard University Press, 1984.

[vi] In Freedom and Culture in Western Society (1997: 247-72) I give an overview of the extremely approving way the presumed ideas of Bourdieu were received by Dutch sociologists and opinion makers in the field of cultural politics. As said, in an interview Bourdieu later stated that he had been wholly misunderstood (1997: 258-9).

Why Does Fieldwork Matter? Reflections On Immersion, The Everyday & Knowledge Creation In Hong Kong

“If the RMB depreciates, Southbound trading goes through the roof!”

A conversation overheard in Central


Ideas about the borderless world have been around since the advent of modern information communication technologies in the late-1980s. The internet, email, Skype and Google Street View have made the world a more tangible, seemingly smaller place. So, what’s the point of going on an expensive trip to a foreign country and doing fieldwork? Is this an outdated concept? While some might argue that it is, I would disagree. Location and social interaction matter. Depending on your research subject, these things can matter a lot; not only for ethnographers, also for other disciplines. While the benefits of more obvious aspects of fieldwork such as conducting interviews are well documented (and some would argue that you can also do them via Skype), I want to draw attention to another aspect of doing fieldwork – that is the benefits of actually “being in the field” by drawing on a recent research visit of mine to Hong Kong and what I gained from this.


What can we learn from the field?

I have never been an ethnographer, anthropologist or “interpretivist” scholar for whom this article might not offer any novel insights. For these scholars this article will describe some of their standard research practices in very basic terms. Rather, I’m a political economist working on finance, situated in the grey space between a politics department and a business school. My research project focuses on capital market development in China, their internationalisation and the role exchanges play in this process (that is stock, derivative or commodity exchanges, and even the ones with the trading floor), and I find a lot of the data for my work on Bloomberg or through reading the Financial Times. My research is quite empirical, on the one hand it is technical and data-driven, on the other side, it draws on interviews with market participants and their knowledge of and experiences in a changing market environment. One might describe my ontological position as that of a qualified neopositivist (Schatz 2006), So why would I need to conduct fieldwork?

Take a step back and think about your home town or country. Living in both Germany and the UK, I am always fascinated by the differences in the financial cultures between the two countries. For example, differences in how credit cards are used, how easy or difficult it is to get a mortgage, between ownership and renting. When I’m at a local market in England it’s very likely that I can pay contactless with my credit card or even smart phone while in Germany even larger shops might not accept cashless payments, mobile payments hardly exist and they might accept debit cards but not credit cards. Or how British friends of mine studied Spanish and History and became corporate lawyers or work in finance, something unthinkable in Germany with its rather strict education and training system. While these things might seem trivial, they can easily be related to larger academic debates on financialisation or varieties of capitalism which analyse the different ways capitalist systems are organised and which social ramifications this has – for which the UK and Germany are often the poster children. Similarly, in recent years, political economy research has developed the Everyday Political Economy approach, which draws upon how everyday actions such as the ones described above matter for and also drive and co-constitute the larger socio-economic structures we live in (see for instance I-PEEL). When moving from Germany to the UK for the first time, I got a much clearer and deeper understanding of these processes. When recently going on a research visit to Hong Kong, I realised that the same logic applies when conducting fieldwork.


Financial cultures & practices Hong Kong

Overall, I found being in Hong Kong for a prolonged time very rewarding for my research. Take the quote from above for instance. I was walking back to my office from an event I attended – a breakfast seminar on capital market development in Hong Kong organised by a Chamber of Commerce which was highly interesting by itself – and was waiting at the traffic lights. Suddenly, I realised the people waiting next to me (who seemed to work in finance) were talking about my research subject, highlighting the relationship between China’s monetary policy and investment flows from China to Hong Kong via the newly established Stock Connect scheme. A fascinating encounter, especially as it helped me further develop an idea I was working on the previous days on how excess liquidity in China that built up after the global financial crisis was linked to the push towards internationalising Chinese capital markets. My environment literally inspired me and facilitated my research process. Where else could I have encountered something like this?

Similarly, I went to a local bank in Hong Kong and noticed that there was a corner full of elderly citizens staring at a few screens. After seeing this a few times, I investigated the subject. It turns out that trading stocks is actually a kind of hobby for some people and that these trading corners can be found in many local communities – people meet in these corners, discuss the performance of stocks, buy and sell their shares. TVB Pearl and TVB Jade, two of the most watched TV channels in Hong Kong, host several shows for almost the entire duration of the stock market’s trading hours where experts talk about the performance and likely trend of various stocks or industries and where retail investors can call in real-time and get investment advice. And in contrast to Hong Kong, where retail investors represent only 30% of the market (as against to 5-10% in Europe), in China 90% of market activity is retail investment flows. Again, this ties back to the everyday and how this shapes larger structures.

What Bloomberg thinks about HK as a financial centre.
© Johannes Petry

During my stay in Hong Kong, also I attended several industry events such as the one mentioned above. While some of them might cost money, many of these are free and open to academics. At these conferences, workshops or seminars, I met dozens of interesting people working in the financial industry, and listened to talks on various aspects of my research subject. In a way, I learned what “the market” thought about current developments in China’s financial opening and liberalisation, the “Belt and Road Initiative”, Hong Kong Exchange’s new business plan and other contemporary issues relevant to my research. Attending these events, was very useful to test and further develop some ideas I had come up with during my previous research as my ideas where confronted with the views and insights of financial market participants. In addition, I received countless briefings, research papers or presentations which – while not containing sensitive or secret data – were full of important information and which are not usually publicly accessible. I would never have been able to get such insights when only working from my office in Warwick – or anywhere else outside of China for that matter.

It was also incredibly useful to talk to locals. Retail investors usually do not rely on fundamental analysis to evaluate stocks but more often on news or rumours. As CNBC reporter Eric Chemi noted, “The Chinese stock market […] operates so differently from U.S. and European markets. […] it is dominated by retail investors, who treat it very much like a casino.” (Chemi & Fahey 2016). Approaching the ‘Mom and Pop’ investors in a local bank branch or talking with people on the street about (rising) property prices and (them speculating in) stock markets was fascinating and helped illuminate how different these markets functioned. When contrasting this with conversations I had with Hong Kong-based fund managers, I really got a sense of how different investor base and market sentiment are from what we are used to in Europe or the US and why long-term international investors such as pension funds are hesitant to invest into China.

Similarly interesting was talking to academics based in Hong Kong whom I contacted and exchanged thoughts on some of these developments with. I had a very fruitful discussion for instance with a fellow PhD student based in Hong Kong who researches everyday financialisation, retail investors and the rise of investment advisors in Hong Kong: Did you know that there are hardly any pension schemes in Hong Kong? But because the government does not want to increase income tax (it is a tax haven after all), they promote financial solutions to these social issues – which of course has enormous social repercussions like rising income inequality, exploding property prices and hundreds of thousands of livelihoods solely dependent on volatile markets. Therefore, this talk really complemented my insights on the trading corners I found in banks and gave me a better understanding of overall processes of financialisation, how markets functioned, and which role regulation and the state have in these processes.

Even talking about my research over lunch or coffee with former colleagues or newly-made friends who worked in finance proved incredibly helpful as they contributed valuable feedback, corrections and additions or explained the specificities of the local capital markets. One evening I met someone working on a new commodity platform that is being set up in mainland China and I learned more about the differences between global and Chinese commodity markets, the importance of benchmarks and standards in commodity trading and how this platform aims to implement these in China. This does not mean that you necessarily need to know people in advance, you often meet at events such as the ones described above. Even going to a social event in your free time can prove surprisingly helpful in unexpected ways. I went for instance to a talk by the Asia Society where I spoke with another visitor. This person was previously the head of a global investment bank’s Asia business and was happy to share some of his insights with me. During another such social event I met someone, who works in finance and deals with retail investors, routing their orders into the market as a broker. Again highly interesting and adding to my understanding of above-mentioned financial advisors, Mom and Pop investors and trading corners.


Concluding remarks: knowledge production, exposure & immersion

After a few weeks, my understanding of how Chinese and Hong Kong financial markets worked, their specificities and similarities with “global” markets or important developments in these markets grew exponentially, and I leaned things that I could have hardly found out through desk research. Being in the field and being exposed to my research subject really increased my knowledge thereof. Because these things matter and can enable a much more holistic picture of a research topic by adding everyday life, culture, social norms and chance interactions into the mix. Of course, this is not proper “data” that I would directly incorporate into my work unchecked. Rather, it helps to place your research into a bigger picture and into context, to better understand it, and to identify potentially important stories and developments. And once you’ve identified these, it is relatively easy to conduct further research, verify and flesh out these stories as well as search for other data sources which can confirm and support these stories.

So, while I would usually not draw on such insights as the main sources of my research, being immersed into and exposed to my research subject actually really helped me to deepen my understanding and further develop my knowledge of a topic that seems rather technical at first. Nicholas Taleb highlights that many scientific discoveries that originated from exposure to opportunities than from design and planning (2009: xxv). In a similar vein, James Webb Young (1965) argued that in order to develop new ideas, our mind needs to be trained in the ability to see relationships between things we already know. A view that is also shared by Steven Johnson (2011) who argues that an idea is not a single moment of genius but rather a new configuration of neurons in your brain that have never fired in sync before. How do these new networks form? In his TED talk, Johnson tells the fascinating story of how GPS was developed by exposure to and connecting with other people. Companies such as Google or Apple have long used such insights to facilitate their business development.

Inspiration, innovation and creativity are highly important for the further development of scientific ideas and highly dependent on the environment the researcher is situated in. When researching Chinese capital market development in Hong Kong I certainly experienced this. I think it is important to get out there, become exposed, let your research undergo a reality check, refine existing ideas as well as develop new ones. That is why fieldwork matters.



Chemi, Eric & Mark Fahey (2016) “This China stock market is so different than we are used to”, CNBC, 8 January 2016.

Johnson, Steven (2010) Where good ideas come from: the natural history of innovation. Penguin, London.

Taleb, Nicholas (2009) The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable. Penguin, London.

Schatz, Edward (2006) “Ethnographic immersion and the study of politics”, in: Edward Schatz (ed.) Political ethnography: what immersion contributes to the study of power. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Young, James Webb (2003 [1965]) A technique for producing ideas. McGraw Hill, New York.

Long Read: Our Fellows Respond To Right Wing Populist Arguments

This year, Social Science Works has been working on the project ‘Deliberation Against Populism’ in which we have contacted citizens in Brandenburg that expressed an interest in populist political parties and arguments online. We have already explored this project in some detail on the blog, including an in-depth overview of the whole project and an breakdown of recruitment and an analysis of these themes and issues that have attracted the most ire from citizens online. The two events held for this project in Cottbus and Frankfurt an der Oder gave us the opportunity to meet citizens where they were able to share their concerns about the future of Brandenburg, Germany and Europe. Further, we had a number of conversations with citizens online where they were likewise able to express their concerns.

As a result, we have been able to compile a list of arguments that we ran into regularly throughout the project from citizens arguing from a populist perspective. Very often, the people we spoke to over the course of this project expressed their concerns about the number of refugees and migrants that have come to Germany in recent years. In addition, as this project took place in Brandenburg, in the former East Germany, many participants reflected on how reunification had negatively impacted on their lives. As part of our series on the project, we have invited our Fellows to respond to some of the arguments we encountered, drawing on their social scientific expertise. In the following, Fellows have laid out their responses to some of the most common arguments heard over the course of the project.

As outlined in previous blogs, there are a number of key areas that our participants returned to again and again. One of the key things that particpants discussed was life in the former GDR, and compared it favourably with their current circumstances.

In the first response, Martin Neise takes on this idea that life was better in the former GDR:


“Life was better in the GDR. I used to earn 600 Marks and pay 60 Marks rent. Now I earn 1000€, but rent is 600€. Where is the progress?”

“When people talk about life being ‘better’ in the GDR than now, they usually refer to the GDR’s vast social policies, as compared with the West’s and its strong GDP. They talk about low rents, cheap groceries, a dense network of medical services and a well-funded childcare sector. And the GDR indeed provided its citizens with generous social services, including a ‘right to work’, which presumably offered a life without worries. So far, so good. But how were the social policies paid for? With credits from capitalist countries. Hence, they were not sustainable.

When Erich Honecker came to power, he proclaimed the ‘unity of economic and social policy’. The aim of the policy change was to boost productivity by raising working morale through a broader supply of consumption goods. The rationale behind it was: if citizens are happier because they can consume a wider array of products, they will be motivated to work more effectively. The GDR’s leadership therefore set out to expand social policies, most prominently housing, and provide more consumption goods which, if it was not produced at home, had to be imported. However, both the oil crisis in the 70s as well as the inflexible and unproductive centrally planned economy, made the GDR less and less competitive. Therefore, an increasing number of imports could not be paid for with exports and the GDR had to take on debt.

That in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, as long as productivity and economic growth are spurred by taking on debt. However, that was not the case. Investment did not follow higher consumption – failing at the proverbial having and eating cake conundrum – and the country went into a debt spiral, paying more and more money to its foreign (capitalist) creditors, and paying back old credits with new credits (roll-over). The GDR was not ‘broke’ but this development lead to the ‘Schürer-Report’ in 1989 which stated that the “social policy did not rest on its laurels” and that in case the country wanted to stop taking on new debt, living standards would drop 25-30% in 1990.

While the GDR’s industrial capabilities were like a newly industrializing country, its social policies on par with industrialized countries. An impossible situation. A result of the manifold subsidies and higher consumption were that the state had to not only pay debt but also to decrease its investments. Therefore, machinery grew old and could not be replaced, infrastructure began to crumble and buildings could not be renovated. The government had to constantly decide between three goals:

  1. Increasing consumption and living standards,
  2. Servicing foreign debt,
  3. Accumulating and re-investing to become more productive.

It followed the first two while putting an axe to the third.

But what about the personal stories of low rents and groceries? That was still great, wasn’t it? Subsidies are wonderful. But only in case of infant (new, uncompetitive) industries, non-profitable but vital services like healthcare and public transport, or for people who need basic commodities like food, housing etc. However, the GDR paid broad subsidies for everyone, not only the poor and needy. But not only that, it paid for it with credits from capitalist countries. But let us take the debt out of the argument for now. Why were they bad policies nevertheless? Simply, because they give wrong incentives to individuals and companies, and with such broad subsidies wrong incentives for millions of people.

For example housing: rents were frozen at 1936’s level. Oftentimes, people only paid 6% of their income for housing. These rents did not cover the cost of building and maintaining the house. The state stepped in to pay the difference. In a state socialist economy, that does not matter as much because the state not only pays the wages but also the costs for the buildings. A zero-sum game. What citizens win in lower rents, they lose in lower wages because the state needs the money to build and maintain houses. But the difference lies in the individual behavior: A family with three children lives in a four-room apartment. All the children move out as they grew older. Normally, the parents would look for a different apartment which was cheaper and smaller. With the rents so low, the parents did not need to look for another apartment and stayed put. Meanwhile, many other families were looking for a four-room apartment. In economic terms: the subsidies led to an overuse of scarce resources because parents without children lived in huge apartments and the state had to build new apartment blocks for other families, while two-room apartments lay idle.

The same holds true for energy: The state massively subsidized heating and electricity – to all citizens. That led to an overuse of energy by every consumer. Why turn off the heat when the windows are open if it only costs me a penny? The result was a massive burden on the state’s finances for energy consumption. Resources and finances which could have been used to invest in machinery, or renovating streets and houses were wasted on subsides that made little sense.”

Martin Neise is an MA candidate in political science, with a focus on political economy at Goethe University in Frankfurt. He grew up in East Germany. 


Likewise, some participants felt that the way East Germany had been ‘swallowed’ by West Germany following reunification represented a political mistep. In fact, one of the most interesting suggestions we heard over the course of the project was that East Germany should have been allowed to pursue membership of the European Union as an independent state. However, as Sergiu Buscaneanu makes clear, this presents a serious administrative and political challenge, that could not have been overcome by East Germany:


East Germany should have been allowed to pursue membership of the European Union as an independent nation state.”

“The EU is a community of European states based on the commitment to respect democratic values, human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as to observe the defining principles of rule of law regimes. Though the EU has started in the aftermath of the Second World War as an economic project, integration of new members into the European Community has been made gradually conditional on observing democratic norms and universal human rights.

GDR has never had meaningful democratic institutions during its existence as an independent state and without a genuine process of democratisation, it could not have the chance of being accepted as a member of the European Community.

The existence of GDR as an independent state was ensured internally by autocratic party structures and a highly vigilant state apparatus, and externally by a powerful Soviet leverage. When this strong internal and external control lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the vast majority of East Germans, the very existence of GDR as an independent state became obsolete. Reunification of GDR with FRG was the logical consequence of this severe crisis of legitimacy.”

Dr. Sergiu Buscaneanu is Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at King’s College London, where he works on a project concerned with strategic choices of political elites in Eastern Partnership countries and prospect theory.


Another key theme that emerged from our discussions surrounded the economic value of refugees and migrants. Many people we spoke to over the course of this project felt that the influx of refugees and migrants represented a long-term economic strain on the German economy. Indeed, when pressed, many responded that they doubted that refugees and migrants to Germany would ever be able to find work in Germany and hence would not contribute to Germany in the longer term, citing the example of the Turkish population in Germany as an example.

Oktay Tuncer responds:


“We keep being told that these migrants and refugees will be good for the economy, but we already know that this isn’t true because of the experience we’ve got from Turkish migrants”

“In many societies there is a discussion on whether immigrants help or hinder the domestic economy. In the UK, the House of Lords has published 2010 a paper on “The economic and cultural benefits of immigration” concluding that the effects are not clear-cut but certainly helped to reduce inflationary pressures and were rather an answer to the country’s economic situation and needs. In the US, undocumented immigrants were blamed for the rising unemployment rate for a long time, and still are. In Arizona a propagandist ad appeared in 2010 which spawned Arizona’s tough new law targeting illegal immigrants and the possibility of congressional action on immigration, for instance, have brought a renewed focus to the issue.

It seems ironic that particularly the example of Turkish migrants is mentioned in the quotation as a negative example, considering that these were actively invited by the German government in the aftermath of the Second World War to help rebuild the economy as “Gastarbeiters” (guest workers) many of which are homeowners in Germany by now (convergence at nearly same rate as natives during 90s) or bought houses in their homecountry and moved back or run their own companies today (a mezmerizing rise during the 80s). As such, the Turkish population does not conform to the image of unemployablity, nor are the Turkish immigrants an outsized strain on the welfare state. During the 50s and 60s, the years when the vast majority of the Turkish workers (along with many Italians and Greek) came to Germany, the country’s GDP increased immensely: it more than doubled in the 50s and increased by another 50% during the 60s which marks until today its biggest increase in the country. The time period is known as the “Wirtshcaftswunder” (the economic miracle) and is, at the same time, the period of the most intense immigration to Germany (10 million guest workers arrived between 1955 and 1973).

Specifically, the economic dimension of migration is perennial; it seems to be legitimate, no matter what, to ask that question because it draws on simple and clear economic rationality. When political leaders evaluate the state of the country in terms of the economy, shouldnt we also look at inflows of human beings in economic terms?

Although initially appealing, economic measures are often misleading and not that clear-cut. Apart from the aforementioned indicators we cannot neatly ascribe to which processes of economic development are due to a population change or a general change in world markets or other external factors or simply due to political shifts (e.g. in social policy or education). Additionally, there are other measures of societal well-being (such as Human Development Index) other than the classical economic ones which, for many sociologists and economists, more accurately depict a country’s situation.

However, to take the risky enterprise of measuring the economic effects nevertheless, we can outline for contemporary refugee immigration that the effects will be different. First, we have to state that economic impact of immigration depends very much on the peculiarities of the countries (Diane Coyle, ̳The Economic Case for Immigration‘, Economic Affairs (2005), vol 25, no 1, p 53.) and today’s Germany is not the same as after the Second World War, but also the arriving migrants are different from the guest workers and hence one has to examine the cases individually. 10 million guest workers arrived until 1973 which is another dimension than the roughly 1.9 million asylum seekers who arrived since 2010. [there are roughly 1.9 million asylum seekers who arrived since 2010.] To come to statistical calculations, according to a simulation model calculated by the Cologne Institute for Economic Research the state expenses as means for refugees are expected to rise from €20 billion in 2017 to €28.5 billion until 2020. On the other hand, Germany’s GDP is expectedto be €30 million and one percent higher than in a scenario without refugee migration by 2020. However, it is problematic and not easy to make a clear conclusion since, as seen above, with different measures we change our perspectives and also, the net effect will depend on the labour market integration of the immigrants.

Another valid argument is a change of perspective which goes like this : we, as Europeans have developed values, notably in the Enlightenment epoch and take humanism as the starting point. According to these values, we cannot let people drown in the Mediterranean and separate ourselves off. Who, if not one of the economically most successful and richest countries in the world, could – and hence, should – take on this duty? If we avow the humanist notions of solidarity and human rights and teach in schools the importance of the right to the existence of oneself, dignity of the human and responsibility it is as important, to execute these in real catastrophic situations. After all, asylum is a human right ( The ones who are requesting asylum are trying to survive and to secure their existence and have nothing to lose. To actively accept these values means to accept them as universal, on a daily political basis, and not to exclude others from them. The responsibility stems from circumstances such as climate change which is caused mainly by the rich industrial countries or wars in regions in which the USA and its European allies are directly involved in. These circumstances lead to dramatic consequences such as natural catastrophes, droughts, floods, civil death tolls and ethnic cleansings and strike mostly poor regions.

In the end, contrary to the discussed commentary, we see in a majority of historical examples that migration has been beneficial to the host country. On the macroeconomic significance, economists agree that migration cannot be underestimated since migrants are filling holes in the production and the service sectors.

Oktay Tuncer is an MA candidate in social sciences from Humboldt University in Berlin his academic focus is on nationalism in Turkey, neoliberal urbanization and ethnic inequality on the German labour market.


In addition to fears that migrants and refugees to Germany would continue to be a drain on the economy, this thought led many participants to conclude that the current refugee situation threatens to overwhelm the German state. From this, participants argued that the German state’s priority ought to be German citizens and that refugees and migrants were simply too bigger a strain to accomodate.

Uwe Ruß responds:


Germany cannot handle all of these refugees. We need to look after our own first”

“The UNHCR estimates that 65.6 Million people are on the run in 2016 (UNHCR 2016) that is the complete population of West Germany or almost the population of France. Most of these refugees (around 40.3 Million) are not able to leave their own country of origin (known as Internally Displaced Persons). During the past decade, the number of refugees has continuously increased due to an increase in international and national conflicts and famines. It is no surprise then that more than half of all refugees worldwide come from Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan.

Germany does not make an exception to this trend. The number of applications for asylum in Germany increased as well, especially since 2012 with the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. According to the latest report of the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, BAMF) the number of applications peaked in 2016 with 746,000 (BAMF 2017: 3). However, towards the end of 2017, the number of applications started to decrease to a level even below the 2014 rate (Jan-Sep 2017: 168 306). Also it has to be taken into account that these numbers refer to applications only. According to the BAMF, a considerable share of applications is rejected each year (2016 ca. 200,000, 2017: more than 200,000, BAMF 2017: 11; the number of rejctions cannot be subtracted from the number of applications for that specific year, because in each year applications from previous years are also decided upon).

Germany is not the only country taking refugees, but it is one of the economically most successful and largest countries in the EU with more than 80 million inhabitants and the lowest unemployment rate since reunification. Other, much poorer and smaller countries, host many more or a similar amount of refugees than Germany, for example, Turkey (2.9 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Lebanon (1 million), Iran (979,000), Uganda (941,000), Ethiopia (792,000), Jordan (685,000), Congo (452000), and Kenya (451000) (UNHCR 2016; these numbers cannot be compared to the ones given by the BAMF above. The BAMF measures applications for asylum, while these numbers refer to the number of refugees hosted by a country. The respective UNHCR number of refugees hosted by Germany is 669,000.)

To put this into perspective: Per 1,000 inhabitants there were 8.8 refugees applying for asylum in Germany, compared to 4.6 in Greece, 4.6 in Austria or 4 in Malta (Mediendienst Integration). If we imagine the German population in 2016 as a group of 100 people, there was only 1 person (actually only 0.88) coming and asking for asylum.”


This theme ran very deep. Even the participants that accepted that there was a genuine need for asylum for some of those claiming refuge in Germany, a common theme from our discussions was that this number was wildly over-stated and that the majority of those claiming refuge in Germany were economic migrants. This, participants suggested, was a widespread problem: the majority of refugees in Germany were simply there for economic reasons.

Uwe Ruß continues:


Most of these so-called refugees are economic migrants that don’t need protection.”

“According to the UNHCR a refugee is “someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence. A refugee has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group” (UNHCR). It is no coincidence then that the number of applications for asylum in Germany increased following the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2012. If we look at the applications for asylum in Germany, it becomes clear that the three main countries of origin are Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq – countries that are characterized by many years of (civil) war, destruction, and chaos. 43.9% of all applications for asylum in Germany in 2017 (Jan-Sep) are filed by refugees coming from one of those three countries, followed by Eritrea (5.4%), Iran (6.7%), Nigeria (5.7%), Turkey (5.4%), Somalia (5.3%), and smaller shares from other countries. But also in countries where there is no war, people can be forced to flee their country because they are persecuted and discriminated against. For example, the European Union has repeatedly acknowledged that the people of the Roma are severely discriminated against in many countries (EU-MIDIS II 2016). Large parts of Europe’s biggest ethnic minority are excluded from access to education, labor market positions, housing, and medical care.

Thus, simply to assume that all or most refugees are not fleeing war or persecution in their home country and do not need protection is just an allegation. In Germany the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees checks the reasons and consistency of all applicants using auxiliary information and personal interviews. It is then decided upon whether an applicant receives asylum or other forms of protection in Germany or whether the application is rejected. For example, in 2017 (Jan-Sep) the BAMF decided that in more than 200,000 cases applications did not match the criteria for asylum or other forms of protection (BAMF 2017: 11; the number of rejections cannot be subtracted from the number of applications for that specific year, because in each year applications from previous years are also decided upon).”

Uwe Ruß is research associate at the German Center for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW) and PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin.


Equally common was the argument that refugees enjoyed more comfortable benefits than their German counterparts. This echos in large part the concerns heard from many that felt that Germany was ‘unable to cope’ with the economic strain of accepting large numbers of refugees and migrants. Over the course of the project, we found a number of posts that had gone viral within these social media communities which claimed to ‘expose’ the discrepencies between welfare benefits available to refugees and migrants and the (lesser) benefits available to German citizens.

Ilyas Saliba counters the argument:


“These people come, use our benefits system and take out more of it than we get.”

“What they get: Less not more

First of all those people, if they receive political asylum, do not come to Germany to use our benefit system but because their lives are in danger in the countries they fled from. However, upon arrival asylum seekers usually get accommodation provided by the local authorities they are distributed to. Furthermore, their basic needs in the form of food and necessities are covered by the state as well. The provision of these services by the public authorities during a person’s status as an asylum seeker is well below the benefits received by someone on unemployment benefits or even Hartz 4.

Not a zero-sum game

If an asylum seeker is granted asylum they are eligible for benefits just as any other unemployed Germans for that matter. They do not receive more but actually the same. And most importantly no unemployed German receives a single Euro less due to the arrival of asylum seekers. The provision of basic needs for the people in need by the German authorities is not what in the social sciences we would call zero sum game: there is not a fixed amount of money from which all people receive a certain part but the benefits are handed out on the bases of objective criteria that are legally regulated and are based on a case-by-case decision. Meaning if more people depend on social benefits due to an economic crises and rising unemployment or due to an influx of refugees no other person on the receiving end will receive less due to the increased total amount of people depending on such a social redistribution and basic needs provision system.

Barriers on the way to independence

Once the legal asylum battle is through and a recognized political refugee receives his or her temporary work permit they are finally eligible and allowed to emancipate themselves from depending on state benefits and earn a living themselves. Of course this comes with many difficulties. First and foremost language problems often complicate the entry of refugees into the workforce. This is why sufficient German classes should be provided to refugees so that the language barrier can be overcome. Secondly, many refugees previous degrees and qualifications and work experience in their homeland are not formally accepted in Germany. In such a situation refugees often face the choice of starting over in a new career or going back to school or university in order to earn a degree or qualification that is accepted. Thirdly, many refugees suffer from trauma due to their experience and are not immediately able and capable to work full time.

What we get: tax payers, entepreneurs and a younger workforce

Economically speaking a number of long term studies on the effects of migration have shown that even if migrants tend to be more likely to depend on state benefits in the beginning, in the long run they pay more taxes than what they receive. The same picture emerges when looking only at refugees. Compared to the average citizen from their host country migrants are more likely to found businesses and thus contribute to creating jobs for other people. They also tend to fill gaps in workforce that are oftentimes not occupied by the domestic population. Hence, they diversify our workforce and while they do depend on state benefits in the beginning after a few years this trend seems to turn around and they become part of the tax-paying workforce that keeps our economy and our welfare state going. Furthermore, the recent newcomers to Germany are mostly young people seeking a better life in safety and fleeing war in their homeland. They have a lifetime of work ahead of them. Accordingly, the new arrivals are lowering the average age of the German population, which from an economic point of view is a necessity, as I will outline in the final paragraph.

Immigration is not optional

On another more meta-economic-level, we also need to acknowledge that our current social welfare state is unsustainable due to our ageing society. Our social welfare system based on a generational solidarity between working population and people enjoying their well-deserved pensions needs more working people as the German workforce is shrinking. Even if Germany could somehow miraculously double its birth rate, that would  not, economically speaking, be enough to insulate our pension system from the problems arising from the demographic trend. Thus migration is an economic necessity for our social welfare state. Of course there is a valid question to be asked about how many and where from we could recruit new workers. But if the refugees are here; as such it make good economic sense to enable them to become contributors to our society and our system through helping them on the path.

This does take a considerable investment in the beginning but it pays back in the long run.”

Ilyas Saliba is a research fellow at the research unit Democracy & Democratization at the WZB Berlin Social Science Centre and a PhD candidate at Humboldt University Berlin. He works on the diverging trajectories of the Arab Uprisings and focuses on different strategies of regime responses to contestation. He tweets at @ilyas_saliba.


Aside from the economic concerns, a key issue in these conversations was the supposed criminality of migrants and refugees. This was a major theme, and indeed, in surveying the relevant social media sites for this project, the most popular posts (as measured by total number of likes, comments and shares) invariably related to migrants and refugees commiting crime (most often violent crime) against a German citizen. Many commentors argued that these (rare) events were typical and demonstrated the dangers posed by allowing large numbers of foreign nationals into Germany.

Fabian Hühne responds:


“Crime has increased since 2015 because of refugees.”

“One of the difficulties in putting this statement into context is that ‘crime’ is not directly defined. There are underlying assumptions here both about crime statistics as well as ‘criminality’. This response will look at both of these aspects.

In Germany each federal state collects its own data about ‘crime’ and there is no coherent classification of ‘refugees’ in this data. Some states include asylum seekers as well as non-EU foreigners in the data, while others focus on the category of ‘non German suspects’. Of course ‘crime’ includes various different activities and in 2016 there was an overall decrease of all crime Germany. However there is an increase in the crimes committed by ‘immigrants’. Even though crime statistics are incoherent in their classifications of what they measure as ‘immigrants’ they show a trend, especially when looking at violent crime, which includes physical assault, robbery and sexual assault among others. Up until 2015 violent crime was on the decline in Germany. From 2015 onwards violent crime is on the rise again. According to studies carried out by Zeit and Spiegel not only the contribution to violent crime of immigrants is disproportionately high in comparison to Germans also the increase of crime is higher. Die Zeit gives the example of Bavaria, where 20% of violent crime suspects were immigrants. While violent crime overall rose by 9.8%, the violent crimes committed by immigrants rose by 93%.  

Some of the implications of the argument can be backed up by crime statistics – but the data is vast and some more important conclusions about this can be drawn from a closer look at the data. It would be wrong to conclude that because of this data somehow ‘immigrants’ would be more criminal than Germans. This is not only taking their situation into account but also their demographic.

When it comes to asylum seekers, a large number are males aged 18-34. The proportion is very high and it is much higher than the average in Germany and higher than the average in other European countries. This specific demographic is across all countries associated with higher crime rates, and especially violent crimes. That is also true in Germany. To elaborate on this argument, if one took a random sample of male 18-34 year old Germans to any different country for a longer time, statistically they would increase the violent crime rate more than the average population in that country. This argument should go someway towards countering the suggestion that refugees are inherently more criminal. However, the living conditions endured by many refugees and in addition their reasons for seeking refuge in Germany should also be considered.

It is also interesting where the crimes of immigrants are committed. Most violent crimes committed by ‘immigrants’ are carried out in so called ‘refugee camps’. To draw again on the example of Bavaria given by Die Zeit, 58% of all crimes committed by ‘foreigners’ were committed inside a refugee camp. The specific situation and circumstances, that is being in a ‘camp’ together with traumatized other refugees, sometimes with little hope to be accepted seem to be contributing to the rise in ‘crime’.

This can not explain all of the increase in crimes committed by immigrants after 2015 but indicates that the specific situation that especially refugees are in and their demographic inflates crime statistics. Leaving aside the trauma of people and the conditions within refugee camps its worth distinguishing an increase in crime statistics and ‘criminality’.                    

Looking at the fact that refugees are not more criminal than Germans naturally it may be much more worth looking at how refugees can be housed better and how we can help young men cross nationalities to stay away from violent crime.”


Fabian Hühne holds an MA in political communication from Goldsmiths, University of London. He is a journalist whose work has appeared in Vice and has contributed to campaigns for Azaaz and ONE, he is currently working on the communications team at Fairphone.


Do you have any responses to add to this list? Have we missed any contributing factors? Let us know below!

Alienation Online: An Analysis of Populist Facebook Pages In Brandenburg

This year, as part of the Social Science Works project Deliberation gegen Populismus[1] we have been monitoring right-wing populist Facebook pages associated with Brandenburg. The project was financed by Tolerantes Brandenburg and included work from a group of students at the Alice Salomon Hochschule in Berlin. This led to the collection of more than 1000 public Facebook profiles of individuals which had expressed far-right opinions or had otherwise expressed their dissatisfaction with mainstream political parties. In the following, I will offer an overview of methods behind this analysis, the themes, topics and problems that came up most regularly across the profiles and pages viewed in this time as well as a preliminary analysis of some of the roots than underpin these things, informed in part via conversations with some of these individuals in person and online. Finally, I will outline the beginnings of an extension of this as a research project on the role of echo chambers online in Germany.

Finding Resentment Online

In order to undertake this task, it was first necessary to find potential Facebook pages where the target group would likely access. Facebook was the preferred method for attempting this monitoring because of its relative openness as compared with other social channels and because of its reach (38.98 million Germans count as ‘regular’ users of Facebook – that is they login to Facebook at least once per month[2], and approximately 82.5% of internet users in Germany have a Facebook account) which compares favourably to other sites like Twitter (which counts only 21% of internet users in Germany as members[3]). YouTube, the second most popular social media channel in Germany, with approximately 50% of internet users visiting its pages regularly was also considered as a monitoring platform. However, because the content there is arranged mostly as individual videos, or at best as a ‘channel’ without connecting with other sources, and because contacting individual users is more difficult on this platform, Facebook was the obvious choice for this project.

In this project, the first step was to locate Facebook pages which posted content most likely to attract the kinds of individuals we wanted to get into contact with. Having identified our target group as individuals living in Brandenburg which might vote for populist right-wing parties in the upcoming election, populist party Facebook pages were a good place to start. From there, we followed the network of connected pages of various sizes, including: Zukunft Heimat Brandenburg (3,098 Facebook fans), Identitäre Bewegung Berlin-Brandenburg (9,259 Facebook fans) and Ein Prozent für unser Land (62,468 Facebook fans). The next step was to find truly local pages where we could find individuals to invite to our workshops. We decided to host events in Cottbus and Frankfurt an der Oder on the basis of the polling showing a strong preference for populist parties; this decision was later vindicated in the election results which showed the populist parties polling 25.3% and 21.9%, the first and third best showing for the party respectively in Brandenburg, both ahead of the Brandenburg average of 19.4%[4]. For this purpose we focused on local sites like Frankfurt/Oder wehrt sich (3,604 Facebook fans) and Bürgerforum Südbrandenburg (365 Facebook fans). On these pages, we looked for individuals commenting, liking and sharing posts that indicated that they felt resentment to the political establishment or expressed views which could be understood to be extreme[5]. For example, a recent post commenting on the election that typifies the kinds of individuals we were targeting reads:


„Pffft nothing happens. 1. the election is manipulated, CDU, Greens, FDP, The Left, would all be thrown out of the Bundestag and AfD would have ruled alone. 2. AfD will not sit in the government, only in the opposition, so they do not get anything! Everything will be manipulated, as planned and Germany will be destroyed, step by step!”[6]

 (Comment from 26.9.17 on Frankfurt/Oder wehrt sich’s Facebook page)


The individual above demonstrates the lack of trust in the mainstream political establishment as well as a distrust of the political processes. Individuals expressing views like those above were contacted directly over Facebook messenger and were invited to the events in either Cottbus or Frankfurt Oder.


A Comment on Gender, Privacy & Accessibility

The majority of the people that interact with these pages are men. Indeed, for the first few months, as we collected profiles, nearly 70% of the profiles we collected were of men. In a bid to redress this, we focused on collecting more women’s profiles in an attempt to keep the gender balance of the workshops more or less equal, and succeeded to that end. This is not to suggest that men are inherently more likely to vote for populist parties than women (initial calculations suggest that around 9% of women and 16% of men voted for populist parties in the 2017 Bundeswahl[7]), only to say that there is something about these online spaces that means women are less inclined to participate in them.

Furthermore, as a new field, the ethical implications of this kind of project do not have a long-established ethical code on which to rely on. There are considerations about privacy and the rights of academics and civil society to publish research relating to individual’s behaviour on social media channels. Although for some users, Facebook is a kind of public platform, for many users, it is used mostly to keep in touch with family and friends. However, our target group do not neatly fit into the latter category, insofar as they use Facebook to discuss politics and vent their frustrations with likeminded strangers. Hence, the Facebook users targeted for this project should be understood as using the site as a semi-public platform. As such, all participants’ names, identifying details and posts have been anonymised and the project relied only on information and content that is available to all Facebook users (‘semi-public’). In instances where we have posted content from personal conversations or interactions, the language has been either edited or paraphrased to preserve participants’ anonymity[8].


Analysis: Status Quo: Merkel, The Media & Political Elites

Merkel muss weg!” (‘Merkel must go!’) is a familiar slogan. Indeed, it appears on posts and comments we have seen throughout this process. The Chancellor is singled out as a ‘traitor’ for her stance towards refugees in 2015 and her handling of the ‘crisis’ since then. Likewise, there is a strong sense that the media is biased towards the political mainstream, the so-called Lügenpresse theme is very much in evidence across these pages. Across on Twitter, the handle @einzelfallinfos (currently 3,208 followers, after its temporary ban in 2015[9]) demonstrates this clearly. The handle is dedicating to sharing reports of crimes committed by refugees in Germany, the handle itself satirising what many on the right see as the tendency of the German media to describe such events as ‘isolated cases’.


“If something is “more precious than gold” right now, then its the experiences of the past election campaign. We have gained a new self-confidence! And an inkling of our own strength! Against mainstream politics and mainstream media, we have set mass immigration and its consequences as the No. 1 theme and reject the lie of Merkel’s popularity. We have achieved this with an anger and force that has not been seen since 1989, but always peacefully. We objected to Merkel and the elites loudly and openly. Repeatedly Merkel was judged at public events by citizens. We have begun to vent our outrage. And we understand how good we are!”[10]

(Translated post from 26.9.17 Zukunft Heimat’s Facebook page)



This of course should come as no surprise to anyone that has paid attention to the reporting around the rise of populist parties in recent years; Chancellor Merkel’s stance on refugees and distrust of the media has been widely reported and the Chancellor is regularly referred to among this group as the ‘Volksverräter’ (traitor of the people) In fact, for a group of those commenting on these pages, they take a certain pride in being called out in the mainstream media and by mainstream political politicians. In part, it is the view that mentions in the media should be seen as a victory insofar as they own the political agenda, and in part the view is that it is absurd that the mainstream describes citizens like this as ‘extremists’ or ‘far right’. The view instead is that they are simply giving voice to what many others feel but are too afraid to say for fear of repercussions.

Perhaps more interesting is the resentment felt towards the political establishment in general and towards the SPD in particular. The SPD doesn’t often feature in these kinds of online spaces, but when it does its appearance is entirely negative. The SPD are held responsible for the reforms to Hartz IV and are seen as an ineffective opposition. Likewise, as the long-standing party of power in Brandenburg, frustrations with the SPD on a local level are also high.

(Post from 22.9.17 Frankfurt/Oder Wehrt sich)


Similarly, in the run up to the election, for many populist party supporters, the weakness of the SPD was seen simultaneously as a clear sign of the party’s failure to engage with its core vote and as an opportunity for the AFD to win voters.

“The AfD is on the way to a safe third place. The SPD could land under 20% and would thus only be 8% in front of the AfD. We are looking forward to the election evening!”[11]

(Translated post 14.9.17 Junge Alternative Brandenburg)


Refugees, Migrants, Criminality & Islamification

An inescapable theme we have seen across the accounts and pages monitored for this project is the role of refugees, migration and the supposed link between the two and criminality as a driving motivation for many of the individuals to vote for extremist parties. This too is often coupled with fears relating to the supposed Islamification of Germany. For example, one useful source for this research, the Facebook page Frankfurt/Oder wehrt sich features as its description: “Schluss mit dem Asylmissbrauch!” (‘End Aslyum Abuse!’) and includes as its cover photo the words “Asylflut Stoppen” (Stop Asylum). This is a typical for many of the pages monitored.

Very often the most popular content featured on these pages (as measured by number of likes, comments and shares) was content that related to crime, and especially violent crime, committed by refugees. For example, on one page we monitored over a one week period, an article relating to a knife crime committed by a refugee received five times the number of likes, comments and shares as the other content shared by the same page over the week[12]. Likewise, comments on an article about the role of Islam in Germany[13] provoked many responses including:


“The Muslims came over 30 years ago, and you did not do anything about it. For the next 30 years on, thousands are coming and you have done nothing about it, and now you choose Merkel again in Sept.”[14]

(Translated comment from 12.9.17 Frankfurt/Oder Wehrt sich)


This combination of fear relating to refugees and the belief that refugees‘ presence in Germany will lead to a rise in criminality and the ‘Islamification‘ of Germany, is something we heard in our conversations with participants. One individual wrote that:


“Only a very small percentage of the refugees are criminal, but, if for example, 2% of 1,000,000 are a whole lot. Here the German legal system is overstretched. In the countries where the refugees come from, there are tougher and, above all, faster penalties. If there is a trial here it is only after the 20th offense, it is perceived as a weakness and it is continued (see crime statistics). Things here need to be redressed… Wearing the headscarf, etc. should be prohibited in public. Mosques should be banned. Try to build a church in Saudi Arabia! Our country, our values ​​our rules … whoever does not want to stick to this can gladly go away again. Parallel societies and large families are to be eliminated. Equal rights e.g. law enforcement and tax recovery for all. Understanding of Turkish influence in Germany.”[15] 

(Written correspondence with a participant)


These responses are representative of the kinds of comments and responses we have seen most often throughout this project. The refugee situation remains the most important contemporary political topic for almost all individuals interacting on these pages. Indeed, this trend was no less pronounced in areas with fewer overall numbers of refugees. In fact, the inverse is true, the fewer the total number of foreign nationals living in the area, the more prevalent the topic became.


Ostalgie & Inequality in the East

Beyond the themes that stood out in the comments and shared content monitored for this project, there were subtler elements that require comment in order to develop a fuller understanding of the individuals that are likely to vote for far right populist parties. One of the key themes that came out, first online and later in discussion with participants is a nostalgia for life in the DDR, and a pride in the individual’s Prussian origins. A familiar refrain heard from many of the participants at the workshops themselves was “In der DDR Zeit” (‘In the GDR times’), a comment that was typically followed by a favourable comparison with their lives in the DDR and now. One participant at the workshop in Cottbus put it even more bluntly:


“In the DDR, I made 500 Marks a month, and paid 60 Marks in rent. Now I make 1000€ a month, but rent is 600€ – so where is the progress?”

(Participant in the workshop in Cottbus)


For the most part, this sense of inequality is only expressed online via comparisons to the supposedly favourable conditions of refugees living in Germany. A popular type of content would post the benefits available to refugees and contrast them with the benefits available to an unemployed German native, or a German pensioner. Naturally, the numbers featured are wildly exaggerated,[16] often suggesting that individual refugees are in receipt of  thousands of Euros in benefits monthly.

There are a number of other ways that this feeling of being ‘left behind’ is communicated online however. A number of individuals monitored for this project proudly displayed their fondness of their history by changing their Facebook surnames to ‘Prussian’, and a number featured Prussian iconography prominently on their pages. Similarly, a very large number of participants (nearly 100) listed their education on Facebook as either “The School of Life” or “The School of Hard Knocks”. Taken together, it is clear that this kind of signalling demonstrates a simultaneous distaste for the elite and a feeling of inferiority relating to their status.

The feeling of being ‘left behind’ should be understood in the broadest possible terms, and is coupled with the growing distrust towards the mainstream media. For many of the participants we spoke to there was a real disconnect between what they read in newspapers, visited online and heard from the news and their lived realities; that many return to an idealised past in the GDR should not come as a complete surprise in this context. Over the course of this project, while the participants were expressing difficulties with low-wage work and making rent payments, the German national press was as likely to run front pages proclaiming the success of the German economy and that the country is the power-house of Europe. For example, on the 9th July 2017 more or less in the middle of this project, the Süddeutsche Zeitung ran an article ‘The World & Its Germany Problem’ which proclaimed that the Germany economy is so strong that it was causing problems worldwide:

“Yes, unemployment has halved, employment is higher than ever, the state has as much money as ever, and the Confederation has no new debt. Many companies do well, the export industry is setting one record after another. Germany is so well represented in the world that the colleagues of the internationally renowned magazine The Economist illustrated the current issue with a Bundesadler black on gold and the headline: “The German problem”. “[17]

For the participants we met in Cottbus and Frankfurt an der Oder, this kind of reporting seems very alien. It is not difficult, therefore, to see how the distrust seeps in. When citizens feel so far removed from a country’s own image of itself, it breeds distrust in the establishment that oversees it. How can it be the case that Germany is so successful when participants in Frankfurt an der Oder, for example, have to travel hours on the train every day to Potsdam find low paying work experience in retail, as one of our participants had to? This kind of fundamental disconnect between citizens and the establishment can only be fostered via stark inequalities of opportunity both for individuals and for regions, as we see clearly in the former East Germany.


Digital Echo Chambers


For anyone that has been paying attention to the questions relating to how social media can shape a person’s political preferences, the idea that an individual’s social media feed is an ‘echo chamber’ of their own opinions is nothing new. These echo chambers, formed by the collective voices of friends and acquaintances that typically share social and political positions, the repetition of content that aligns with their beliefs through the pages they follow and reinforced by algorithms that seek to target content based on pre-established interest and opinions mean that digital spaces typically reflect back one’s own opinions very strongly. This is to say that contacting someone ‘cold’ online, and especially someone from the opposite side of the political divide, is very contentious and is treated with extreme suspicion.

Perhaps the most common response to outreach from Social Science Work (save from being ignored altogether, by far the most popular response of all) was to ask ‘how did you find me’? Some responded with hostility, including blocking and swearing at Social Science Works’ team, and others opted to make aggressively sexual comments, probably with an aim to make me block them. Even for those willing to engage in real conversation, distrust was extremely high. One example of this is the woman that left me a two-minute voice message where she demanded to know where I had found her profile, what I wanted with her and why were we interested in her at all. Similarly, one participant objected to the location of the workshop because the hotel we met in was next to the local state administration, and he mistook the location as part of the state’s apparatus.

Part of the reason for this, as outlined above, is undoubtedly that digital echo chambers are mostly impenetrable and the intrusion of outside voices is unwelcome. However, given the opinions examined above, especially those relating to distrust of the ‘establishment’ this should only be understood as a partial answer. It seems likely, therefore, that part of the problem with reaching people online in this way is that is allows distrust to breed. At the workshops, the first item on the agenda was to make clear that Social Science Works is not part of the government, and everything participants shared would be treated with total anonymity which went a long way towards creating a more accepting and trusting environment.


Next Steps Towards Understanding Segregation Online in Brandenburg

This project has made clear that the problems of digital echo chambers persists among those likely to vote for populist parties in Brandenburg. Although there is much discussion surrounding the prevalence and problems of online echo chambers, there have been only a few attempts made to measure the phenomenon close up, still fewer in the German context. The work of Flaxman, Goel and Rao (2016), which relies on Groseclose and Milyo’s (2006) categories of media bias, represents a replicable model in the German context, however. In these studies, the degree to which an individual user or a Facebook page is ‘informationally segregated’ is measured.

In their work, Flaxman et al. examined 50,000 Facebook pages. The posted content on each page was ranked according to the publisher’s political leanings (for example, crudely, posts from the BBC, the New York Times and the Washington Post were ranked as left-leaning, while posts from Fox News, NBC and the Daily Mail were ranked as right-leaning). Using data made available from the Bing Toolbar, they accessed more than a billion individual data points. They conclude:

“We find that individuals generally read publications that are ideologically quite similar, and moreover, users that regularly read partisan articles are almost exclusively exposed to only one side of the political spectrum. In this sense, many— indeed nearly all—users exist in so-called echo chambers.” (Flaxman, Goel and Rao, 2016:317).

This method could be carried over to our research in Germany. As a first step, it would be necessary to develop an ideological categorisation of the major news outlets in Germany (Die Zeit, Bild etc.) as Groseclose and Milyo have for the US press[18]. From there, it would be useful to rank the content shared on some of the major Facebook pages that are used by those likely to vote for extremist parties. In order to measure the degree to which this differs from more mainstream pages, it would also be useful to measure the kinds of content shared on other citizens’ group pages.

Hence, an examination of 100 extremist pages and 100 mainstream pages would be a first step towards systematically understanding the degree to which information segregation, or digital echo chambers, exist in these formats in Germany. This project could also include an attempt to measure the effects of following certain types of Facebook pages by analysing the kinds of ‘suggested content’ Facebook sends to the Newsfeed for users following different pages. This would involve creating new ‘blank’ profiles specifically to follow certain Facebook pages to measure the political slant of the suggested content. It would offer an insight into the influence of these kinds of groups to the kinds of content that appears in an individual’s Newsfeed and provide a deeper understanding of the echo chamber effect[19].  This project would offer valuable insights for policy makers hoping to get a better understanding of the current digital landscape of citizens in Brandenburg and the scale of the problem.



Key throughout this project has been the need to get a complete understanding of both the kinds of online spaces occupied by those likely to vote for right wing populist parties, and the need to understand the problems and concerns they have that have led them to potentially vote for populist parties. It comes as no surprise that much of the problems initially appear to stem from the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, but is perhaps more interesting to focus on the details on display here. Very often what typifies this kind of content is demonstrably false misinformation and half facts which are deliberately misleading. The example mentioned above about the value of benefits available to refugees as compared to an unemployed German native is just one example for this.

It seems that media literacy, and especially social media literacy is lacking among this demographic. While the world, and the internet, has taken the concept of ‘fake news’ to heart, many among this group are extremely distrusting of the mainstream media, and I would argue in part this is because the reporting of the quality press directly contradicts the information they receive via their social feeds. The longer this goes on, the more it reinforces their echo chamber and the more that their distrust of the quality press and the establishment grows. This problem needs to be urgently addressed.



[1] See: for a comprehensive overview of the project.




[5] All of the content monitored for the purposes of this project was available to anyone with a Facebook account, no private content was included unless with was directly shared by the individual themselves with me and names have been omitted.

[6] Original German: “Pffft da passiert gar nichts. 1. die Wahl ist manipuliert, CDU, Grüne, FDP, Linke, wären alle aus dem Bundestag geflogen und AfD hätte allein regiert. 2. AfD wird nicht in der Regierung sitzen, nur in der Opposition, damit erreichen sie gar nichts! Alles wird durchgepeitscht werden, wie geplant und Deutschland zerstört, Schritt für Schritt!“


[8] These standards were also applied in the formal reporting we completed for Tolerantes Brandenburg.

[9] The handle @einzelfallinfos was banned from appearing in German newsfeeds in 2015 following a decision by Twitter which ruled that it propagated hate. Its followers responded to the ruling by sharing similar content with the English-language hashtag #withheldingermany – a comment on freedom of expression.

[10] Original German: “Wenn zu dieser Zeit etwas” kostbarer als Gold “ist, dann die Erfahrungen des vergangenen Wahlkampfes. Wir haben ein neues Selbstvertrauen gewonnen! Und eine Ahnung von unserer eigenen Stärke! Gegen die Mainstream-Politik und Mainstream-Medien haben wir die Masseneinwanderung und ihre Konsequenzen als Thema Nr. 1 gesetzt und die Lüge von Merkels Popularität abgelehnt. Wir haben dies mit einer Wut und Gewalt erreicht, die seit 1989 nicht mehr gesehen wurde, aber immer friedlich. Wir protestierten gegen Merkel und die Eliten laut und mit offenem Visier. Immer wieder wurde Merkel bei öffentlichen Veranstaltungen von Bürgern gemessen. Wir haben angefangen zu empören. Und wir machen die Erfahrung, wie gut wir sind!”

[11] Original German: “Die AfD ist auf dem Weg zu einem sicheren dritten Platz. Die SPD könnte unter 20% landen und wäre damit nur 8% vor der AfD. Wir freuen uns auf den Wahlabend! “

[12] In the week between 22.5.17-29.5.17 the article relating to knife crime received 93 likes, 104 shares and 124 comments a total of 321 interactions (correct at time of writing). The other content from the same week averaged 67 interactions on page – nearly five times less.


[14] Original German: “schon vor zweitausendfünfzehn kamen die Muslime und ihr habt nix dagegen getan, ab Zweitausendfünfzehn kommen tausende und ihr habt nix dagegen getan und nun im Sept. wählt ihr erneut Merkel, also was regt ihr Euch auf”

[15] Original German: “Nur ein sehr kleiner Prozentsatz der Flüchtlinge ist kriminell aber z.B. 2% von 1.000.000 sind eine ganze Menge. Hier ist das deutsche Rechtssystem überfordert. In den Ländern, wo die Flüchtlinge herkommen, gibt es härtere und vor allem schnellere Strafen. Wenn bei uns erst nach der 20. Straftat der Prozess kommt, wird das als Schwäche empfunden und es wird weiter gemacht(siehe Kriminalitätsstatistik). Hier muss sofort nachgesteuert werden… Das Kopftuchtragen usw. ist in der Öffentlichkeit zu verbieten. Moscheebauten sind einzustellen. Versuchen Sie in Saudi- Arabien eine Kirche zu bauen. Unser Land, unsere Werte unsere Regeln…wer sich nicht daran halten will, kann gern wieder gehen. Parallelgesellschaft, Großfamilien sind zu beseitigen. Gleiche Rechte z.B. bei Strafverfolgung und Steuererhebung für alle. Unterbindung des türkischen Einflusses in Deutschland.”

[16] The most up to date numbers available at the time of writing suggest that a single jobseeker in Germany receives 409€/monthly plus housing cost, and a single asylum seeker in Germany receives 392€/monthly plus housing costs.

[17] Original German: “Ja, die Arbeitslosigkeit hat sich halbiert, die Erwerbstätigkeit liegt so hoch wie nie, der Staat hat so viel Geld wie nie, der Bund kommt ohne neue Schulden aus. Viele Unternehmen verdienen gut, die Exportindustrie fährt einen Rekord nach dem anderen ein. Deutschland steht in der Welt so gut da, dass die Kollegen des international angesehenen Magazins The Economist das aktuelle Heft mit einem Bundesadler schwarz auf gold illustriert haben und der Schlagzeile: “The German problem”.

[18] See: A Measure of Media Bias, Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 120, No. 4 (Nov., 2005), pp. 1191-1237

Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, And Online News Consumption, Seth Flaxman, Sharad Goel, Justin M. Rao, Public Opinion Quarterly, Vol. 80, Special Issue, 2016, pp. 298–320

[19] This approach was based on the work from Data for Democracy, who trialled something similar using Pinterest, with amusing results. See:

Deliberation Against Populism: Reconnecting Radicalizing Citizens In East Germany & Elsewhere

In the deliberative project Deliberation against Populism” we organized two events with citizens from Brandenburg, Germany, to discuss the problems that trouble them.[1] The prime goal of the project was to find new ways to get into contact with citizens that see themselves as political alienated or unrepresented, and to reengage them in the democratic discourse. We particularly explored the possibilities of social media, also trying to counter the much discussed “filter bubbles” or “echo chambers” where people predominantly receive messages that reaffirm and strengthen their pre-existing opinions.

Together with the participants, we wanted to examine their take on contemporary society – which problems, challenges, opportunities and perspectives they see, and how these hang together. We also tried to show that it is possible, useful, enlightening and even entertaining to discuss fundamental values, ideas and perspectives with other citizens. The events were meant to be a general experience in civic participation, deliberation, reflection, and civility, that will prepare the ground for more deliberative exchanges in the future. We tried to give all of the participants a fair opportunity to articulate their troubles and grievances, without fear of stigmatization.

We searched for our participants primarily on social media and invited them personally to deliberate for one day with a group of other worried citizens. We especially looked for citizens that expressed strong discontent with the current political status quo and showed a propensity towards non-voting or voting for radical, populist parties. Those we connected with were invited to citizens’ forums in Cottbus and Frankfurt an der Oder where they were encouraged to share their fears and frustrations.

The participants in our workshops are treated as citizens that are able to examine together with us the fundamental values and problems of our society. A pivotal problem underlying populism is that the citizens concerned do not feel represented and respected by the social, political and media establishment. Therefore, they reject relationships with mainstream political parties, journalism (“Lügen Presse”), interest and other societal groups, and lock themselves up in bubbles of like-minded “victims”. Getting these citizens to participate in the broad societal conversation is one of the most pressing vocations of contemporary western democracies. In trying to get these citizens on board again, it is not helpful to address them implicitly as “social problems”, as people with social, psychological, educational, or occupational flaws and not able to have a straightforward, rational discussion about their ideas and views. This disdain is readily recognized by the people concerned and strengthens their belief that they are not being taken seriously as citizens.[2]


Implementation Overview

In various ways we tried to get into contact with radicalizing citizens. The most important strategy was to contact them via social media. Additionally, in co-operation with four students of the Alice Salomon Hochschule Berlin we tried two “offline” strategies.[3]

First, we attended a political “Stammtisch” that the populist political party “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD) had organized for citizens in Frankfurt an der Oder. We tried to get into a conversation with the people in attendance and to invite them for our deliberative event. Unfortunately, the AfD was not very successful in the recruitment of participants for political conversations (only 3 people showed up) and so this strategy was not very promising. Nevertheless, one of the students wrote an informative report on the talks, which contributed to our insights.

Next, we carried out a short survey on a regional train between Berlin and Cottbus, a journey that takes about 1,5 hours and thus offers plenty of time to talk politics. The survey contained questions that are strong indicators of populist attitudes.[4] The aim was to find people who are interested in talking about political topics and fitted in the profile of our event. Although many were willing to complete the survey (19 commuters), there was only one person who expressed interest for a future deliberative event and wanted to provide us with personal contact information. This person was invited several times for our event in Cottbus, although did not attend.

As remarked, social media formed the core of our efforts. More than 1300 citizens from Brandenburg, about 400 people in Cottbus and 600 in Frankfurt /Oder as well as 300 in the surrounding area, have been personally invited to our events via Facebook Messenger. We selected Cottbus and Frankfurt/Oder because of their propensity for political alienation.[5]

We found the citizens on websites and Facebook pages that contain strongly dismissive messages against refugees and migrants, as well as, the political status quo and the news media. Clicking through brought us to their personal Facebook pages as well as to other websites and Facebook pages that they visit, often containing comparable messages.[6]

The events were also advertised on Facebook (targeted to audiences in Cottbus and Frankfurt/Oder). 3352 people saw these ads. One of the citizens reached in this way came to the event.

About 10% of the 1300 people we sent a message to, opened this message. About a third of these people replied. In the end, we had in-depth conversations via email and Facebook messenger with 40 people.

We also contacted the administrators of the Facebook pages where we found many of our potential participants and asked them, whether they would be willing to advertise our deliberative event on their pages and whether they themselves would like to participate. None of these administrators replied.

Then we tried to get in direct contact with people by commenting on the comments, which they had left on websites. In our comment, we invited the person concerned to participate in our deliberative meeting (“This is an interesting perspective, we would like to talk about it with you, please open your messenger for an invitation”). This strategy brought no significant results either. Regularly, we were simply blocked. It seemed evident that we did not belong to the community.

From the 1300 citizens, not more than nine people left an email address on their Facebook page. These people we contacted directly via email. Three responded, which is a high turnout in comparison to that of social media messaging. The relatively small number of people that make their email address available for the public, is probably due to the strong feelings of Germans about internet privacy in general and those of our target group in particular.

In Cottbus (September 2, 2017) and Frankfurt an der Oder (September 23, 2017), we held a deliberative event with a total of 7 people. Both times, we talked for approximately five hours about the social and political problems these citizens wanted to discuss. We wrote detailed protocols of the meetings. The participants also filled in a survey with fundamental social, political questions. The same survey we use in our deliberative workshops with refugees and Germans volunteering in the integration-sector.[7]

In addition, several people who, for different reasons, were not able to participate in the events have informed us in writing about their ideas. Two also filled in the questionnaire.

Further information on the concerns, values, fears and hopes of the citizens of this social group obviously could be gained from the reports published on their personal Facebook pages. We publish a separate article on the more than 1300 pages we visited.[8]


Explanations for low response rate

There are various explanations for the relatively small number of responses. Firstly, because of the function structure of Facebook almost all citizens who we wrote on Facebook were not “friends” with the team, so our “message requests” simply went unnoticed in 90% of the cases. About a third of the people who read our invitation answered us.

Secondly, there is a problem of trust: they are citizens who have almost completely lost confidence in established politics, the press and civil society. Social Science Works is also often perceived as part of a society which does not respect, take seriously, or accept the members of our target group. In addition, they doubt whether it makes sense to participate. The feeling that no one would really take an interest in their opinions predominates.

Thirdly, the people we managed to reach, appeared not to have had much experience with civic participation and had no knowledge of what was to be expected of such an event. They were afraid to talk about social and political issues in public. In addition, almost all people we communicated with expressed the fear of being perceived as uneducated, stupid, extremist, racist or as Nazis.

Nevertheless, all citizens who have actually participated expressed an interest in participating in such an event again.


Addressing suspicious and sceptical citizens

One potential participant got the wrong impression that the deliberative event in Frankfurt/Oder would take place in the city hall and warned us that for most people this would be enough reason to stay away. Distrust, suspicion, scepticism with regard to almost everything connected to the established social and political system was widespread. As remarked, the citizens concerned do not feel represented and respected by the political, social and media establishment. Especially for this reason giving citizens the impression that they are considered ‘problems’ that cannot think and argue rationally should be avoided at all costs.

In our invitations we stressed at length that we were an independent, non-governmental organisation and that we took a sincere interest in the views of the people we contacted. Our first contact was formulated as follows:

“Dear Mrs. X,
My name is Y (5 different people from Social Science Works sent the messages) and I write you in name of Social Science Works, an independent organization from Potsdam. We would like to hear more from you, since we have the feeling that the issues about which you post on the internet, do not always get political attention. Against the background of the upcoming elections, we would like to talk to citizens about those issues that occupy them and which perhaps get none or too little attention in politics. Therefore, we would like to invite you to participate in a round table discussion with about 10 citizens. The aim is to have an open exchange and jointly identify topics that are neglected by the established political parties. One result of the discussion could be e.g. a jointly written position paper…. The round table takes place on September 23 in Frankfurt/Oder. Good food is provided. We start at 10 o’clock. We believe it is important that as many people as possible can express their opinions. We would be delighted if you could take the time for our discussion. You can also invite some of your friends or acquaintances to our forum. If you have any questions, write to me. Thank you for your attention! With best wishes, Y. (Our website you can find here:”[9]

Most people that had read the invitation, did not reply (about 100). Some dismissed us in strong language or swore at us (about 10). One said he would only come when we would serve beer. Some people accepted the invitation without any further questions (4). Others wanted to know more exactly who we were, why we were organizing this, who was paying for this, how independent we were (despite the fact that the project was financed by the State of Brandenburg), why we thought this would make any difference, and whether there was a dress-code. We tried to answer all these questions and encourage participants to join the round table discussion. In some cases, we communicated for three weeks. It remained unclear who would actually participate until the very last moment. Several potential participants cancelled on the morning of the event itself (migraine, family-event, work).

Some people that had expressed strong opinions online but remained hesitant to participate, to these we wrote, in a last attempt to motivate them to participate:

“Dear Mrs. X,
We have now invited 600 people in Frankfurt to talk about social and political problems. Only 4 people have said that they will come. Do we now have to conclude that there are no important problems in Frankfurt? This is hardly plausible. Therefore, I now have asked the people who had no time on Saturday but still had interest to participate, at least to write down what they consider as important problems. One page is enough. We would be very happy if you could make some time for this. Many thanks in advance!
Yours sincerely”.[10]

Four people indeed took the trouble to write down their concerns. One participants went as far as to write a detailed two-page overview of his concerns.



The deliberative event was not organized very differently from the deliberations we organize with, for instance, refugees. We tried to create a safe, inviting, friendly environment and gave much room to the participants to articulate together their concerns.[11] Since at this stage we were primarily interested in finding ways to fruitfully invite people for a deliberative event and in getting an overview of the main grievances, we did not probe extreme standpoints of participants. It struck us though, that when we did this and backed up our positions with more scholarly insights (social and political scholars sometimes really have some relatively plausible insights), people were very open to reconsider their positions.

After having explained who we were and why we were doing this, we, as usual in our deliberations, mainly asked questions: Which themes would you like to discuss? Do you have an idea why all the other people we invited stayed home? What do you consider the most important social problems of today? Which social developments irritate or frighten you? What are your social and political expectations? How should society develop, in your opinion? What kind of society would you like to live in? Each answer drove the conversation forwards and after 5 hours of talking we usually got the picture. Both times, we had difficulties to end the meeting: the participants wanted to go on and also expressed the wish to join another event.

In a separate article we will go more in depth into the concrete deliberations, as well as the communications on the internet. Below are the general findings.


Echo chambers versus real exchanges

The persistence of the echo chamber we could only confirm. One can see this on the websites that our target group visits, on the personal Facebook pages, and one notices this when one meets the citizens personally: the information which reaches these citizens is not very pluralistic, and predominantly confirm and reinforce existing opinions and feelings, which are in line with the consensus on the Facebook Pages in which they are active. As remarked, in a separate article we will report on this more in depth.[12]

Interventions on the internet, that is to say, our efforts to argue online on the websites visited by our target group or to directly address citizens and to respond to their comments and posts, made little sense: usually we were quickly blocked.

At the same time, as in our other workshops we found that the confrontation with alternative insights and perceptions in a deliberative environment can lead citizens to other thoughts relatively quickly.

A sincere exchange of ideas, values and facts, and a common learning process where citizens learn to better understand their values, fears, frustrations and hopes, and sometimes also discover their own preferences, consequently, is hard to realize on the internet. A direct exchange between “real” people in a social context, that explicitly invites people to jointly develop ideas about a good society, is not replicable online.


Political Education

The citizens we talked to, all grew up in the GDR and were, understandingly, all wary of political education, either from the East or from the “Wessies” that were sent in to re-educate them after the wall had come down. Political education in general is of course rightfully conceived as demeaning when the powers-that-be abuse this education to explain away injustice.

Nevertheless, political education appears welcome if most citizens that completed our survey “completely disagree” with a statement like: “People we elect as MP’s try to keep the promises they have made during the election”, and at the same time “completely agree” to the statement: “Conflicts between people over values are mostly due to misunderstandings and lack of knowledge”.

In addition to political education, an understanding of the functioning of (social) media appears to be badly needed. Many citizens hardly understand how “news” comes about and how Filter Bubbles develop. The reality we encountered on the Facebook Pages of the people in our target group is a ‘reality’ that is closed off from external voices.


Main grievances

In our direct communications and on the 1352 personal Facebook pages we visited, two issues were dominant: social justice as well as migrants and refugees. Dissatisfaction with their own (in actual fact, precarious) social predicament, was often contrasted with stereotypes on migrants and refugees. Rarely was there a well-thought-out connection between the two issues. Hardly ever were the causes of refugees’ status considered, or those of their own social situation.

Regarding social justice, these citizens often have the feeling that they made no material progress since the reunification or that they even have been impoverished since 1989. They feel betrayed, abandoned, threatened, lonely, ignored, stigmatized. There is no hope for improvement. Social and political trust is almost absent.

Loneliness, and the inability to connect to others, as well as the feeling that society has been falling apart and had gotten much harder and colder since the GDR-times was a much debated topic. In the past there was more solidarity and companionship, it was felt. People were not left alone and were not on their own, as they are today. There was less freedom in the GDR to take personal decisions on education and professions, but also less responsibility, and therefore, less angst.

Many participants expressed the feeling that their concerns go unheard and that their opinions are stigmatized by the mainstream press. This is in line with thousands of posts we have seen on Facebook. Most of our respondents, for example, “completely disagree” with the statement “I trust that the media in Germany report in a fair and balanced way on current social issues”. Obviously, this distrust reinforced the tendency to lock oneself up in a personal echo chamber.

With regard to refugees and migrants, people had various fears and frustrations. These fears and frustrations often were more informative about their own predicament than about refugees and migrants.

First, there is a widespread fear that as a result of the claims of the refugees on the welfare state, one’s own material situation will deteriorate still further. Also pensions (a big theme in a rapidly aging society like Germany) are supposedly under pressure. The idea that young migrant breadwinners could help to pay for their pensions, was quickly dismissed: these migrants do not want to work and anyway, they cannot because of a lack of education and skills.

Second, natives have the impression that migrants receive much more aid from the state than they themselves. They consider this as deeply unjust. How much help migrants exactly receive, is mostly unclear to participants. It is, however clear that the people in our target group often experience the state and its institutions as unsupportive, overly bureaucratic, indifferent and unreasonable.

Third, the fear is widespread that migrants have completely different values than Germans and for this reason will not integrate. How these values exactly differ, however, participants struggle to articulate. Their knowledge of, and experience with, the cultures of the migrants is small. Participants have hardly ever met migrants or refugees. The ability to differentiate between migrant groups did not extend beyond “Arabs” versus “Africans”. Nevertheless, several of our respondents expressed a strong wish to get into contact with refugees and to find out who these people actually were. They complained that no encounters had been organized between refugees and natives, and that it was extremely difficult to get into contact with “the other side”.[13]

Fourth, people are afraid of crime and assume that crime has risen rapidly, especially sexual violence against German women. The citizens with whom we have communicated, however, personally did not have experience with criminal migrants[14], and could only report examples they had seen online. The number of posts on criminal acts of refugees in the filter bubbles we observed, is indeed exceptionally high.[15] A general complaint we encountered related to the presence of groups of young, male migrants in public spaces, especially in the evening. These groups are seen to be very menacing and cause some of our respondents to stay home or only to go out when accompanied by a fellow native.


Political malaise

In general, we found a deep sense of political malaise, a feeling that one is afflicted by social processes and structures that one barely understands and also can barely influence. Rationalization, bureaucratization, economization, individualization, globalization, migration, promote a general feeling of distress, frustration, helplessness and resentment. Lacking is an interpretation scheme which helps to understand these transformations and helps to contain and steer them in preferred directions.[16] People have “troubles”, but no concrete political “issues”, which may reduce the discomfort (Wright Mills, 1958). The specific points of contention that it takes (“refugees out”), have often little to do with the fundamental problems of these citizens. What fails is a underlying goal or view that keeps society together and lends it a direction. The imagined future scenarios were poor and went as far as a civil war between natives and migrants about scarce resources.

This feeling of malaise, this mood of political ineptitude and alienation, also partly explains the frustration about migrants: the citizens in our target group have the feeling that other actors, especially the Chancellor Angela Merkel (target of a huge number of hate-posts online), but also most other German politicians, have taken fundamental decisions regarding their lives, without ever having an opportunity to discuss these decisions or to influence them. The citizens have not been integrated into the decision-making process and just have been told, that from now on they had to live in a multicultural society and that, for example, Islam was part of Germany.


What’s next?

A democracy of which 25 per cent of the citizens do not use their right to vote, and (as in several regions of Brandenburg) 25 per cent of the citizens vote against the entire political system, has a problem of legitimacy. The goal must be to invite the citizens who have lost faith in democracy, to participate again in the broad social conversation.

The workings of deliberative events are limited insofar as political distrust is caused by social injustice and social inequality, or by the inability of politics to interpret and govern fundamental social structures and processes, or by its inability to develop ideas, perspectives, and ideals that give meaning and direction to social life. Injustice is injustice and cannot be resolved or justified with the help of deliberative dialogues.

Nevertheless, deliberations can contribute to the understanding of (in)justice and its causes (for example, it is unlikely that the refugees have caused current social inequality). For a political culture it is also important that citizens explore together their views on society, that they investigate together the problems, opportunities and chances and how these hang together. For the empowerment of citizens, it is important to experience that it is possible and engaging to discuss fundamental values, ideas and perspectives with others. Therefore, deliberative workshops could be a general experience in tolerance, reflection, and civic participation, which can pave the way for further deliberative exchanges and civic activities.

What would be alternative strategies to successfully invite citizens for deliberative events? We found that recruitment via the internet is hard (although not impossible). It is extremely important to establish trust before a participant will accept an invitation. In addition we found that trust is especially lacking among the people in this group.

Therefore, another strategy we want to try out in our next project is to invite citizens that (still) have faith in the current social and political arrangements to invite citizens that have lost this faith. We will ask members of political parties, civic organisations and volunteers to invite a family member, a friend, neighbour, colleague or acquaintance of whom they feel that they belong to our target group, to attend together a deliberative event. Together with up to seven or eight tandems, we will at this event investigate political and social problems and opportunities. We assume that these pairs still enjoy mutual trust, based on non-political motivations. By starting with this trust, we want to strengthen civic participation and social cohesion, as well as to fortify civic competencies.

In other words, we do not give up. In democracies one never throws in the towel anyway.



[1] The project has been made possible by Tolerantes Brandenburg, a semi-governmental organisation in Brandenburg devoted to the furthering of an open, pluralist democracy. Sarah Coughlan and the author implemented the project.

[2] For more on this theme:

[3] We thank Aimo Schultz, Rita Maciera de Sousa, Jessica Pawlak and Daniela Montagut Cuello for their great support in the first phases of the project. Also thanks to Charlotte Reinl, also of the Alice Salomon Hochschule, for her protocol of the deliberations in Frankfurt/Oder. We were impressed by the skills and commitment of all these students.

[4] Examples of these questions are: „Ich habe Vertrauen darin, dass die Medien in Deutschland fair und ausgewogen über aktuelle Probleme berichten“; and „Kulturelle Vielfalt gefährdet den gesellschaftlichen Zusammenhalt in Deutschland“.

[5] The voter turnout in the electoral district Frankfurt (Oder) – Oder-Spree and in Cottbus – Spree-Neiße for the federal elections on September 24, 2017 was 71,9 respectively, 73,9 per cent. The AfD received 21,9 respectively, 25,3 per cent of the votes. For Germany as a whole this was 11,5 per cent with a voter turnout of 76,2 per cent. ;

[6] Examples of websites where we started our searches, are:;;;

[7] For more information on these projects: In another research, we will compare the answers of the different groups.

[8] Coughlan, Sarah. 2017. Finding Alienation: An Analysis of Right-Wing Facebook Pages in Brandenburg.

[9] In German: Sehr geehrte Frau Merkel, Meine Name ist Hans Blokland und ich schreibe Ihnen im Namen von Social Science Works, einer unabhängigen Organisation aus Potsdam, von der ich Geschäftsführer bin. Wir sind daran interessiert, mehr von Ihnen zu hören, da wir den Eindruck haben, dass die Themen zu denen Sie im Internet aktiv sind, in der Politik oft nicht ernst genommen werden. Vor dem Hintergrund der anstehenden Wahlen, möchten wir als Organisation uns mit Bürgern über die Themen und Sorgen austauschen, die diese beschäftigen und die auf Seiten der Politik vielleicht zu wenig oder keine Beachtung finden. Deshalb möchten wir Sie herzlich einladen an einer Gesprächsrunde mit ca. 10 Bürgern teilzunehmen. Ziel ist es, einen offenen Austausch zu haben und gemeinsam Themen zu benennen, die von der etablierten Politik vernachlässigt werden. Ein Ergebnis der Gesprächsrunde könnte z.B. ein gemeinsam verfasstes Positionspapier sein. Es besteht die Möglichkeit, wenn Sie das zusammen möchten, das Positionspapier zu veröffentlichen und Politiker einzuladen das Papier zu kommentieren. Die Gesprächsrunde wird den 23. September in Frankfurt (Oder) stattfinden (City Park Hotel, Lindenstraße 12). Für gutes Essen ist gesorgt. Wir fangen an um 10 Uhr. Wir glauben, es ist wichtig, dass möglichst viele Menschen ihre Meinung äußern können. Wir würden uns freuen, wann Sie für unsere Gesprächsrunde Zeit nehmen können. Gerne können sie auch einige Ihrer Freunde oder Bekannten zu unserem Forum einladen. Falls Sie Fragen haben, schreiben Sie mir. Vielen Dank für Ihre Aufmerksamkeit! Mit besten Grüßen, Hans Blokland (Unsere Webseite finden Sie hier:

[10] In German: Wir haben jetzt 600 Menschen in Cottbus eingeladen um mit uns über soziale und politische Problemen zu reden. Nur 4 Menschen haben zugesagt vorbei zu kommen. Müssen wir jetzt schlussfolgern dass es keine wichtige Probleme in Cottbus gibt? Das ist kaum vorstellbar. Ich habe deshalb jetzt die Menschen die Sag keine Zeit hatten aber trotzdem Interesse hatten, gefragt wenigstens auf zu schreiben was nach ihre Meinung die wichtige Probleme sind. Eine Seite reicht. Es würde uns sehr freuen wenn Sie dafür die Zeit frei machen könnten. Vielen Dank im Voraus! Mit freundlichen Grüßen.

[11] For an overview of our assumptions and methods regarding deliberation, see:

[12] See 8.

[13] Looking at the websites of, for instance civil organizations in Frankfurt and Cottbus, we indeed get the impression that in these kind of towns or cities offer considerably fewer events to meet newcomers have been organized as in liberal islands like Potsdam and Berlin. The crumbling of civil society in these regions might explain this.

[14] One of our participants, a young unemployed woman, told us that she had been walking her dog in the dark and that she had been scared to death when she suddenly had seen the bright eyes and teeth of an African man, clothed in dark colors. The man had just passed by, nothing had happened. But still. Another citizen wrote us: „Der Flüchtlingsstrom nimmt eh kein Ende… Wenn sie mal die Nachrichten verfolgen und sehen was die Merkel und die Politiker dem deutschen Volke mit der Massen Einwanderung antun… Bleibt es nicht aus das wir als deutsches Volk etwas dagegen tun müssen.. Selbst meine Frau ist fast Opfer eines sexuellen Übergriff geworden… und das lass ich nicht als stolzer Deutscher Bürger nicht zu…“

[15] That sexual violence has risen, seems undeniable. The question is what explains this and what could be done to counter it. The (liberal) Süddeutsche Zeitung observes: “Hinzu kämen oft scheinbar perspektivlose Situationen, Frust und der geringe Zugang zum alltäglichen Leben. “Frühzeitige und mehr Aufklärung würde helfen”, sagt [der Sozial- und Sexualpädagoge Christian Zech]. Es gebe unterschiedliche Rollenbilder sowie teils ein anderes Verständnis im Umgang mit und der Annäherung an Frauen – das führe zu Missverständnissen und dazu, eigene Schlüsse aus Situationen zu ziehen, oft die falschen.”

[16] cf. Blokland, Hans. 2006. Modernization and its Political Consequences. New Haven: Yale University Press.