COVID-19 Interview series – Political elections – Bernt Aardal
In light of the ongoing COVID19 pandemic, we are launching a new series of interviews. These interviews are targeted at researchers and we aim to focus on a specific topic each time, hearing from a top researcher in the field to gain insight into the current situation.
An important topic to focus our attention on in these times of uncertainty and societal upheaval is “political elections”. Times of crisis are typically characterised by a questioning of our values, our trust in institutions and political systems, as well the role of politics in handling a crisis.
CESSDA asked Bernt Aardal, a renowned political scientist from the University of Oslo, a few questions.
Do you think that the importance of social science data will be better recognised as a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic?
That is a good question. Firstly, in at least a Norwegian context, I think that the recognition of social science research and data is already high. It is quite interesting to see that the focus has been quite a bit on the medical aspect, how contagious it is, the death rate and so on. At the same time, we now see the public response being a problem. People are protesting; they are not accepting the directions given by the authorities.
The directions given vary between different countries. There is a need to have social science data, both on public opinion and on public response in order for us to address what consequences the COVID-19 pandemic will have for our societies. I think that it will awaken people, not the least authorities.
We also see a difference here in terms of public trust, in politicians, in the government, and in the authorities. It will be interesting to observe how they react in these times of crisis.
I certainly think that an understanding of why these social data are important will be more widespread. COVID-19 may boost the recognition of the need for this kind of data.
You have led the Norwegian Election Studies and have published many journal articles and several books on Norwegian elections, attitude formation, emotions and voting behaviour, public opinion, trust in government, etc. In your opinion, what role can politics play in a time of crisis?
I think that these studies have given us an understanding, an insight into the mood of the public and the trust and confidence in public institutions.
That could actually be very helpful and useful for the authorities in planning their measures. We see, at least to some extent, that the high trust countries in northern Europe have fewer problems with accepting severe measures than in countries with low public trust. We already know a lot about that from our previous research. We know that the US was particularly vulnerable because of the low confidence shown for several years. I think that the basis for public action is partly dependent on the kind of knowledge and research that we have been doing for many years. It means that we can, to some extent, also be able to predict the reactions among the public.
Some of the first measures that the media took, just after the lockdown, were to engage public opinion firms to ask questions about, for example, to what extent people believed in the necessity of the lockdown and acceptance of the various measures. In Norway and many other countries, there were several surveys done continually, particularly in the first weeks and months. And, for instance, in this country, we saw that, that there was a great deal of confidence. In Norway, in Sweden, and in Denmark, we have seen that there is a lot of confidence in the measures. That contributed to making it possible for the authorities to go forward with it. In the US, that has been more of a problem because it has not been accepted in the same way.
What are your expectations for this year’s US Presidential elections and next year’s Norwegian Parliamentary elections? How may they be affected by COVID-19?
To make a prediction about the US election I think would be hazardous. Seen from far away, in this country, we are not that impressed with the way the President has handled the pandemic, but then again, US politics is something of and for itself. It is very difficult to really understand what is going on.
Of course, some of what has been said in the campaign in the US is very difficult and hard for non-Americans to really understand. At the same time, we do not have an easy situation in this country speaking about next year's election. To some extent, one would think that after eight years, two consecutive election periods, it would be time for a change.
However, in Norway with the current complexity of politics involving many parties, we've seen that it's not easy to build a coherent coalition of these parties, neither to the left nor to the right, which means that it is quite an open election next year.
The odds would perhaps be a little higher for a change of government, but at the same time that is far from a given. I don't think that that necessarily has much to do with the pandemic. I think we've seen a boost in popularity for the Conservative Party and the Prime Minister Erna Solberg.
But that has not spilled over to the other government parties, so it is an open question. In this country, you need coalition partners. No party is big enough to have a majority or be that big that you can have a government on your own. I don't think the pandemic will have that much of an effect on the Norwegian election, and to the extent it does, I think it will be in favour of the Conservative Party.
However, the measures for handling the pandemic have been very ‘bipartisan’, as we say in the US. It is sort of ‘multipartisan’ in this country because we have so many parties, and there has been in general an agreement across the political spectrum about the initial measures. Now, we see that there are criticisms of some of the current policies from the opposition parties, but, if you look at the big picture, it has been more of a consensus.
The pandemic measures have not been that controversial actually. Some small tweaks have been discussed but not the measures as a whole.
What are some of the challenges with the data collected by large international surveys such as the ESS, ISSP, EVS, WVS and Eurobarometers?
Yes, there is a paradox in this field of data archives and the accessibility of data: that we have more and more data, and they are more and more easily easy to get hold of. At the same time, I think that a challenge would be to inspire younger colleagues and scholars to really dig into that database. Particularly in my department, there are not that many survey researchers left. It varies a little, but both in this country and other countries, we have plenty of data, more data than ever before and the challenge is really to make use of it. We are not just collecting data for the archives or for posterity.
Of course, we see that there are challenges pertaining to declining response rates. There are some major surveys being done that maybe would not have been accepted just a few decades ago because of the low response rates.
In the Norwegian election studies, we started out with a response rate between 80 and 90%. However, we are now among the best and we are hovering around 50%. In some, some countries, there are 10 or 20% response rates or even lower.
And then you also have the kind of data generated by different sources, where you are not that certain that the quality checks are as good as they should be. CESSDA has a very important job to do, to facilitate collaboration, facilitate standards and keep the standards also for the years to come, so we can have at least the best data that we are able to get. Pressure on economic resources can be a challenge. It is costly and it also takes time to process data as you are doing at CESSDA archives, but it is more important than ever. There is a tendency that people tend to make their own private databases. Collect their own data and keep it for themselves. To some extent, it can seem that developing and keeping your own database is an asset when you are applying for jobs or applying for scholarships.
I think it is important to uphold the rationale for having institutions like CESSDA and NSD. To receive grants for the infrastructure, you need to prove that people are using the data and that you are not putting everything into a vault.
How can they service the research community in the aftermath of the coronavirus?
I think that it will depend on to what extent they ask questions that are seen as relevant. I think that it will be important to hunt through the databases, through all the comparative, large surveys, and other kinds of data, with the aim of finding questions, that could be relevant.
And I also think that this will have an impact on new projects, new surveys. You will want to include questions about the pandemic. In the literature about political behaviour, political history, nation building, state building, Stein Rockan had a very interesting concept called “critical junctures”. A critical juncture is a critical point in time where something important happens. Some effects may be short-term, but I think the pandemic will have a long-term effect because it has implications for almost all spheres of society, the economy, social interactions, and the social base. I think it is difficult to find a sphere that is not affected by this. So, I think this will occupy social scientists for a long time in the future.
People will really go into the old surveys and databases and search for relevant data and in particular comparative data will be crucial. Social science research is continuous. It is a continuous project, no matter what it is. It is almost meaningless today to have any kind of a social science empirical project that is limited in time. I think that you need to see social events, in a time frame and you need time series data.
I think that that there will be an increased interest in data in the CESSDA archives. There are implications on the macro level, on the meso level, and on the micro level, and all these things need to be put together.
Many people now maybe think that medical research is the priority number one. And, of course, it will be very high on the agenda to find the vaccine to help us understand the virus. But I think maybe the next important issue will be how people are responding to this, how it affects them.
We have seen that if the government measures are not accepted among the general public, we can all be worse off. We have seen protests against facemasks also in Europe. It’s almost impossible to understand that sort of a wishful thinking, that people think that it's not that important, or it's not that dangerous anymore.
I think there will be renewed interest for social data and for finding out about impacts and implications of the pandemic. As I said, there are historical junctures that have lasting impact on society, and I think this will be one of them.
It is very good that the ESS are quick in their response to this. And the ESS this is a well-established and well-recognised international effort so that is great news!
What findings from your research on electoral process and its role in representative democracy, voting behaviour and opinion formation seem particularly relevant in the current situation?
Our research on political trust is perhaps the most relevant and important now, particularly as we have both good national and international data that make comparisons possible. The current situation presents us with opportunities for comparative research because Norway, Sweden, and Denmark have chosen different approaches to tackling the pandemic.
The Nordic countries are in the top tier in international studies when it comes to general trust in politicians, parties and the political process. Public trust has had an influence on the measures taken by the authorities. In the Nordic countries, we believe in science and have a generalized trust in the authorities, which I think has helped them when deciding what measures to take. The measures they did take were quite drastic during lockdown, and I think that would have been much more difficult if they didn’t know that there was trust in the political system.
How is your current research affected by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic?
We are now planning a survey for next year’s parliamentary election and there is a need to include measures of the reactions to the pandemic. We will be keeping our eyes and ears open for other research projects that may be coming up with good questions on the topic.
I have been studying emotional responses, and we plan to work together with a colleague who is now finishing his master’s in psychology – he is both a political scientist and psychologist. We started in 2017 for the first time to bring political psychology back into electoral research. We are now trying to expand on that work in the next election study. In the 50s and 60s, there was a lot of focus on political psychology and election studies, though it is less so today. There is not that much contact between those disciplines here in Norway.
The pandemic is a very good example of an event that may trigger a lot of emotional responses, which could also help us in understanding the outcome of the election. For example, to what extent do they feel that their emotional concerns have been met by the parties and politicians.
I need to discuss this further with my research group, though I think it's obvious that we need to bring these two perspectives and frameworks together.
What do you see as the main challenges and channels for introducing more people to academic research and enhancing citizen engagement?
There will always be talented people around. The question is how to find them and bring them together. We see now that the old style academic, sitting alone in their office, thinking deep thoughts for themselves, writing huge books, seems to be somewhat outdated.
I think that the challenge now, to include new people, is that the ‘senior researchers’ need to open up and step down a level to give room to younger researchers. Even in this country, with all the social safeguards, it is a risky business to start a career in research. You never know how it will work out or if you will get a job after you have finished your PhD.
Therefore, it is important that we have a good, supporting structure with research groups that include new people. It is harder to start out on your own in these days. Now you need to be a part of research programmes and take part in the collection of data, and that can be a challenge.
There are more and more students in universities in and it is hard to have enough openings and opportunities for younger people. I think that Norway has a slight advantage in the institutes sector, as we have quite a number of independent, private institutions and research institutes, and they have more flexibility in recruiting people than the universities.
So I think that this interplay between the universities and institutes sector can also be part of the solution to encourage people and give them opportunities to pursue a research career, because it's not the most well-paid job in the world, as we know.
You need, of course, to have an ongoing public debate involving researchers. And I think you need to communicate with non-academics and with politicians and show them that your work is useful for them, as well as necessary for a democratic society. That of course also has implications for funding.
Our project is very fortunate, because the election studies in Norway are actually the result of a unanimous vote in Parliament. Some years ago, we were having a hard time getting funded because the Research Council said that they did not have any programme for election studies and would not have in the future.
Then we went to the Ministry of Education and Research, and asked them: “Don’t you think it's important to have election research studies in this country? We have been on it for almost 60 years now.” In the end, all the political parties supported the motion and it was a unanimous vote. They ordered a research programme for election studies to be created. We had to convince them that this is important research, both in terms of a pure research, but also because it is valuable for what they are doing.
Is there anything that you are looking forward to in 2020 given the current situation?
What I actually look forward to is what we are starting now – the early process of starting up for the next election studies. I've been connected to election studies for 45 years. I was a young student in 1975 and I'm still here.
So, I'm looking forward to that because it will be in partnership with these younger colleagues and see how we are meeting the demands of society and in particular the pandemic. How are we at risk? What is our response to that? What can we do in order to really understand the reactions, both in the short-term but also in the long term?
There will also be a change in my daily routine, going from being a full-time professor and into retirement. I am not intending to work full-time as I also have other interests which I would like to pursue in my spare time. I am an amateur photographer and I have a lot of slides from the seventies that I need to scan and videos which I look forward to editing. Genealogy is another hobby of mine and I have three grandchildren that I will be spending time with in the coming months.
What resources would you recommend to researchers interested in political elections? What advice would you give a young political scientist?
I was on the planning committee of the Comparative Studies of Electoral Systems (CSES) for ten years and met colleagues from all over the world. It’s a comparative data collection effort that is organised through the national election studies in a number of countries.
The challenge with election studies is that they are continuous, studying election after election and collecting a lot of time series data, but that is a demanding situation for funding. It seems to me that some of the countries where they have succeeded best in securing funding is where they have relatively close connections to politicians and political parties themselves. This means that they have an ally for getting resources for this kind of research.
You don't have to convince politicians that it's important to study elections and electoral behaviour, or public opinion. They are a lot of studies, but they are mostly commercial. Many politicians are eager to find a scientific research base, where people do not have a vested interest in the outcome of the research.
This has been the case particularly in Sweden and Norway, but also in Denmark and other countries. There is a tension between pure research and applied research. You know, we as researchers want to decide on our own what we should study. At the same time, I think that that is a general challenge for social science research. We need to show that this is relevant for others, not only for ourselves and convince funders.
It’s a difficult situation for many national election studies to get funding for new studies. We need to be impartial in our approach and not linked to a specific party or ideological group.
My advice to a young political scientist in this field now is first to find a topic which fascinates you, a question that you find interesting, compelling. Then, combine a theoretical perspective with your own personal interest in the topic.
Apply for PhD positions and scholarships and you will be brought into a wider community and find colleagues. You need to find some allies. And if you succeed in getting a scholarship, do not make the mistake that you can sit there alone in three or maybe four years and not interact with other researchers interested in the same field. You have to build small groups and attract others.
I think that most of the successful research programmes that we see have started out like that, young scholars finding a common interest, and also helping each other, being part of a collective unit. Most people, of course, would like to be an outstanding individual, but not many are shaped that way. Furthermore, survey research is quite costly. It's very expensive, and it seems to be more and more expensive over time, so it's almost impossible to do that on your own.
Bernt Aardal was a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of CESSDA from 2014 to 2019 (see history). Find out more about him here.
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