Wednesday, November 9, 2016

On Trump, the Populist Wave, and the Forgotten Virtues of Qualitative Approaches

What really bothers me about Trump’s win is not just the clear disconnect it has revealed between the political and economic elites and the ‘man on the street’; it is also the way it has revealed a dangerous blind spot in the social sciences, which have, in general, either moved towards greater quantification (and therefore an increased distance between themselves and their subject-matter), or have systematically prioritised societal discourses and practices as top-down, unidirectional, elite-led phenomena.

In the case of securitisation theory – which should, by any standard, be able to provide important insights into the existential fears (if any) driving the ongoing populist wave – analysis usually centres on elite ‘securitising actors’, performing ‘securitising moves’ towards a mostly passive audience, put before a binary choice of acceptance or rejection. Yet, from what has happened in the UK and the US, one might have to surmise that rather than ‘creating’ securitisations, elites are in a constant state of negotiation with their audiences, tapping into existential narratives that are to some extent already pre-existing, at least in embryonic form, within wider society, at a (overwhelmingly ignored) micro-level. People do not simply listen to their leaders and choose - not unlike consumers - from a range of optional narratives they might adopt or reject; they talk among themselves, and, to some extent, generate discourses that elites then react and – in the case of populists - tap into, rather than impose from above. In that sense, ‘the masses’ have a chaotic agency of their own.

To some extent, this can be observed in the societies of semi-authoritarian states, where what is said around the kitchen table can be much more indicative of the existential concerns of ordinary people, and their attitudes to state institutions, than what can be surmised in the official, elite-controlled media. I myself came to this conclusion when studying securitisations, at this very micro-level, in the former Soviet Union, where distrust of elites and states yields a completely different security discourse than what would be detected at higher levels of analysis. Added to this is the existence of social media, whose very model rejects the top-down structure of their traditional counterparts: that creates a much more chaotic – and unmanageable – horizontal ‘marketplace of ideas’, one where micro-level nonsense can much more easily eke out an independent existence; something both China and Russia have clearly understood, the former in its defensive insistence on total control, the latter in its aggressive use in disinformation campaigns.

Point being that only going out in the field, and revalidating this micro-level through deeply qualitative (e.g. ethnographic) methodologies, would be able to fill the gap in our knowledge of what on earth is going on in the now-declining liberal world.

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