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Polarization: from resistance to connection

14 November 2022

People are increasingly losing faith in the information coming from the government, academia, and policymakers. They no longer see legislation as a solution to their problems. In this context, the University of Groningen (UG) is organizing a Meet & Greet entitled ‘Perspectives on Polarization’ on Friday 18 November. The UG wants to use this opportunity to exchange knowledge and bring together different perspectives on polarization. The central question underlying the event is: How can we shape the society of the future?

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People are increasingly losing faith in the information coming from the government, academia, and policymakers. How can the scientific community deal with that?

Text: Layla Zafari / Photos Mierau and Postmes: Henk Veenstra

The Meet & Greet is aimed at the upcoming generation of researchers in humanities and social sciences, but also at policymakers and representatives of government organizations. The event is intended to initiate a dialogue between these groups, who will be setting the scientific and social agendas in the next few decades. The issues covered at the event include how to better involve citizens and, in doing so, create more social trust. Whether you are a researcher or policymaker, or are simply interested in the topic, the Meet & Greet will hopefully get you thinking about how you can contribute to connecting various groups within society.

Involving citizens

In the run-up to the event, Konstantin Mierau, Associate Professor of European Culture and Literature, and Tom Postmes, Professor of Social Psychology, share their perspectives on polarization. How should the academic world deal with polarization? According to Mierau, universities should make more efforts to place citizens at the foreground of research. He believes that this can help foster a stronger sense of social trust and more familiarity. Postmes agrees. Within the social sciences, it is common practice to send out surveys, he says, but in many cases, it would be more sensible and instructive to initiate a content-focused dialogue to find out what drives people to specific actions or ways of thinking. To get a good sense of what drives citizens, you need interdisciplinary research, because a complex issue cannot be resolved within a single discipline.

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Konstantin Mierau

Complex issues and interdisciplinarity

Our current social problems require a broad-based approach, with researchers from various backgrounds working with each other, and with social stakeholders. Mierau: ‘Interdisciplinary research allows you to be an expert in your own field, and to understand the added value of someone else’s field. It also helps you develop an eye for the overlaps between various disciplines.’

Learning law from films

What does interdisciplinary research look like in practice? Mierau gives the example of ‘copaganda’. Most of what people know about laws and regulations does not come from law books, but from films, series, and books. ‘If we want to understand how the average person sees the law, we need a cultural studies researcher who knows which films people are watching, and how this influences their actions and thinking. This suddenly makes it interesting for a legal scholar to talk to a cultural scholar.’

Context for the facts

The humanities and social sciences create context around hard facts and focus on people’s inner world and experience. This is essential with a research theme such as polarization, which directly affects citizens’ lives. Postmes’ research is a good example of this. In 2017, he and his colleagues interviewed 40 strong proponents and 40 strong opponents of the Asylum Seekers’ Policy. Their conclusion was that the 80 interviewees had remarkably much in common: all were concerned about the state of the Netherlands and agreed that the integration of asylum seekers was in need of improvement.

Overlaps between proponents and opponents

The opponents essentially had the same concerns as the proponents, but the way in which the two groups expressed their concerns differed. This shows how social sciences can uncover overlaps between groups, and in this way potentially contribute to creating a less polarized social landscape. Mierau’s research also shows how divided groups can be brought back together. His research studies how reading books affects the empathic abilities of prisoners, and how this in turn contributes to their resocialization. The insights from this research can be applied more broadly to how culture can help connect society.

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Tom Postmes

Coagulating opinions

And yet, it is not always so easy to discover overlaps between groups, because some groups can be hard to place within the social or political landscape. Postmes points to a specific form of polarization: coagulating opinions. This refers to the fact that people link very different topics together, as if they were the same thing; for example, people who are against immigration are also against abortion. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in the US. Although the Netherlands tends to import cultural customs from the US, opinions do not coagulate so strongly here, or in a different way. This is probably due to our country’s diverse political landscape. Postmes refers to Pim Fortuyn, who was strongly anti-Islam, but also openly homosexual: ‘Fortuyn was hard to place in the political landscape.’

Remaining in dialogue

Is it really that problematic if overlaps between groups remain elusive? Mierau indicates that it does not have to be a bad thing. Polarization can also be productive and constructive, as long as we can hear the other person’s perspective with respect, offer sound arguments for our position, and remain open to what our interlocutor has to say. However, he notes that this is not always what happens in practice. ‘I think that polarization these days is not so much about people disagreeing as a growing inability to continue to see common ground.’ Postmes agrees. ‘Especially on social media, you see people who want to express themselves, but who no longer engage in dialogue. For every five people who want a dialogue, there’s always one who just wants to talk and not listen.’ That rather stands in the way of a constructive dialogue. Mierau insists that we continue to engage in conversation, even when we disagree. Because once you deny the other person’s reality in its entirety, there is nothing left to talk about. This brings the risk of new insights being lost, and people drifting ever further apart. ‘Comfort serves a purpose, but it should never be the final goal.’

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‘I think that polarization these days is not so much about people disagreeing as a growing inability to continue to see common ground’, Mierau notes.

Register for the Meet & Greet

For more information about the event, see the Perspectives on polarization page. You can register via the registration form.

Last modified:14 November 2022 4.03 p.m.
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