Social psychologist Nina Hansen is a doer. She likes nothing better than to put theoretically driven research into practice with a view to making recommendations that can be implemented immediately. ‘I want to promote the link between research and practice,’ she says.
Text: Gert Gritter, Communication UG / Photos: Hesterliena Wolthuis
Hansen studies cultural changes brought about by modernization at the micro level, such as identity and interpersonal relationships. For example, she investigates the impact of international development projects involving microfinance or education in the Global South. ‘Together with researchers in economics, I investigate how microcredit programmes can strengthen the position of women but can also have unintended negative consequences at times. If women receive a microcredit, this can alter their position in traditional cultures where men have been the main breadwinners until now. This can sometimes lead to an increase in domestic violence. Social and cultural psychology can help us better understand the social complexity in which people live and therefore to develop interventions with local partners. In Sri Lanka, for example, we have developed training sessions for women along with their husbands.’
Hansen regularly conducts field research. ‘For my work, it’s essential to talk to people, to listen carefully, and to share in their lives in order to gain important insights into their way of life. I spent some time with my students embedded in a village in Western Ethiopia, where we were permitted to take part in their daily lives. This included attending a wedding. It was an experience that made quite an impression on all of us.’
The time spent in the village gave her key insights into the culture of the Bertha language minority group and the role of mother-tongue education for the village as a whole. As part of a major Dutch-government evaluation of the impact of international development cooperation, she looked at the effects of having people from the Bertha community develop textbooks in Bertha and teach in the Bertha language. She is currently involved in studies on empowering young women in Bolivia and in an international World Bank and UNHCR project in the two largest refugee camps in Kenya.
Hansen is also interested in changes to European life in the context of migration and integration as a result of ‘modernization’. The lockdown in March 2020 gave her an opportunity to focus on an urgent issue that is closer to home. Joined by a team of students, the organizations ‘Groningen Verwelkomt’ and ‘Heel Groningen helpt’, as well as three Syrian researchers, she studied the lockdown’s impact on status holders. The main finding was that integration into Dutch society came to a virtual standstill. The practical recommendation to policymakers was therefore to put newcomers and Dutch people in touch with one another during the pandemic. In a national webinar presentation, the team gave concrete advice on how Dutch volunteers and coaches should stay in touch with newcomers even during a lockdown.
Hansen has used her experiences in national and international practice to create the Societal Challenge Lab, an interdisciplinary course unit that she co-developed with sociologist Liesbet Heyse at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. Students learn to apply their knowledge to specific problems in practice, and to develop, monitor, and evaluate evidence-based interventions. Hansen: ‘Students from our Faculty learn to apply theoretical knowledge to current real-life problem situations. Each year, 16 enthusiastic students from our Faculty are selected to work within small interdisciplinary and international teams on an assignment under pressure of time. These assignments are proposed by local and national/international organizations seeking research-based advice. Each year, Liesbet Heyse and I choose a pressing social issue relating to migration/integration. It has proven to be very inspiring for students to familiarize themselves with the complexity of the real world and to then present their analyses and recommendations to the client and a panel of experts.’
Hansen is able to pursue her ideals as a researcher. ‘As a student, I was curious to understand how cultures change, which psychological, economic and legal factors influence changes. At one time I might have wanted to be a diplomat. But as a researcher, I have the freedom to choose research themes, to choose the most appropriate research methods and to then share the findings with relevant parties. This also produces many new insights for theory development within the discipline.’ Hansen is now an expert in developing, monitoring and evaluating development programmes with societal impact and has extensive field experience in countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. She is consulted by governments and organizations around the world, such as the UNHCR and the World Bank, as well as by grassroot organizations.
Hansen studied psychology, sociology, economics and law in Göttingen (Germany) and psychology at Berkeley (California, USA). She then obtained her PhD in social psychology at the University of Jena (Germany). She is now an associate professor in the social psychology department of the UG, which is known for its strong link between theory and practice, as also practised by colleagues such as Tom Postmes and Linda Steg. Outside psychology, Hansen seeks interdisciplinary collaborations with her sociology counterparts through SCOOP (centre for the interdisciplinary study of sustainable cooperation as a key feature of resilient societies) and with economists. An added advantage of Groningen is that Hansen can easily visit her family in northern Germany, unless of course the border is closed due to a pandemic.
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