Important legal notice
   
Contact   |   Search   
RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 41 - May 2004   
Top
 HOME
 TABLE OF CONTENTS
 EDITORIAL
 Doubling European research investment
 Showcasing science
 The allergy enigma
 de Gennes – in perpetual motion
 A parliament in search of voters 
 COMMUNICATING SCIENCE
 IN BRIEF
 OPINION
 LETTERS
 PUBLICATIONS
 AGENDA
 CALLS FOR PROPOSALS

Download pdf de en fr


SURVEY
Title  Europeans’ political blues?

How do Europeans see the present and what do they expect from the future? Do they believe in politics and do they trust politicians? Which causes will they take up and in what way? The European Social Survey (ESS), undertaken by researchers from 22 countries, allows us to analyse the values, hopes and fears of the inhabitants of the ‘Old Continent’.   Innovative, rigorous, scientific and based on tens of thousands of interviews, the ESS produces comparative data at regular intervals to track social trends in Europe.

The European Social Survey is a joint project run by sociologists, political scientists and economists from the European Science Foundation. They launched a survey to gather meticulous, comparable data, across Europe, on people’s attitudes and expectations with regard to politics and society.

‘We wanted this to be a high quality, serious survey, controlled by a rigorous and strictly academic method’, explains Max Kaase, the Chairman of the ESS Steering Committee and a Professor at the University of Bremen. ‘What is new is the geographical scope of the project – which includes a number of central and eastern European countries – and the fact that it will repeated at regular intervals. This will enable us to identify trends over time, to measure shifts in attitudes and values, and to compare these within individual countries and between them.’

A barometer of political mistrust
The ESS links research centres in 22 countries which carried out the first survey between September 2002 and September 2003 in the 15 Member States, four candidate states (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia), plus Norway, Switzerland and Israel. In all, some 50 000 one-on-one interviews were held. Each interview, lasting on average one hour, was based on a three-part questionnaire consisting of a basic module (to be repeated in every two-yearly survey) and two revolving modules covering subjects that can be re-examined at longer intervals. The questions in the basic module relate to various major subjects such as trust in institutions, interest in politics, participation in public life, fundamental moral and social values, feelings towards social integration and exclusion, and national, ethnic and religious identities. The revolving modules in this first survey questioned attitudes towards "others" (immigration, asylum rights) and citizenship (participation in political and voluntary associations).

What was the most striking result? In not a single country did more than one inhabitant in four express “high” trust (a rating of at least 7 out of 10) in politicians. The responses varied by place, age and the institutions in question. For example, the Europeans who most “trust” their national representatives, such as the Swedes, are also those least willing to put their money on the European Parliament (EP)(1). Conversely, those with the highest opinion of the EP, such as Greeks, Hungarians, Irish, Slovenians, Portuguese, Czechs and Poles, also express the greatest reservations about their own politicians. Britons appear sceptical towards the entire political class.

One would expect this distrust to be expressed in voting figures, but no, the Greeks turned out in force (91%) in their most recent national elections, as did Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Dutch and Slovenes with participation rates of over 80% in theirs. Yet under 70% of Czechs, Poles and Swiss ventured to the polling stations. Why? This participation in the democratic process seems to depend more on cultural tradition than on interest in politics.

Generation gap?
One relationship that is largely common to the entire survey is that between age and participation. Men and women under 30 are almost everywhere considerably less enthusiastic voters than their elders. This difference can be striking – just 46% of Irish under-30s voted in the latest national elections, compared with 85% of older citizens. Yet there are exceptions – in Sweden, 81% of under-30s turned out to vote, close on the heels of their elders at 88%.

The survey also reveals a general lack of political commitment among the young, only 3% of our youngest citizens are members of a political party, compared to 8% of their older compatriots. In terms of political conviction, 41% of under-30s feel close to a particular political group – as against two-thirds of older citizens. Is this relative indifference simply a question of age and will today’s under-30s act like their parents in a few years? Or does this apparent disengagement from political life point to a real process of social change and herald a new culture, which only future surveys will enable us to understand?

At a recent Council of Europe symposium on “Young People and Democratic Institutions“, American researcher Pippa Morris from Harvard University used fresh information from the ESS survey in an attempt to answer these questions. She observes that under-30s appear much more motivated by some specific political and social issues, such as the environment and humanitarian activities, than their elders. Among under-30s, 8% say they have signed a petition, 7% report they have purchased a product for political reasons, and 6% have taken part in a demonstration. In other words, European youth does not necessarily embrace indifference and disengagement. ‘The political energy of the younger generation in post-industrial societies has diversified towards fighting for specific causes, rather than turning to apathy,’ she stresses. ‘New types of commitment and mobilisation have emerged. The question is how far this reflects a broader cultural change that seriously challenges the future of representative democracy in Europe.’

Social capital
This last observation opens the door to another issue, widely analysed in the United States and in particular by sociologist Robert Putman, also from Harvard University. This is the question of “social capital”. This concept assesses the vibrancy of the relatively informal networks (political or sports clubs, professional, religious or humanitarian associations) that make up the social fabric. The membership of these networks, the donations they receive, the level of trust they engender and their participation in citizens' bodies enable us to measure the dynamism of these groupings. For these American researchers, a major correlation exists between the dynamism of this social capital and social factors such as school performance, health, tax fraud, democratic participation and the value attached to citizenship. While for Putman, America's social capital appears to have significantly eroded since the mid-60s, both his colleague Pippa Norris and James Davis from the University of Chicago suggest that more young people in Europe are being drawn towards such informal structures than is the case on the other side of the Atlantic.

By collecting systematic data covering much of the ‘Old Continent’, the ESS is supporting comparative analyses, not only within Europe, but also with other regions of the world. Social and political scientists have been eagerly awaiting such comparative data for a long time. But importantly, this data is open to the public and is of interest, not only to scientists, but to everyone interested in good governance, the democratic debate or, more simply, the society in which we live.

(1) See also "A parliament in search of voters ".


Printable version

  READ MORE  
  The value of time

The continuation of the survey over time (one of the key scientific benefits of the ESS) is made possible by support from the European Commission Framework Programmes. The survey will be repeated every two years, offering a targeted picture of changing ...
 
  Available data

Initial ESS results are available to researchers, students and all citizens via the Internet; 1 800 people, 25% of them “non-specialists”, visited the survey site  in the space of just a few weeks.

 
  Building an international survey

Setting up the ESS called for an intense preparatory effort, much of it devoted to solving methodological and cultural problems. Participating research centres had to agree on very precise sample selection and interview methodologies, questionnaire structuring, ...
 
  Immigration: a sensitive subject

Europeans’ perception of immigration was one subject that ESS researchers analysed closely. As a general rule, the degree to which “others” are accepted depends on what they offer to their host societies, with professional competence ...
 


   
  Top
  The value of time

The continuation of the survey over time (one of the key scientific benefits of the ESS) is made possible by support from the European Commission Framework Programmes. The survey will be repeated every two years, offering a targeted picture of changing attitudes across our continent.

  Available data

Initial ESS results are available to researchers, students and all citizens via the Internet; 1 800 people, 25% of them “non-specialists”, visited the survey site  in the space of just a few weeks.

  Building an international survey

Setting up the ESS called for an intense preparatory effort, much of it devoted to solving methodological and cultural problems. Participating research centres had to agree on very precise sample selection and interview methodologies, questionnaire structuring, and reporting and data recording procedures. They also had to ensure meticulous translation of the questionnaires into the different languages.

There are many pitfalls in making ‘scientific’ comparisons. How does one account for external factors that can vary from one country to the next and which can influence respondents’ answers? (such as local, national or international events amplified by the media). How can one use or adapt traditional, but not necessarily comparable, socio-economic indicators in a survey on such a scale? Which new indicators should be added and how should these be formulated? How does one translate into 29 languages a sophisticated questionnaire, originally written and checked in English, in a way that takes account of the possible connotations and shifts of meaning and interpretation? All these questions and more had to be meticulously examined when designing the survey.

  Immigration: a sensitive subject

Europeans’ perception of immigration was one subject that ESS researchers analysed closely. As a general rule, the degree to which “others” are accepted depends on what they offer to their host societies, with professional competence a frequent criterion for the opening of frontiers. Greeks are particularly sensitive to this competence (85%), northern Europeans (Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, The Netherlands – 40, 49, 50 and 53% respectively) much less so.



At the same time, even if we prefer them to be competent, we also prefer migrants to know their place, namely not too high up the social ladder. Having to work under a foreigner or – worse – someone of a different race, is hard for most Europeans to accept. The Swedes and Swiss are less diffident here, while for Israelis and Greeks find this is a particularly hard pill to swallow.

TO FIND OUT MORE

CONTACTS