Emilia Palonen: Discourse analysis, Hungarian politics and the hashtag landscape

Senior University Lecturer Emilia Palonen is an expert on populism, democracy, and local participative government. We talked about her teaching, her research on Hungarian populism, online spaces, and a community centre she helped create.

Emilia is an Executive Committee member of the International Political Science Association (2021-23), and a long-time employee at the University of Helsinki. She recently became a programme director for the Datafication Research Initiative, and in relation to that also received a promotion to a permanent senior lectureship at the Faculty of Social Sciences.

Since last December you are a permanent lecturer, but you have been teaching here at the university part-time or full time since 2006. What do you particularly enjoy about teaching and about the faculty?

I think it's a really good faculty, and the students are extremely clever. I've been teaching many different aspects of neighbouring disciplines of Political Science over the years, and the students are all very engaged and knowledgeable at all levels, from the bachelor's and the master's to Ph.D. I've been also supervising many Ph.D. students, and bachelor's and master’s theses, and students are always quite engaged.

In the beginning, when I started teaching in English on my Ideology and Discourse course in 2006, people were still a bit shy. It was sometimes very difficult material to engage with, and Finns were a bit shy to talk, while the foreign students were more talkative. But nowadays I can't see a difference. So that's the best side - bright students.

You are now teaching in Finland, but you received your degree in the UK. Are there any big differences between the British and Finnish university systems?

There are of course many differences. One of them is that people move from studying one discipline to another in the UK, if they take several degrees. In Finland, it was really difficult to hop to another major subject in the past, but nowadays international master’s programs make it easier.

But in Finland, there's still more academic freedom to study broadly within one’s degree, which is really exciting for the students. Of course, it's been shrinking a bit as people are directed into certain kinds of programs and tracks. But there is still a possibility to study courses from elsewhere, outside your curriculum. And what is fantastic, is that people can study languages and that the language centre is a key part of it. That's not really reflected in the UK system.

The teaching and assessment is also different. In the UK, people were writing essays during the year, and then they have the final examinations at the end. Here people are still taking book exams, which in my view is an archaic form of teaching. I think it's much more useful if people read something and then reflect on it and gather different things from different sources, and practice their own science-based thinking process. Just learning to get the main points from a book and reflect on them based on some random questions that the teacher wants to ask, is completely different.

During your career, you have taught a variety of courses ranging from policy analysis to political history and methodology. Is there some course that you particularly enjoyed or enjoy and you want to tell us more about?

My classic course is the Ideology and Discourse Analysis that I've taught from the beginning of my career, first as a part-time teacher here in Helsinki. It's based on what I was studying in the UK for my master’s and Ph.D. Very condensed in a seven-week period it introduces Laclaudian discourse analysis as an approach, but it also teaches students how to think with concepts, how to operationalize them for research, and to reflect on their background. In this course, we cover deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and rhetoric, as base theories. Then we learn some contemporary ways in which people have been using this approach – such as our rhetoric-performative take on it. At the end, in a final essay the students can decide which concepts to operationalize for their chosen topic. It's a complex course, but it allows students to broaden their horizons and try to make sense of these theories in a simpler way and of the complexities of the world.

You are currently on research leave until the end of 2024. You mentioned that you are working on a manuscript right now?

Yes, I'm finishing a book on Hungarian politics from around 1990 to 2010. It covers the road to Orbán’s current period in power, giving the background of political polarization in Hungary.

I actually do have a question about Hungary, since you are an expert on Hungarian politics and also on populism, which is sadly a very relevant topic in Hungary today. What is your opinion on the development of Hungarian politics during the pandemic? And also what about the current crisis in Ukraine, since Viktor Orbán is known to have very warm relations with Russia? (The interview took place on February 23, 2022)

I haven't been following Hungarian politics so much currently, because I've been so focused on writing. But we do follow Hungarian elections and the election campaign and collecting material from March on, which we are going to be analysing in my research team.

Concerning Ukraine, I'm puzzled by this situation, where Hungary as a NATO and EU member would have to face Putin, who has been Orbán’s ally. But we have to ask: why has he been doing this? It's partly because he has been having this anti-EU discourse. And why an anti-EU discourse? Well, because for the logic of his own political performance, he always needs enemies. The internal enemies have been reduced to almost nothing. He has realized very cunningly that the external enemies are better; because if you emphasize the role of the internal enemies, they would become as strong as you. When you perform this bipolar discourse at home, you perform meaning to the other, and the other becomes more meaningful if you take them as your enemy. So, it's better to have other kinds of enemies.

In the past, when political polarization actually existed in Hungary in a strong sense, the Fidesz side and the left-liberal side, were co-constituting each other. But then the left liberal side crumbled during the leadership of Ferenc Gyurcsány and the crisis of 2006. I wrote about this under the heading “naked emperor”: people started to distrust democracy because there was this lying prime minister, and many of them ended up voting for Fidesz as the only alternative in 2010.

That has taught Fidesz to try to find political enemies either among very marginal groups within Hungarian society (such as post-Marxist intellectuals); or the refugees. Hungary was the first country to erect that wall against refugees. That kept this enemy present in their discourse because there can be this very ambiguous “us”. And then what they managed to do with the European Union was to bracket it as “the other”, as George Soros, while at the same time still receiving a lot of EU money…

That enabled Orbán to make friends with Putin: when two leaders who concentrate political and economic power meet, they probably find something interesting to engage with. The ways in which he stayed in power have already become internally corrupted, because the EU and state funding has been targeted to certain kinds of firms which are all somehow in connections with Orbán. So, a clientelist framework maintains power for Fidesz because if somebody else would be running the country, this network would have to readapt to the new leaders, or it would disintegrate, and there wouldn't be jobs for the same companies anymore. That's where the logic of what is happening in Orbán’s Hungary is quite similar to what has been happening in Russia. And now this model is being adopted in some other countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

You lead a research group, Helsinki Hub on Emotions, Populism and Polarization (HEPP), which just recently received a three-year grant from the Academy of Finland to study the impact of the pandemic. Can you tell us more about this project, and about the hub in general? 

Let me start from the beginning. HEPP was established just at the start of the pandemic. I was leading several research projects, and we were all meeting online, so we decided to group these projects together into this regularly meeting research group. The first project that I got from the Academy of Finland was the Whirl of Knowledge: Polarisation and Cultural Populism in European Politics and Societies or WhiKnow, as we call it. We study social media in particular as part of the Academy’s #mediasoc programme. This funding enables academics who learned their trade at the university before the internet became a really important site of analysis. So we have learned, how to study, what's going on in online platforms, and how does that reflect back to society and politics. We developed a framework to study European politics, specifically the EP elections, through Twitter, and studied precisely the campaigning, party differentiation, and what would be the themes that would be coming during the EP 19 elections.

Just prior to the pandemic we got another funding for a project called Now Time Us Space: Hegemonic Mobilisiations in Central and Eastern Europe to study how public spaces and online spaces would be sites for populist mobilization from the Kone Foundation. But as we could not go and do our fieldwork on site, so we particularly ended up studying the pandemic through social media. In this context me and my co-author Juha Koljonen developed a way to analyse how governments and the “hashtag landscape”, as we call it, communicated during the pandemic. The latest funding we received as we transferred this knowledge into analysing the pandemic globally, the WHO’s rhetoric, for instance, and how they are being perceived.

So in general, we ended up having to study the pandemic because the projects were taking place during the pandemic. And then we applied with some other colleagues that we got to know through a Horizon project that we are also having on radicalization and de-radicalization (Horizon 2020 is a research funding programme of the European Commission). And together with several partners from Brazil, Canada, the UK, Germany, Poland, and Ukraine we submitted this big application for Trans-Atlantic Partnerships Platform for a project Inequalities, Community Resilience and New Governance Modalities in a Post-Pandemic World (ENDURE). We're really excited that we're going to start that in June.

My next question is about your outside-university work: another project that you are involved in is Maunula-talo, a community centre located in your neighbourhood Maunula here in Helsinki, which works on the principle of participatory budgeting. Can you tell us more about it?

The Maunula House is something that started as my pet project, particularly as I was engaging in this new neighbourhood that I moved to ten years ago, and also during my maternity leave, that’s a time when I was very active there. It became participatory action research for me because I was there pronouncedly as someone who's studying democracy but also engaged as a citizen. So, I ended up representing the local people in the planning process: the participatory planning of the building and the different functions it has, the actual building itself, and the model in which the house operates. Citizens are the house’s user group alongside the library, the Youth Centre, civic adult education unit (Helsingin Työväenopisto), and nowadays a fifth actor, which is the city of Helsinki's Cultural Services.

In my neighbourhood, people had been calling for this kind of house since the 1980s, so finally, they got it. They really wanted to have it as a house for the Maunula people, a public space that would be non-commercial and people can meet there. There are meeting rooms that can be booked by the citizens, and also a huge hall where you can organize events, which can also be booked either for commercial purposes or non-commercial or community bound purposes.

People make decisions about the program. There is a program call – actually the participatory budgeting as such doesn’t currently work in the house, but they have a call for cultural programs. Citizens representatives sit in the house’s internal meetings, so they can also plan program, decide issues related to the house, and contribute to the activities in the house.

Of course, all of these processes face some challenges; sometimes you have very democratic mobilization, and then things settle down and start institutionalizing in particular ways. Now at this current stage, we are studying the house and its possibilities for engaging people so that they would not feel alienated in this area – linking back to our Drad Horizon project, where we are trying to explore democracy and cultural spaces where people from different backgrounds could meet each other. It's a challenge of course in Finland, which is not so multi-ethnic. A lot of the communication of the house, for instance, is in Finnish only… Some organic diversity is coming from below, but there's much room for improvement, and that's what we’re hoping to achieve.

My last question: is there any good book that you are reading right now or you are excited about, that you would want to recommend us to read during the spring?

One of the best books that I read recently would be Passio by Pirkko Saisio, I hope it will be translated soon from Finnish to English, too. But then there's this other excellent book that I read during the Christmas holidays, The Hare with Amber Eyes. It’s a story of a particular Japanese netsuke collection that one family owned a long time ago, and a story of that family recuperating that collection, taking care of it, and passing it on in generations. The author, Edmund De Waal, is a member of that family who ended up inheriting the collection. He’s a potter by training, an artist, and he ended up narrating the story of that netsuke collection, and this Jewish family, which originated in Ukraine, lived in Odessa, then moved to Vienna and to Paris. He himself ended up in the UK, he's writing this in English. So, it’s a story of Central Europe, which of course also includes Ukraine, and the history of the Second World War. But the collection also ended up back in Japan. Just as Saisio’s Passio, this is a European and global story, narrated through these very material objects.