Study of political participation promotes the realisation of democracy

By studying actions related to democracy, defects in political participation and new forms of influencing can be identified, says professor Eeva Luhtakallio.

What are your research topics?

I study democracy and political participation. On the one hand, I examine the functioning of civic society. On the other, I analyse processes associated with political participation and politicisation, or how things or situations are made political.

In my work, I look into how democracy works, is formed, developed and, at times, jeopardised. How do individual acts and people shape democracy? I am interested in who gets to take part in democracy. The means of political debate and participation, among other things, can engender inequality between citizens and age groups. In fact, as part of my research I am investigating how the ways in which young people take political action are shaping the political culture of today and the future.

Where and how does the topic of your research have an impact?

Through my research, I highlight inequality and the limits of civic action related to democracy and politics.

In my current project, my research group and I are analysing how the use of images as part of political influencing and participation is changing democracy. We are studying the visual public engagement of young people between 18 and 35 years of age on social media and in face-to-face encounters in Finland, Portugal, France and Germany.

Among other things, we are investigating how things and situations are made political or how political questions are commented on, argued about and protested against by sharing different images, such as selfies and memes. For example, visualising the climate crisis and visually presenting your personal participation strongly emphasise emotions. At times, alternative political narratives, or even new kinds of experiences of political participation, are established.

Enormous masses of images analysed with the help of artificial intelligence produce for us researchers new information on the modes of action used by the climate movement. The images may reveal new and also emerging forms of influencing.

In my research on political participation and inequality, I observed practices that create and maintain inequality. Political participation is not an isolated phenomenon, but directly linked with, for example, the inequality generated by poverty, poor education and sustained chains of inequality that traverse several generations. If this is not taken into consideration when promoting participatory democracy, we may end up creating more experiences of inequality. We may exclude others from the sphere of political influence.

Furthermore, my research demonstrated that external operators planning and carrying out participation projects often do not notice or recognise activities, participation and inclusivity that already exist in local communities.

My research can help to strengthen the functioning of democracy and the attainment of fairness, as well as fix defects and shape the structures of political inclusion into an increasingly practical form.

What is particularly inspiring in your field right now?

Participation and democracy are tremendously topical themes for society: polarisation, populism and inequality are topics of discussion everywhere, which electrifies the discourse in political sociology. It is inspiring to feel that one is conducting societally significant research and to have the ability (occasionally) to increase people’s understanding of things that have an effect on everyone’s lives.

As a researcher, I am inspired by the unravelling of oppositions within science and the increased appreciation of ethnographic research.

No longer are there such clear lines drawn between qualitative and quantitative as well as empirical and theoretical research. I am excited to have discussions with both international and Finnish colleagues who share my energetically practical approach to theory and wish to carry out the fundamental mission of science – the pursuit of truth – while recognising historical paths taken and looking for meaning in the social world of today and of the future.

Eeva Luhtakallio is the professor of sociology at the Faculty of Social Sciences.

Watch Eeva Luhtakallio’s inaugural lecture as a new professor.

Read about the other newly appointed professors here.