Anu Kantola: Research broadens perspectives based on one's own personal experience and that of friends, helping understand society better

The whole world is in the grips of structural change. Professor Anu Kantola believes that, in addition to producing new knowledge that explains societal change to citizens, the duty of research is to ensure high-quality education to students.

Cooperation negotiations, shutdowns and decreasing employment opportunities – in the last decade, traditional industrial sectors have been a steady source of such news. On the other hand, a group of entirely new professions, such as mobile game coders, service designers and specialists in digital customer services, have been established.

This phenomenon is known as economic transformation, influenced by globalisation and digitalisation.

As a result, jobs in the West are pronouncedly moving from industrial production to the service sector.

In terms of society, the consequences of this structural change extend outside the labour market. A project headed by Anu Kantola, professor of media and communication studies at the University of Helsinki, is investigating how big changes in the economy and professional life impact citizens’ political activity – in other words, what is happening to democracy.

Winners and losers in society

According to Kantola, the structural transformation is dividing people into winners and losers, as it were.

Losing one's job at a certain workplace or in an entire sector leads to many people losing their identity, which was based on their work.

“Often, those who lose their identity become angry. Quick shifts are easily followed by responses, one of which we are currently witnessing around the world.”

In Sweden, for example, the anti-immigration party Sweden Democrats achieved a major electoral victory in the autumn, while in Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s right-wing conservative party Fidesz saw its vote share rise to 49% in the parliamentary election of 2018. In France, the gilet jaunes anti-elite movement has continued to protest for several months.

Then again, the transformation is engendering new professions which provide opportunities for succeeding and getting ahead. Kantola believes that those who have jumped aboard this trend can be considered the winners of globalisation.

The research questions posed in the BIBU project (Tackling Biases and Bubbles in Participation) concern changes in political participation among both groups: does the ‘new upper class’ composed of these so-called winners stop voting in domestic elections due to considering, for example, Europe as a whole its spiritual home instead of Finland?

As for the other group, its members may feel that no political party is able to solve their problems, including those caused by intermittent work.

“Does the structural transformation induce hopelessness among a certain group of people? Do these people feel, for example, that this society is not for them and out of the reach of their influence? This is the group I'm most worried about.”

What happens to solidarity?

Finland's narrative after the world wars has been one of success. According to many indicators, an agrarian society climbed to the top of the world.

“For a long time, Finland's development has been based on comprehensive inclusion. Through the utilisation of education, healthcare and social security, people have been provided with the ability to work and, through this, they have been engaged in society,” Kantola says.

“It will be interesting to see in our research whether this kind of solidarity still exists. Or has it started fraying in our new situation to a degree where people have come to shy away from each other, retreating into their own personal bubbles?”

BIBU is a multidisciplinary research project with scholars of politics, social policy, media and psychology as participants. The effect of economic transformation on peoples’ political views is investigated, among other things, by conducting an extensive Finnish survey with 4,000 respondents.

What is unique to the project is that the survey findings will be combined with the results of qualitative interviews. Instead of only demonstrating that, say, 20% of unemployed people have a certain opinion, the researchers are looking into the stories behind those opinions.

Their aim is to find what are known as the ‘deep stories’ of people and various groups of citizens. These stories are a distillation of their feelings about society.

“Often, a deep story is something that is used to justify one's position in relation to others. It is used to convince oneself of the moral righteousness of one's actions. A typical by-product is a story about how another group is doing things wrong,” Kantola explains.

Deep stories can, for example, describe why I am poor while someone else is rich, or vice versa for wealthy individuals. Many times, the stories are particularly linked with personal social or professional status

Broader perspectives and information to support decision-making

If you lose your job, such an upheaval has direct effects on your life. And yet, you may not be aware that you are not alone with your experience.

Kantola points out that one of the goals of social research is to highlight hidden broader trends, such as changes in individual identities.

“Our mission is to help people understand everything going on in society not noticeable to them through their personal experience or that of their friends.”

On the other hand, research in social sciences aims to maintain equal opportunity for citizens to take part in joint decision-making. Before voting, you have to understand what you are having a say on by voting.

“The aim of our study is to engender such understanding.”

In the previous Finnish parliamentary election in 2015, a total of 2,968,459 votes were cast. In the media, election specialists and political scientists interpreted the atmosphere in which the votes originated and the direction in which they are taking Finland.

This will again take place during the election this spring.

“This kind of expertise is always based on long-term studies focused on how society works and the forces impacting it. Knowledge produced through research reaches ordinary people, for example, through media and in the social studies class in comprehensive school. The content of teaching does not spring from nothing, but from scientific research,” Kantola notes.

Teaching and research are inseparable

Finland is a small cultural and linguistic area. Kantola says that Finland cannot return to being a country that does not conduct top-level science.

These days, academia is so international in nature that the best scholars easily move abroad when working conditions become increasingly difficult. In terms of brain drain, concern is caused, in addition to researchers themselves, by the results of research, such as innovations that will no longer be made in the researchers’ country of origin. This also applies to Finland. Kantola considers the matter from the viewpoint of young people.

“We should be able to provide young Finns with high-quality education also in the future.”

“The core of high-quality university education is research conducted by the teaching staff,” Kantola says. She believes teaching also suffers if opportunities for active research are eliminated by cuts to university resources.

“It is precisely research that generates those new ideas that are passed forward in teaching. There will be no high-quality university education if the teachers are not involved in research.”

According to Kantola, you have to remain vigilant in terms of education quality. Another threat is Finnish universities losing their attractiveness for the next generation, making those embarking on a path to higher education turn their attention abroad. They are unlikely to return in force to Finland even after graduation.

“Safeguarding research requires sufficient funding, as well as an atmosphere that inspires researchers. What I have found most troubling in the cuts to funding is the message that Finland no longer believes in scholarly activity.”

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Text: Raisa Mattila
Photo: Helena Hiltunen

Anu Kantola

Anu Kantola is professor of media and communication studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Helsinki, and the head of the multidisciplinary BIBU project (Tackling Biases and Bubbles in Participation). She is known particularly as a scholar of the exercise of power, as well as political and economic elites. Kantola has contributed to investigating political lobbying, or the power of interest groups over political decisions in Finland.

Current topics of interest in the field:

“Research on social media and the emotions displayed in online media. This demonstrates that emotions can be contracted: we learn to express angry feelings in a certain way or gain the courage to speak angrily from other peoples’ examples. The next question is how such cycles of hate could be mitigated, thus improving the functional capacity of individuals. Hate speech is often so extreme in nature that those uttering it cannot influence matters in the way they wish they could.”