What exactly does your study entail?
“Among other things, I conduct research on what the implementation of coronavirus restrictions is doing to people’s trust in politics and other institutions. Actually, we embarked on this study by chance.”
“We organised a survey on all sorts of matters relating to trust in institutions and resistance to politics and science as part of a different research project. This survey was held in March and the respondents constituted a representative sample of the population of the Netherlands. About half the respondents turned out to have taken the survey before the press conference in March [the Prime Minister and Health Minister’s first press conference on the lockdown restrictions to be implemented], and the other half were found to have taken it afterwards. We had surveyed all these respondents’ trust in politics in previous years, so we had data on that. It was very easy to identify the trends and to determine whether anything had changed after the implementation of the coronavirus restrictions.”
And had anything changed?
“There had indeed been a change, and a very interesting one at that. We found that people had considerably more faith in politicians after the implementation of the coronavirus restrictions than before.”
“But that’s not the entire story, because political scientists believe in a phenomenon called ‘rallying around the flag’. If a crisis arises, we will all follow our politicians. But what our data showed is that it doesn’t work that way. Those people who had taken the survey in the first half of March, which is to say, during the coronavirus crisis but before the announcement of the restrictions, actually had much less faith in science and politics than they’d had in the previous years. Which meant that they weren’t rallying around the flag, which is to say, following the authorities at a time of crisis. It actually looks like, before the restrictions were announced, those people felt let down by politicians at a time of crisis. Those people who had taken the survey after the restrictions had been announced actually had more faith in politicians than before. As far as that’s concerned, there was no difference between highly educated people and less educated people.”
Did that surprise you?
“Yes, it did a bit, because less educated people generally tend to have less trust in institutions, so you might expect them to be less keen on the coronavirus restrictions.”
How is a study on trust in institutions during a pandemic relevant?
“First, I like a good academic puzzle. I’m not necessarily interested in a particular theme. What I do find fascinating is differences that are largely unaccounted for, such as the differences between highly educated people and less educated people. What our research group does is develop explanations by conducting qualitative research, such as focus groups, and then compare these findings with society at large – for instance, by conducting experimental surveys. It’s academic relevance that is interesting to me.
“Given the current coronavirus situation, our study results are obviously socially relevant. For instance, institutions such as the RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment – ed.) can call for the implementation of restrictions, but the degree to which people are likely to comply with these restrictions is largely determined by how much faith they have in these institutions. And in saying that, I wish to emphasise that I, and all the other members of my research group, try to remain as neutral as possible and not to express any preferences or appreciation for certain coronavirus restrictions.”
Why does this neutrality matter?
“We also talk to people who are not keen on scientists at all, but even so, we can have profound conversations with them. I’m very proud of that, because these types of conversations are crucial. If you wish to develop theories that go some way towards explaining the differences between highly educated people and less educated people, you must understand how both groups view the world. This also involves our refraining from committing to institutions and from being moralistic. This results in great studies, because you get a good understanding of why people do the things they do. The key requirement is to keep an open mind.”
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Do you yourself find it hard to keep an open mind?
“I personally don’t think so. It’s relatively easy for me, because I come from a working-class background. I left secondary school without graduating, worked in inland waterway transport for ten years and spent five years doing shift work in the port. During the latter period, I embarked on a degree in sociology at Erasmus University. Until I turned thirty, I hardly ever met people who’d attended a tertiary education institution. The way less educated people view the world is not alien to me at all. I actually had to get used to how academics act and talk.”