What was the topic of your research?

“The socio-economic structure of Rotterdam. What types of groups live here, how can you classify them, and what changes are happening there? My second topic involved looking at civic participation, to what extent people in the city join volunteer organisations or, for example, neighbourhood initiatives, and what influence does the municipal policy have on this. Finally, I examined various neighbourhood organisations to see how they carry out certain tasks, like recruiting people, or how unemployed people can find work there.”

What did your research look like?

“For a large part of my research, I used the data that the municipality collects every two years for the Wijkprofiel [district profile]. It consists of two large surveys with 15,000 respondents and is rather unique in the world. Half of my doctoral position was funded by the municipality, with the intention of doing more with the rich data as a city than just issuing indexes and reports.

“Ultimately, I wanted to explore the human side of the story, independent of the numbers. I studied in Nijmegen, where you sometimes meet a person who has been conducting advanced quantitative research into, for example, people with a migration background but has never interviewed someone with that background. I wanted to get more of a feeling for the topic, so in my last study I conducted qualitative research into the organisation of participation.”

What were your main conclusions?

“From my research into the socio-economic structure, it was evident that the middle class in Rotterdam has expanded. You do have to take into account that the middle class is a vaguely defined segment, consisting of different groups. Part consists of people with a bit more economic capital but less cultural capital; they are, for example, not as highly educated and do not go to museums or events often. Another part has more cultural than economic capital, such as young artists.

“Regarding neighbourhood participation, it appeared that the inequality between poor and rich districts was reduced in the first part of the economic crisis. In the poor districts, participation remained the same, while it decreased in rich districts. That is probably concerned with the fact that social problems, often more present in poor districts, and certainly during a recession, form a trigger to take action.

“The municipal policy supported this, for example through compensation, requiring community services in exchange for a benefit. But also by not cutting the budget as much for ‘problem districts’, which increased the possibilities for participation.”

Is the growth of the middle class due to this policy?

“Definitely! The municipality has been working towards this for twenty years. It is evident in the housing construction sector, as many houses for purchase and private rentals have been added, while the social housing is declining. In addition, the municipality can create rules for corporations and landlords together with the national government. Specific investment was done in the seven districts around the city centre to attract highly educated people there, for example by ensuring there are excellent schools and more green spaces.

“On the other hand, there are developments like the automation of the labour market, with the associated growth of jobs at a higher level in particular. The move to the city is evident all around. You also notice that children born here are socially upwardly mobile compared to their parents. Between 50% and 70% of new housing construction in the Zuid district is bought by residents of Zuid.

“It is ironic that this policy has resulted in a partial loss of control over the housing market through the sale of social housing. The market is now so derailed that it is difficult for the middle class to find housing as well. The housing that was intended for sale to them has often been snapped up by investors. I don’t think the municipality anticipated that, making it a victim of its own policy.”

Is it difficult to remain independent as a researcher in such a case?

“No, you just state clearly who the client is. That does not change anything about the analysis or conditions set for the data. But you do notice that when you claim that the middle class is growing, part of the city applauds while another part looks at you suspiciously because you seem to be part of the Rotterdam campaign. So I try to add my own nuances, but there is a limit to the influence you have on what is done with the outcomes. Recently, I presented a report, and the headline of the NRC article about it was ‘Rotterdam-Zuid is getting ahead – but not as fast as Noord’. I am not in favour of that type of framing, but I try not to get worked up about it. The same research revealed that the most vulnerable group in the Zuid district was also growing, but that was considered less important.”

How did it feel to obtain a doctorate?

“In general, it was a very pleasant experience. But I can understand why not everyone has the same experience. You have lots of freedom and autonomy; certainly I did, because I could partly choose what I wanted to examine. But you have to be able to cope with that freedom, otherwise you go under. I decided to examine current societal themes. It was not to score points but to ensure that my research is read by people outside the limited group of academics.”