What is your PhD dissertation about?
“About political discontent. When I’m attending a party, I’ll generally tell people, ‘It’s about why people hate politics.’ People often discuss whether people have gained or lost faith in politicians, and why, but those are quantitative discussions with which I don’t really feel comfortable, because they don’t tell you anything about the nature of the discontent. I want to know what it means for the people themselves. That bottom-up approach is often lacking in analyses.”
I read in your preface that you’re from a working-class family. Do your relatives have any idea of what this subject is about?
“Most people in my family don’t really get it, but they don’t really get what happens at universities in general, either. They had no idea what my PhD defence ceremony was going to be like, either. For instance, my father asked if the occasion was exclusively for me or whether a lot of other people were going to be awarded such things, as well.”
How did he feel about your PhD defence ceremony?
“He absolutely loved it! He told the entire neighbourhood about it. I live in the same neighbourhood. Actually, I live in the same street in Naaldwijk, so all my neighbours would congratulate me when they saw me in the street. ‘So now you’re a doctor of sociology, huh?’”
How did you go about conducting your research?
“I first checked which group had the highest political discontent rate, statistically speaking. They turned out to be people who voted for PVV, closely followed by people who didn’t vote at all. In one chapter, I talked to eighteen respondents from both groups to find out what caused them to turn their backs on the political establishment. Another chapter deals with the differences between those groups.”
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What can you tell us about your key findings?
“One of the conclusions is about the road that leads to political discontent. It often starts with an idea, such as Pim Fortuyn’s politics, a book or a website. One of my respondents said about Fortuyn: ‘To me, politics used to be a silent movie, and when Pim came along, it was suddenly as if I was watching things in Technicolor.’ Once they’ve been introduced [to the idea], they will validate it: conduct research, read books, hang out on forums and be in touch with like-minded folks who will share links to new sources. So they will look beyond the subject that initially piqued their interest, and dig deeper into things. Then they will get in touch with political parties or the media they follow, or media that are close to their hearts. Their message will be something along the lines of, ‘I have discovered something that you should know, too.’ Such as this person who tried to warn ChristenUnie for the danger posed by Islam. However, generally, they will be rebuffed, after which they will come to regard the institutes concerned as part of the problem. This will then result in a consolidation phase, during which their new ideas will begin to affect their lives – for instance, because they will follow different media.
“I think this conclusion is highly relevant, because voting for PVV or not casting a vote at all is often considered an act of apathy, when in actual fact, these people tend to become a lot more politically active. In a way, they could be considered model citizens, in terms of critical engagement.”
Your dissertation is entitled “Us Know Who Is to Blame”: Understanding Popular Political Discontents in the Netherlands. Do tell us more about that!
“In one of my chapters, I analysed the discontent voiced in letters sent to the editor of De Telegraaf between 2000 and 2009, the decade during which discontent was growing in the Netherlands. I had a sample of 1,200 letters, 120 of which I selected. The title of my dissertation was taken from one of those letters. It was written in the days following Pim Fortuyn’s assassination, and it’s about the elites who were deemed to be to blame for his death, politically speaking (‘They silenced him, they who didn’t know how to respond to his sharp rhetoric’) versus the common people (‘Us, who should be taken seriously (..) Us know who is to blame’).” This contrast is what populism is all about, and the title symbolises the meanings and phrases of the political discontent of common people.”
It did take you a long time to complete your dissertation, didn’t it?
“It did. I started in 2011 and hadn’t completed by the end of my four years. I did need a job, though, so I started teaching sociology at the University College. That took up quite a bit of my time, so I had difficulty focusing on anything else. At one point, it became something I was dragging along with me. But I kept working on it, whenever I had a little bit of time.”
Did you ever consider quitting?
“Only after a year on the job. I had my doubts about whether getting a PhD was my cup of tea, whether I was good enough to do it. You already mentioned my working-class background. Apparently, people from that kind of background often suffer from imposter syndrome. That’s how I felt at times. I didn’t really trust my own ability to be analytical or sharp. I sometimes see it in my students, as well, and I’ll try to help them get over that feeling, just like my colleagues did with me at the time.”