“The EU is this very distant thing; if it ever works I’ll have to see it working on the ground”–QualPolComm preview interview

by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Francisco Seoane Perez has submitted a paper called “How to study the European public sphere? Network ethnography meets the challenge” for the ICA Preconference on Qualitative Political Communication Research. In it, he focuses on how (elite) members of the European public think about and develop lay theories for why the European Union seem to be so distant and apolitical for many citizens. It builds on his wider work on Political Communication in Europe, an issue he published a book on last year.

The full abstract is below the jump and on the conference page.

Here are questions and answers from an email interview I did with him about his research.

RKN: You work on how individual informants who appear as sources in regional coverage of the European Union in Galicia (Spain) and Yorkshire (England) think about the public they are part of. How would you say this topic connects to core concerns of political communication research? Are there particular researchers or schools of thought you see yourself as being in a dialogue with?

One of the great challenges of studying the European Union (EU) as apolitical system is that the breadth of the institutions (continental), their set-up (pseudo-confederal, with a mix of technocracy and inter-state diplomatic relations) and the public sphere where this is debated (mostly national and not continental) are not of equal size. So what you have more or less perfectly assembled in any liberal-democratic nation-state (political institutions, the media, and the public) is dislodged when seen from a European scale. None of them are commensurate with each other. So, instead of studying if this particular message gets across to a particular public, I had to go to a very basic level, to the DNA of political communication. Whenever you study exceptions (like the EU) you are in an exceptional position to study the essence of things. The exception defines the ‘normal’. So studying the EU, where the political institutions, the media system and the public are not commensurable (of the same size and breadth) is a great chance to look at what is it what makes a political system familiar or domestic (the EU is the most distant thing one could ever think of) and political (as in the sense of amenable to traditional left vs right choices, and not just mere management or technocracy). It’s ironic how much valuable research we miss when you have wonderful books that do not get translated into English. So, in order to explain what exactly does journalism to society, how it makes a political system familiar, closer, domestic and political, I found of great help the books by Géraldine Muhlmann, a French scholar whose books have recently been translated. She talks about journalism playing a contradictory role in democracies: centering (building a we) and de-centering (allowing for, and encouraging, the expression of dissent within that community). That’s precisely what we don’t have in Europe at the EU level: it’s not something we relate with (we are not part of the we) and whatever is decided is done at a very technocratic, ‘beyond the people’ level. This brought me to Carl Schmitt, a controversial political theorist who nevertheless helped me build my two main theoretical concepts (domesticisation: identifying with the political institutions) and politicization (either in an antagonistic form, friend vs. enemy, or in an agonistic form, left vs. right). Obviously I linked up with Habermas (for whom Schmitt is a sort of bette noir to whom nevertheless he gets much inspiration) and Chantal Mouffe, the contemporary interpreter of Schmitt. So the peculiarities of my object of study (the EU) forced me to go to the DNA of political communication.

RKN: Your work is partly rooted in political communication research, but also seems to go beyond it, in particular in terms of your reliance on network ethnography—where else did you find theoretical and methodological inspirations?

For me the great inspiration was Philip Howard and his network ethnography of the e-politics community in the US in his book New Media and the Managed Citizen. Social network analysis had been used before to select ethnographic informants, but this had been done traditionally, as far as I know, on very localized communities. That is, doing ethnography meant going to a particular place, spending some time there, observing, interviewing… I could have done this in Brussels, where EU institutions are based, but this was ‘contra-natura’, as the EU is a multi-level political system where you have ‘substitute bureaucracies’ at the state and sub-state regional level. So I made the following heuristic move after reading Howard’s book: both of us were dealing with a decentralized community of continental spread (the e-politics community and the EU), but we had documents that we could analyze to identify the movers and shakers of these respective communities (brochures of conference in his case, regional press in mine). My basic question was: OK, if the EU is this very distant thing, if it ever works I’ll have to see it working on the ground. So at the ground level I can also try to tease out the reasons why this is not working. I had access to two contrasting regions as regards to their view of the EU (Eurosceptic Yorkshire and pro-EU Galicia) so took their regional newspapers, made a social network analysis (SNA) of the sources quoted, and went out to chase them. I did far more interviews than observations, so I also found of great help a book which is mostly based on interviews, Susan Herbst’s Reading Public Opinion.

RKN: Few scholars challenge that qualitative research excels at depth, detail, and precision in terms of understanding particular cases or processes. But some would question whether findings based on, for example, interviews can be generalized. Do you see your own findings as generalizable? If so, how and under what conditions? If you don’t, does it matter to you, or do you think about the reach and validity of your work in different terms?

Network ethnography, the method I employed in my research, is a sort of ‘squaring of the circle’ in that sense. The community that you study is linked by some practice, or by their belonging to a particular institution, but it may not be necessarily local or very particular. As a political and bureaucratic system, the EU creates a set of “structural opportunities” that are there, up for grabs, by actors from several different countries. These actors are, to an extent, shaped by those structural opportunities, so the funniest thing to me was to see farmers or environmentalists from Yorkshire and Galicia, who have never met each other, speaking the same administrative lingo due to their exposure to EU legislation and opportunities. So network ethnography, in the sense that it expands the reach of the community you are studying, is both challenging and rewarding. Challenging because you have to fund very expensive research (my fieldwork was done in three different countries, Spain, UK, and Belgium), but rewarding because the ‘saturation’ you find in the discourse is not attributable to a very localized community, but to a community that might be of continental spread. Establishing generalizability, like establishing causality, is what any social scientist is looking for most of the time, but we all know that this has to be done with much care and all caveats, even when you employ surveys as your method. I see network ethnography as a methodological approach to study communities of practice that are physically separated but linked by their professional practice. For example, you could make a wonderful study on the health care reform in the US by looking at the networks that compose the public health system in the US. You would have to find the proper documents (policy papers, newspapers, or whatever) to sample for your informants. And these could be spread all over the US, but you could square the circle of having depth (ethnographic interviews) and breadth (a sampling of the whole community of practice, with informants in the most varied places). The good thing is that, as Howard discovered, these people get together on conferences and meetings, and you can observe them all at once, or have them there in a single setting for interviewing.

RKN: Imagine you are talking to a colleague at a conference who does mainly fairly conventional forms of behavioralist, quantitative political communication research, i.e., studies agenda-setting in lab experiments or frame effects on attitudes through survey research. Is your research on news sharing relevant to this colleague? If so, how?

I have a great respect for all political communication research, and actually I find inspiration for my own projects by looking at the unsolved problems in surveys or experiments. Instead of seeing qualitative research as the groundwork for more refined, precise, quantitative designs, I see qualitative and quantitative research inspiring each other in an iterative way. That is, I don’t see the quantitative and qualitative dialogue as sequential: “Ok, do a focus group to refine a questionnaire”, but as iterative: “Ok, the findings in this survey were great here, but here we have this area that cannot yet be explained… could we do a qualitative project to know why?” Let’s take a current example: news consumption among the youth. We need to know how young people (and by young I’m including here also mature people in their thirties) relate to public affairs, and which role traditional and alternative media play in this. So we need all approaches, quantitative and qualitative: we need interviewers asking respondents to show us their smartphones and tablets, we need respondents to tell us their media diet, the enmeshing of news into the flow of social media discourse. But we also need surveys to tell us how spread is a particular media practice, or experiments to tell us what citizens do when they want to find more about a particular subject of public interest.

Full abstract below.

How to study the European public sphere? Network ethnography meets the challenge

By Francisco Seoane Pérez (University of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain)

In our age of communities of practice separated by geography but linked by technologies of communication or common structural working conditions or opportunities (e.g. the members of an international organization), performing qualitative studies with in-depth interviews and on-site observations becomes a seemingly insurmountable challenge: How to select ethnographic informants from a community that is geographically spread but nevertheless culturally connected? How to make multi-site ethnography doable and practical? ‘Network ethnography’, that is, ethnographic research with informants selected through a social network analysis (SNA) of documents in which these subjects show their interactions, might offer some help. Using SNA for selecting ethnographic informants pre-dates the Internet age, and was established as a standard method by Jeffrey C. Johnson’s handbook on ethnographic research in 1990 (Johnson, 1990). But it was Philip Howard’s successful application of this method to the study of the ‘online politics’ community in the USA which brought network ethnography to the fore (Howard, 2006), inspiring research projects like my own: interviewing and observing the members of the European public sphere to ask for their lay theories on the reasons for the distant and apolitical character of the European Union (Seoane Pérez, 2013). Instead of using conference brochures on online politics to perform a social network analysis of the speakers in order to reveal the patterns of interaction of such a decentralized and community of activists, software designers and academics, as Howard did, I looked at the sub-state regional press in two divergent communities regarding their acceptance of the EU as a political institution: Yorkshire in the UK (quintessentially ‘Euroskeptic’) and Galicia in Spain (consistently pro-EU). Within the temporal frame of five years (the duration of a European Parliament legislature), I looked at those articles within the ‘Yorkshire Post’ and ‘La Voz de Galicia’ published from 2004 until 2009 that had the words “Yorkshire” or “Galicia” and “Europe” or “European Union” in their headlines or leading paragraphs. This allowed me to pull out those news stories that linked the respective regions to the supranational institution. I decided to content-analyze the sources quoted in these stories, classifying them by their role in the public sphere (executive, legislative, judicial power, activists, journalists, etc.) and their geographic location (local, regional, national, and transnational or European). I looked at the patterns of co-citation of these sources, which provided me with two valuable assets: I could see the ‘public sphere’ as a network of co-citation of sources, and I could measure the centrality of certain nodes so as to select which sorts of sources would be more interesting for further observation and/or interviewing at any of the relevant geographical levels: regional, national, or European. With these data in hand, I planned a multi-site ethnography in the two regions of interest (Yorskhire and Galicia), their respective national capitals, (London and Madrid) and Europe’s rough equivalent to Washington, D.C.: Brussels. Network ethnography proved valuable to study in-depth a decentralized community like the European Union, or at least those EU political actors related to the two ‘generative’ regions, Yorkshire in the UK and Galicia in Spain.