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Reflexivity and Its Discontents

Published onMar 15, 2023
Reflexivity and Its Discontents

This Interschool event, asking to reflect upon the nature of questions itself, addresses a very interesting theme. And as it aligns to a certain extent with my own research agenda, I will take the opportunity to share some thoughts on ‘people who ask questions about people who ask questions’. Those I refer to are typically people who feel ill at ease with the very idea of reflexivity. And who better to start with than Thierry Baudet? He is in a sense the typical anti-reflexive person (see figure 1).

Three Pictures: 
On the left:
A quote tweet from Gerrit Hiemstra from Jul 26, 2019 (@Gerrit Hiemstra) which reads "Aan iedere anonieme toestenbordridder die antwoord nr. 1856 op dit bericht wil plaatsen met nog meer gescheld, beledegingen en insunaties: fiets naar het strand en ga tegen de zee schreeuwen. Dat is net zo effectief." (to every anomymous keyboardwarrior wanting to comment answer #1856 with even more curse words, name calling and insinuations: bike to the beach and go yell at the sea. Just as effective.)

This is a quote tweet to another tweet by Gerrit Hiemstra from Jul 25, 2019, which reads "De 40+ temperaturen van vandaag zijn bizar. Zonder #klimaatverandering zouden deze nooit gerealiseerd zijn. De klimaatverandering is voor 100% veroorzaakt door ons, u en ik. Iedereen die deze klimaatverandering nu nog ontkent, begrijpt het niet of wil bewust verwarring zaaien." (The 40+ temperatures today are ridiculous. Without #climate change these would have never happened. Climate change is 100% caused by us, you and me. Everyone who still denies climate change, does not understand it or wants to cause confusion intentionally." 

In the middle:
A quote tweet from Thierry Baudet from 03 Jan 18, reading "Deze man zou moeten worden ontslagen" (this man should be fired). It's quoting a tweet from Gerrit Hiemstra (@GerritHiemstra) reading "Eén tweet met 4 keer onzin. Wie kan hier overheen?" (One tweet with four times nonsense. Who can surpass this?"

On the right: 
A picture of a man (Thierry Baudet) in a rainsuit handing out flyers

Underlying these 3 pictures is a caption reading "BAUDET VS. HIEMSTRA"
Figure 1


Those who have been following the Dutch news, will know that Thierry Baudet fiercely disagrees with Gerrit Hiemstra, although not – as you can see from these Twitter fragments – when Hiemstra is forecasting the weather. When Gerrit Hiemstra predicts rain, even Thierry Baudet wears a raincoat (see Figure 1, on the right). However, when Hiemstra talks about forecasts over a longer period, using more or less the same methods as when forecasting the weather for the upcoming days, but with a longer scope and related to the climate, then suddenly, Baudet judges that Hiemstra ‘ought to be fired’ (Figure 1, on the left and in the middle). As a sociologist, I find that interesting. Why can a meteorologist be trusted and a climate scientist, using the same methodological toolbox, attacked? To try and answer this, I will start with the idea of ‘reflexive modernization’, a concept developed by Anthony Giddens, Ulrich Beck, and Scott Lash.1 Reflexive modernization refers to our tendency to deal analytically with our modern-day solutions to all kinds of problems. Take for instance the situation of gas extraction in Groningen. We had a problem: we needed energy; and we found the solution: we started to extract gas from the soil. This effectively solved the problem of energy scarcity, until we realized that our human intervention also caused other major problems. According to the aforementioned sociologists, these kinds of problems are all we think about nowadays: we reflect on our own modern-day solutions. It is a very analytical approach to our solutions.

Moreover, virtually all of the problems that we face are human-made. The earthquakes in Groningen, for instance, are not a natural phenomenon, but have been caused by human actions. The same can be said about the global climate change, which fits neatly with the idea of the Anthropocene, namely that we are the cause of many problems. Here at this university, an institution of higher education, none of this is a surprise, we all know it. Research indicates that this line of thought is mostly shared by more highly educated and analytically motivated persons.2 The question then is whether or not these people have lower trust in our modern-day solutions, which are often fueled by scientific inventions or knowledge. This is still a matter for debate; in some cases they do, and in some they do not.3

But I do not want to talk about highly educated people. They are not that interesting. I would like to talk about the others, who have been researched by Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap in a paper on anti-reflexivity.4 They looked at people who reject the idea that humans are the cause of everything that is wrong with and in our world, people who are opposed to the idea of the Anthropocene. McCright and Dunlap suggest that this is a reaction against reflexively modern currents in our society. You might expect this to lead to a wholesale rejection of science, but interestingly that is not the case. In fact, these people like a particular kind of science: productive science, which makes something or provides policy advice. They detest what is called ‘impact science’: the science that studies the consequences of human actions.5

I did some research for my paper at this meeting and I would like to share my initial analysis with you. The assumption is that more left-wing and higher-educated people tend to be more concerned about the environment than their more right-wing and lower-educated counterparts. And, moreover, that this is the case to a greater extent in reflexively modern contexts. To measure this, I used the standard measure for knowledge economies, the European Values Study, which I am proud to say is one of the outputs of my department.6


Figure 2

Atlas of European Values

Figure 3

Atlas of European Values

Figures 2 and 3 show what people think about the environment in several European countries.7 I used a couple of relevant items and then produced a scale for environmental concern and tried to figure out how left-wing or rightwing and higher or lower-educated people reacted in different countries. It is rather reassuring that the more advanced a society is, the more reflexively modern it is, and the more people generally are aware of various environmental issues. This is also the case for lower-educated people. However, there is a growing disparity between the higher and lower-educated. This is not that visible in the graph, but it is significant in the model. It might be said, therefore, that polarization is taking place between higher and lower-educated people (see Figure 4).

Figure 4


Figure 5


This polarization is more pronounced between the more left-wing and the more right-wing (Figure 5). The graph shows that people who are politically on the right fail to increase their environmental concerns in these knowledge-rich societies as much as people who are politically more to the left. This similarly illustrates the polarization on these kinds of issues currently dividing Europe.

In conclusion, people generally are more concerned about the environment in advanced reflexively modern societies. Reflexively-minded people, the higher-educated and left-wing self-identifiers are most concerned with the environment. Yet their anti-reflexive counterparts, people who are lower-educated and right-wing, are less committed to the environment. The tensions between these groups are substantial and are growing in advanced reflexively modern societies in Europe.

So Thierry, who raises questions about Gerrit’s climate change questions, is not alone. Both Baudet and Hiemstra might be regarded as representatives of large-scale societal polarization. This gives rise to all sorts of questions. For instance, what is the relevance of this for confidence in different fields of scientific expertise? I am in the process of gathering data and when that will have concluded in a few months’ time, the data will analyze themselves. Hopefully, these data will help me explain why people on the right tend to trust economists – like Tobias Klein – way more than sociologists like me. Perhaps that is because sociologists are more into impact science than the typical economist is. And then, of course, there is the question of how to deal with such polarization. But that is a matter for another occasion.

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