Posted by: MYPLACE FP7 | August 9, 2012

The left/right dichotomy: One size does not fit all

In designing research instruments for  MYPLACE, it often becomes apparent that what works in one country may not necessarily work for others.

One such issue in the research design was how respondents might percieve questions about their position on a left-right political question. Here we briefly examine some of the researchers’ perspectives on the issue, with the help of research teams in Portugal and Latvia.

For more information on the MYPLACE project visit the project’s website: HERE

Contributors: Martin Price (University of Warwick, UK), David Cairns, Ana Alexandre, Tiago Carvalho and Nuno de Almeida Alves (Centro de Investigação e Estudos de Sociologia, Lisbon, Portugal), Inta Mierina (University of Warsaw, Poland and part of Daugavpils University MYPLACE team, Latvia).

The question of whether traditional descriptions of left/right ideologies remain relevant in 21st Century Europe has been the subject of much debate already. This blog’s purpose is not to attempt to offer a definitive view on the subject (disappointed readers may click away now…) but rather to use the issue to briefly highlight the challenges and value of researching social and political attitudes, engagement and activism in a diverse range of countries in and around the European Union.

The very purpose of MYPLACE is to explore young people’s perceptions of precisely this sort of issue, within their different national and historical contexts, and how these perceptions of political heritage shape the way they engage (or not) in political and civic activities. The key question to be debated at the stage of research design, therefore, was whether questions examining a young person’s position on the left-right political spectrum would actually have any meaning for our respondents.

There were, inevitably, different opinions within the project team. Rather than attempt to look at all the countries in the project, we will see the views of two of our teams: in Portugal and Latvia.

Portugal (David Cairns, Ana Alexandre, Tiago Carvalho and Nuno de Almeida Alves – Centro de Investigação e Estudos de Sociologia, Lisbon)

In Portugal, the left/right ideological dichotomy continues to play an important role in politics, and indeed civil society per se. For political parties, particularly those who want to be recognised as such by potential voters, this is manifest most visibly in the name of one relatively recent party, Bloco Esquerda (BE), or Left Bloc in English, but more fundamentally in terms of the ideological discourse and policies of all of the main parties. These parties obviously have differing left/right ideological orientations:

BE – normally regarded as a post-materialist party of the left;

PCP (Partido Comunista or Communist Party of Portugal) – a more traditional leftist party;

PS (Partido Socialista or Socialist Party) a relatively mainstream centre-left party;

PSD (Partido Social Democrata or Social Democratic Party) – centre-right;

CDS-PP (Centro Democrático e Social – Partido Popular or Democratic and Social Centre – People’s Party) – right wing/conservative.

Between the parties of the centre, i.e. PS and PSD, there is much common ground, most obviously in terms of their policies in respect to managing the current economic crisis. Both PS and PSD favour austerity, albeit not necessarily in the exact same measures or to the same extent. The latter party is the senior partner in the present coalition government, with CDS-PP as the junior partner, which continues to work with the EC/ECB/IMF troika, the bail-out having been previously initiated by the former PS government in 2011. It would therefore be unusual, for example, for the PS to vote against the economic policies of the present PSD-CDS coalition. The parties further to the left would however be in complete opposition to the austerity policies.

In respect to Portuguese citizens, according to Freire (2005), between 1970 and 2002, the evolution of ideological identities and dividing lines suggests a growth in left/right identification: circa 65% post 25 April 1974 (the date of the Portuguese revolution) but closer to 80% in 2002, contrary to the assertion that such ideological positioning is on the decline in European society. Where there is a greater decline or variance in political positioning is more in terms of identification with actual parties themselves. From this point of view, we can conclude that left/right identification continues to be of high significance in Portugal and is pivotal in the political decision-making of Portuguese voters.

Latvia (Inta Mierina – Daugavpils University)

With regards to post-communist countries Natalia Letki has a wonderful paper with Margit Tavits about why the left-right distinction does not work there:

Thus, I personally I would not use this distinction. Unfortunately, the electorate in Latvia is very clearly split along ethnic lines, and this is what mostly determines the results of elections. The Harmony center has a loyal basis of Russian voters, and the “Latvian parties” do not differ that much in terms of economic policies and political stance.

In the end, a finding that such distinctions are not relevant in some countries, but remain so in others, would be of interest in itself. For those interested in the outcome of the discussions when our research instruments were designed, the question will be asked. In MYPLACE, we hope to learn much about what is the same, but also what is different across so many regions. We also learn as we go along that multi-national social research is often even more complex than it first appears. We also learn that with the right spirit of constructive academic debate, common research instuments can be created.


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