Keeping it in the family: Sisters form interdisciplinary research duo

Political scientist Hanna and psychologist Emma have more in common than their surname, Bäck. They are sisters but also make up an interdisciplinary research team. By combining their subjects, they are attempting to gain a complete picture of what motivates people to take part in political protests and why some of them resort to political violence. The research indicates that people who have previously experienced exclusion from social contexts have a greater tendency to take part in these kinds of activities. This is particularly true of people who are extra-sensitive to rejection.

Emma o Hanna Back LITEN

Emma and Hanna Bäck are not only sisters – they also conduct research together.

Political scientist Hanna Bäck has been researching people’s political engagement for several years. When the Swedish Research Council announced the availability of funding for interdisciplinary research on democracy, she didn’t need to look very far for a suitable research partner. Her sister Emma Bäck had recently completed a PhD in psychology; Emma’s research findings included a connection between belonging to an oppositional minority and being intolerant of others’ views. This subject relates to the sisters’ current research project, which studies the driving force behind engagement in political protest movements.

While political parties are losing members, it is increasingly common for people to get involved in various protest movements. Contrary to a few decades ago, it is no longer considered extreme to take to the streets to demonstrate, for example. So despite the parties’ drop in membership, interest in politics among the general public has probably not diminished, but merely found new avenues. This is confirmed by the continued high level of voter turnout.

“In fact, spending a whole day to take part in a demonstration, for example, requires greater commitment than going to the polls once every four years”, says Hanna Bäck.

It is interesting that the time dedicated to the activity is often disproportionate to the actual level of influence achieved. On the other hand, engagement in social movements is rewarding in a completely different way, namely on the social level – the aspect that Hanna and Emma Bäck want to investigate in depth.

This is why Emma Bäck designed a psychological study to investigate the incentive to take part in various protest activities; do people take part in a specific activity because they really want to have an effect or because they are afraid of being excluded if they don’t? These alternatives are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the Bäck sisters believe fear of rejection is the main driving factor behind participation in protests.

Two different studies of 120 students investigated how sensitive they were to rejection, and how they behaved when experiencing rejection which, in the studies, consisted of the students being told their views were not in line with the position of a fictional organisation. The studies showed a connection between fear of rejection and an increased willingness to “help out” in various contexts, especially after a person had experienced rejection. In the next stage, this connection is to be tested in more extreme groups, which often have strong cohesion, according to Hanna Bäck.

“Many people in these groups have perhaps already been excluded in other contexts”, she says. “In extreme internet forums, they probably get a lot of support for their views. If they are sensitive to rejection, our hypothesis is that they are willing to go quite far in order to avoid experiencing it again, now that they have finally found a group which accepts them. Perhaps even so far as to consider resorting to violence if the group should demand it.”

Emma Bäck will now organise a psychological experiment to investigate whether the tendency towards radicalisation increases in people who fear rejection.

While Emma Bäck is the brains behind the psychological experiments, Hanna Bäck provides the theoretical and political framework for the studies. However, they have realised in the course of their work that there is a lot of very similar literature in psychology and political science in this field. The differences lie mainly in the language used.

“To begin with, we had a lot of discussions and it took a while before we figured out that we were in fact talking about the same thing”, says Emma Bäck, who hopes that their collaboration will also contribute to bringing the two research fields closer together so as to promote more cross-fertilisation between psychology and political science.

What is it like to conduct research with your sister? How does your family relationship affect your work?

Both sisters respond positively.

“We can be more efficient in clever ways, such as combining work with long walks”, says Hanna Bäck. “Our collaboration has also been facilitated by the fact that we have different areas of expertise.”

In the long term, they hope that their research will provide a better basis and understanding for the underlying mechanisms which cause people to develop extreme views and sometimes resort to violence.

Text: Ulrika Oredsson

Photo: Gunnar Menander

High ranking journal to Lund

Lund has been entrusted with editing the highly ranked journal Political Psychology.
“Political psychology is a major subject in the USA. In Europe, the subject is not as big but it is growing”, says Professor of Political Science Catarina Kinnvall, who will be the journal’s main editor. Hopefully moving the journal to Europe will further reinforce the subject and attract more European grants.

For several years now, the University has had a network for discussion of common issues and collaborations among mainly psychologists and political scientists, but also sociologists and cognitive scientists. The network is led by Catarina Kinnvall and includes sisters Emma and Hanna Bäck (see related article). At present, the political psychology network has a number of applications pending for research projects on tolerance, multiculturalism, radicalisation, political violence and extreme right-wing groups.

“The fact that we got the journal here is a clear recognition”, says Catarina Kinnvall, explaining that there are also advanced plans to create a European research centre for political psychology in Lund.