There are a number of academic papers on what the “typical” biography of an Austrian politician looks like. They are usually written by political scientists and deal with the question of who gets into parliament and what links there are between these individuals. This would be a typical question: was the individual in question in the youth organisation of a particular party? But it may be interesting to know not only whether a politician was in a youth organisation, but also for how long. Or at what age they joined.
This is the angle taken by Philipp Korom, a sociologist at the University of Graz, and his team of students. In the FWF-funded project “National and Local Political Elites in Austria” they compare the life itineraries of political – including the chronological aspects. Their goal: a comprehensive survey of the life histories of political elites in Austria over time that helps to record similarities, differences and changes. “In terms of the study design, it is a classic sociological study of an elite,” says Korom. The team is drafting a “collective biography”, i.e. a typical career of a specific social group. The technical name for this method is prosopography.
Collection of biographical data over 70 years
At the core of the project is the data set for which the team coded the careers of more than 1,500 politicians, including all members of the National Council (the lower house of the Austrian Parliament) from 1950 to 2019. “It was a mammoth task,” says Korom. While there were quite a few data sets that they were able to use (“every generation had its own”), there was none with such a broad and systematic approach. In the future, their data set will be made available to other researchers via AUSSDA, the Austrian Social Science Data Archive.
Sequential analysis – a method originally used in molecular biology to decipher genetic patterns – is used to analyse the biographies. The professional CV of a politician is represented as a sequence of different professional stages, each of which lasts for a certain period of time. One would find, for instance, that Sebastian Kurz and Gernot Blümel joined the Young Austrian People's Party (Junge ÖVP) in their teens (the classic party career, often called the “slog circuit”), while Pamela Rendi-Wagner was already in her mid-40s when she joined the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ). Using various matching methods, the researchers can find overlaps, define clusters and ultimately create typologies of typical elite careers. “This means we don't just look at whether two politicians had identical stages in their career,” says Korom, “but also at whether they had them at the same point in their lives.
Little change in the recruitment system
The project at the University of Graz is a follow-up project. Before that, in another project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF, Korom studied the CVs of academic elites. The current research project started in 2019 and will run until January 2023. “Three major questions emerged that we wanted to pursue and answer with the help of the data,” notes Korom. “The first question: has anything changed in the parties' recruitment systems for the National Council? The second: why were women so significantly underrepresented in the National Council, at least until a few years ago? And the third: who gets a seat on the various committees?” Results for all three research questions are already available and are under peer-review for publication in journals.
“It is interesting to note that while the party system has changed in the course of the Second Republic, the recruitment systems have hardly changed at all,” says Korom. Not everything has remained the same, of course: in the SPÖ, the trade union became less relevant as a recruitment pool from the 1970s onwards, and in the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) fewer current MPs have a background in the Farmers' Association. “But in essence the biographies of MPs are very similar over the entire period.” In the ÖVP, for example, the structural focus on associations is evident no matter what period of time one looks at. The data also provide explanations for the longstanding and continuing under-representation of women in the National Council. “We found that the leap from local to national politics, for example from the position of mayor to the National Council, is more open to men”.
Enough room for follow-up research
Korom emphasises that many questions could only be touched upon in the project. But via the data set it opens up opportunities for follow-up research. So there is only one question to be put to Korom: having studied the biographies of more than 1,500 Austrian politicians, does he have some guidance for the next generation? What should I do if I am 18 years old and want to become a member of the National Council at some point? “The answer to this question is the same now as it was in 1970: do the slog circuit. That gives you the best chances for a political career.”
Philipp Korom studied sociology and psychology in Graz, Florence and Strasbourg and acquired his professorial qualification at the University of Wuppertal. In 2013 he received the Thesis Award of the Austrian Association for Sociology. In 2020, he received the Gustav Figdor Award for Law, Social and Economic Sciences from the Austrian Academy of Sciences. The research project “National and Local Political Elites in Austria” (2019–2023) has been granted EUR 329,000 in funding from the Austrian Science Fund FWF.
Korom, Philipp: Who runs Parliamentary Committees? Insights from the Austrian Case, 2022