A team of Austrian and Hungarian sociologists is investigating what impact the protracted economic crisis has on the motives that fuel solidarity. © pixabay.com/CC0

Solidarity is a value emblazoned on many banners. While it is always about cohesion, justice and mutual support within a group, the definition of who is part of the group and who does not belong can be based on a variety of factors. Whereas right-wing populist groups focus more on solidarity within a group of uniform national/ethnic background, young movements such as PODEMOS in Spain fight for social justice, democratic improvements and solidarity for people of shared social parameters facing a common fate. The earlier SIREN project headed by the sociologist Jörg Flecker was conducted between 2001 and 2004 – i.e. three years before the financial and economic crisis hit in the autumn of 2007. SIREN (Socio-economic change, individual reactions and the appeal of the extreme right) was a European research project that involved investigations in eight European countries about whether and how the growing popularity of right-wing populist or far-right groups might be connected to already detectable changes in working and living conditions. “Losers through modernisation as target voters was the fashionable explanation then. The study results, however, showed a more differentiated picture. Both groups, the upwardly mobile and the downwardly mobile, felt drawn to far-right movements”, notes Jörg Flecker in the interview with scilog. On the other hand, social change has also given a boost to social movements with democratic and inclusive agendas advocating transnational solidarity since 2008. This raises the question as to why people in comparable situations react so differently to the impact of crises and societal challenges.

Symbolic battle about definition of solidarity

Running until 2019, the SOCRIS (Solidarity in times of crisis) follow-up project will investigate the impact of accelerated socio-economic change on political orientations in Austria and Hungary. The focus lies on different viewpoints regarding a hotly debated notion: “Right in front of our eyes a symbolic battle is raging about what solidarity is and should be. Extremely right-wing and populist right-wing movements also proclaim solidarity as a value. For the time being, the two views are still in balance”, emphasises the sociologist Jörg Flecker. The two countries have been chosen for comparison because they have many things in common but were affected in different degrees by the economic crisis. The Austrian Science Fund FWF supports the bilateral research co-operation of the teams led by Istvan Grajczjár from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Jörg Flecker from the Department of Sociology at the University of Vienna and the FORBA Working Life Research Centre, Vienna. “The Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Hungarian Jobbik want to protect an imaginary national or ethnic identity against internal threats arising from immigration and against external threats resulting from Europeanisation and globalisation”, the sociologist points out. At the same time, Austria saw a wave of solidarity cutting across nationality frontiers in the context of the refugee influx in 2015. In Hungary, support groups have been active for years to mitigate the effects of the crisis from within civil society. SOCRIS examines how people of working and voting age perceive the impact of the crisis and socio-economic change and why comparable situations still lead to different reactions. The ongoing FWF project aims at identifying the driving forces and processes influencing the respective attitudes to solidarity.

Who is on the inside when the going gets rough?

For the purposes of SOCRIS, the scientists will assemble quantitative and qualitative data for geographical (Austria/Hungary) and temporal (SIREN/SOCRIS) comparisons in three phases. A review of the literature to identify the state of research on forms of solidarity, the impact and consequences of the economic crisis in Austria and Hungary between 2008 and 2016, the appeal of the extreme right, the economy and the labour market was concluded at the end of 2016. Quantitative investigations using telephone surveys in both countries are in the preparatory stage and will be conducted in June 2017. The surveys will include 1000 individuals between 18 and 65 in each country (i.e. a representative sample of the overall population). They will be supported by interviews with 250 unemployed individuals per country, followed by 40 in-depth qualitative interviews, respectively, that revolve around the changes in peoples’ lives. These in-depth interviews will focus on factors such as the labour market, price increases, refugee assistance, asylum, welfare state, social policy, but also political orientation and opinions about topics currently being publicly debated. The ensuing interpretation process will investigate causal relations: which concepts appeal to people and what views do they support for what reasons? “Once we have settled who people consider as ‘belonging’ and deserving of assistance and why, we can draw conclusions for many social issues that are currently on the agenda: access to the labour market, closing the borders or a means-tested minimum income”, notes Jörg Flecker.

Personal details Jörg Flecker is a professor of General Sociology, head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Vienna and Chairman of the FORBA Working Life Research Centre, Vienna. His main research interests include labour & employment, digitisation & labour, as well as socio-economic change and political right-wing extremism. Between 2001 and 2004 Flecker was in charge of the SIREN European research project about the increasing momentum of right-wing populism in Europe.

Top Citizen Science (TCS) Building on the SOCRIS project, in the Citizen Science initiative "Worlds apart? Solidarity concepts and political orientations in social media" people from different social and political milieus analyse their own bubbles by leading and anaylizing discussions with their Facebook friends on selected political issues. Top Citizen Science funding initiative

Publications and contributions

Flecker, Jörg: Europäisches Sozialmodell, Krisenpolitik und die extreme und populistische Rechte. In: Europäische Identität in der Krise? Europäische Identitätsforschung und Rechtspopulismusforschung im Dialog, Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 101-120, 2017 (in German)
Flecker, Jörg (Ed.): Changing Working Life and the Appeal of the Extreme Right, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2007
Blog contribution to SOCRIS project event, February 2017: http://www.beigewum.at/2017/03/unaufhaltsame-krisengewinner-die-extreme-und-populistische-rechte-in-europa/ (in German)