Nodding to keep people talking …

Emanuele Toscano, editor, Researching Far-Right Movements: ethics, methodologies, and qualitative inquiries, Routledge / Social Movements in the 21st Century, Abingdon, 2019, pp. x and 151.

This collection combines short studies of varied far-right movements and organisations from different countries with careful consideration of methodological issues. As editor Emanuele Toscano states, researching the far-right often involves negotiating ‘ethical implications and difficulties related to field access, and the relationship between the researcher and the social world [under investigation], which is often far from his or her own moral convictions and values’.

Toscano notes the challenges in setting up the relationships and access which make researching far-right organisations and movements possible. These can come from ‘the wariness and lack of trust that [far-right] activists often nurture’ towards the researcher, who can be ‘viewed as an outsider and part of the “power system”’. Conversely, ‘activists may … have instrumental motivations to participate in a research project, seeing it as an opportunity for visibility and legitimation’.

In her chapter, Hilary Pilkington reflects on professional and ethical issues she faced during her award-winning ethnographic study of the English Defence League, carried out across 2012-15. She discusses the criticism that researchers who study ‘distasteful groups’ can become a ‘legitimising “mouthpiece” for the organisation or cause studied’. She also looks at the concern that ‘close-up research with those with whom we disagree … is potentially unethical towards respondents themselves … by building rapport with, for example, far-right respondents, researchers are faking friendship and thus deceiving them’. Her exploration of methodological traps and dangers combines theoretical consideration with detailed personal accounts of how she handled particular situations. Pilkington argues that high-quality and responsible ethnography involves a preparedness to ‘shift positions’ over the course of the research. This ‘is neither easy nor comfortable – it requires constant reflection and monitoring – but it allows the researcher to engage with activists as individuals with real lives’.

Thoughtful reflections on ‘techniques for establishing and maintaining rapport’ with activists in the white power movement in the United States are at the centre of Lisa K Waldner and Betty A Dobratz’s chapter. They ‘analyse some of the personal discomfort and distress’ they sometimes felt as researchers, sharing ‘the strategies we employed to address this’. Their detailed and personal account includes such points as that ‘for us, being respectful does not mean feigning agreement, but also means not reminding people that we do not share their views … respectful listening did not involve pretending to agree with racist or anti-Semitic views, but it did involve not actively challenging those views, along with nodding or engaging in other behaviours to keep people talking’. Waldner and Dobratz muse on whether their subjects might take nodding as a sign of agreement with white supremacist views, rather than as encouragement to carry on expressing and explaining their views, but the authors judge that most interviewees viewed this as ‘simply acknowledging’ that they were being understood.

Derya Göçer Akder and Kübra Oğuz assess the presence and activity of right-wing Turkish nationalists in demonstrations which were primarily defined as having an internationalist, secular character: the 2013 resistance movement and protests against Erdoğan and the AKP which centred on the occupation of Gezi Park in Istanbul. In much of the media, this was positioned as akin to the Occupy movement in the United States – progressive and left-wing – but this reductionist and simplifying assessment failed to recognise and be curious about the motivations of the young right-wing activists who took part in the sociologically complex events. Akder and Oğuz observe that the Turkish activists they studied had attitudes in common with ‘far-right movements [in] Europe – which is ironic, to say the least, given the anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim rhetoric that seems prevalent in several nationalisms across Europe’.

Toscano and Daniele di Nunzio contribute a chapter on CasaPound Italia. This far-right movement emerged from initiatives around ‘cultural themes and practices such as music, art, communication and social issues that, until then, right-wing organisations had not concerned themselves with’. Ayaka Suzuki focuses on Japanese women’s groups who are opposed to gender equality, and are helping shape the backlash against the gains of feminism. Wolfram Schaffar and Naruemon Thabchumpon write on ‘militant far-right royalist groups on Facebook in Thailand’. And Daniel Bizeul describes participating in activities of the Entraide Nationale, a charity linked to Le Pen’s Front Nationale which carries out ‘good deeds’ such as distributing food to homeless people. Bizeul muses on whether such actions simply amount to ‘political propaganda that is both inexpensive … and highly beneficial in terms of image’, or whether something more complex is going on. The editor rounds off this interesting book with a useful and clear summary of its key themes and insights.


Review published October 2019