Research of how the times darken
Stephen D Ashe, Joel Busher, Graham Macklin and Aaron Winter, editors, Researching the Far Right: Theory, method and practice, Routledge, Abingdon / New York, 2021, pp. xix and 411.
Reviewed by Mike Makin-Waite
This is an important addition to the rapidly-growing literature on the far-right – and makes a significant contribution to the wider consideration of methodological approaches in political sociology. It comprises twenty-three varied and high-quality chapters. These amount to a major survey of debates amongst researchers on the far-right, and of trends in research styles and focus, with diverse contributors from Britain, western Europe, Scandinavia and the USA (with one contributor from Australia and one from Canada).
The book assesses different theoretical perspectives, practical challenges and the options and dilemmas which researchers face. At the same time, it incorporates a great deal of empirical information on far-right politics, ‘mindsets’ and culture. Such a combination of theory and concrete description exemplifies the qualities which shape the individual monographs in the book series of which this volume now forms part: the Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right.
The book is organised into five parts. The first collects overviews of ‘the evolution of far-right studies’, considered from the standpoints of such different ‘disciplines’ as political science, history, sociology, and criminology. Anthropologist Peter Hervik explains how his perspectives help correct the tendency to prioritise ‘a top-down, political party focus over the phenomenon [of the far right] itself’.
Pasko Merino, Tereza Capelos and Catarina Kinnvall explore ‘the intersection of political developments and both individual and collective psychological experiences’. They are clear that this focus should complement rather than replace attempts to explain far right politics in relation to socio-economic conditions. Peoples’ reactions to deindustrialisation, demographic change, trends in immigration and ‘challenges of globalisation and EU integration’ cannot be reduced to matters of individual or group psychology – but nor should such factors be left out of explanation.
Referring back to the work of Adorno and his colleagues on ‘the authoritarian personality’, published in 1950, the authors trace the subsequent development of understanding about how some peoples’ ‘attitudinal orientations’ and values can predispose them to support the far right. There’s also consideration of ‘psychoanalytical readings of the far right’; the process by which forms of masculinity are constructed so as to address ‘feelings of alienation, inadequacy and overall disempowerment’ on the part of young white men; and the psychological dynamics at work during far-right activity online.
Although there is now a very large number of books and articles about the far-right ‘family’ of parties and groups, historian Nigel Copsey notes that ‘the study of fascism as a particular historical phenomenon did not really get underway until the 1960s’. There were several reasons for this, one being ‘the dominance of the “totalitarian” paradigm which twinned fascism with communism’.
Copsey summarises debates over the extent to which fascism and related far right politics are phenomena of crisis, only really present in exceptional circumstances. This links to ongoing discussion on whether recent far right movements and parties should been seen as different to the ‘classic’ fascism of Hitler and Mussolini, or whether today’s ‘neo-fascists still retain continuity with inter-war fascism’.
Kathleen Blee and Mehr Latif’s ten-page ‘sociological survey of the far right’ compensates for its brevity by providing a systematic and concise summary of different forms of study: those focussed on movements, context, culture and identity, outcomes, membership and activists, and ideology. The authors offer insights on the ‘thorny issues of access, validity and ethics’ which sociologists face. I was struck by their honest recognition of the temptations which result from the fact that ‘virtually all scholars of the far right explicitly reject its political claims and agendas … [they are] distanced from, and generally disdain the subject they study, in sharp contrast to the connection and appreciation that characterise the scholar-subject relationship in sociological research on progressive politics … scholars generally try to avoid harming those they study by, for example, honouring commitments to keep information confidential or preserve the anonymity of informants. But in the case of the far right, the researcher’s ethical concern not to harm an individual research subject chafes against a broader social ethic to promote social justice and social truth by combatting the ideas and mobilising efforts of the far right’.
Datasets, chambers, assumptions
The second section of Researching the Far Right considers the issues involved in ‘quantitative approaches and online research’. A thorough consideration of some technical models that can be used to estimate the likely levels of support for the far right in particular societies ends by recognising their limits: ‘the underlying mechanisms that transform say increased unemployment to far right votes are not really interpretable at [a general, regional and national] level of aggregation’.
Jacob Asland Ravndal and Anders Ravik Jupskås note the barriers to reliable comparative studies of ‘far right violence’: different countries hold different levels and forms of data on this problem; there are variations in ‘the extent to which … datasets correctly mirror the actual universe of far-right violence’; and not every act of violence committed by a supporter of the far right is necessarily motivated by far-right political views.
The importance of social media for far-right mobilisation and activism justifies a series of chapter which commence with Jasper Muis, Ofra Klein and Guido Dijkstra on ‘using Twitter and Facebook to investigate far right discourses’. This is followed by Peita L Richards’ detailed description of how she combined social psychological theory with analysis of ‘big data’ in an attempt to understand the online behaviours of far-right supporters in the USA.
Andreas Önnerfors contributes a detailed study of one German far right online platform. His chapter is particularly useful in detailing how users of the site interact. The phrase ‘echo chambers’ is widely used, but the way these actually develop is less often discussed. Önnerfors describes the ‘liquid, fractal, rhizomatic, non-linear and inter-medial’ character of online activity, and how the resulting ‘almost sealed sphere[s] of information’ contribute ‘to the polarisation of the public sphere and erosion of the authority of traditional knowledge-producing institutions’.
The chapters making up the third part of the book consider the issues involved in ‘interviewing the far right’. As Amy Fisher Smith and her co-authors state, such ‘qualitative research’ offers ‘access to the lived world of meaning as experienced by participants’. Researchers need to manage their ‘preconceptions’, but these can be an asset, if consciously used.
Betty A Dobratz and Lisa K Waldner recount their experiences when ‘interviewing members of the white power movement in the United States’. Dobratz and Waldner’s work has been noted before on this website: in their piece for Researching the Far Right, they note a range of risks. These include being wrongly assumed by antifa activists and / or the police to be supporters of the far right, and having their own academic work disdained because of the ‘stigmatisation of research’ on far-right movements. As these authors state, such stigmatisation ‘could reduce the number of social scientists willing to do this research and / or limit what authors are willing to write or share about the research process’.
A certain ‘sympathy’
Some of the richest chapters in the book are in part four: ‘ethnographic studies of the far right’. Vidhya Ramalingam’s account of how she conducted ethnography on the Swedish far right as a ‘researcher of colour’ is thoughtfully alert to contradictions and complexities. She recalls ‘numerous occasions when I felt “sympathy” for [far right] movements and its struggles, despite my personal attachments to race equality and anti-racism causes’. This involved recognising her subjects as people who ‘were socially stigmatised and met with a high level of hostility (as a “fragile, marginal and politically dispossessed population” themselves)’.
Joel Busher’s chapter brings together many of the book’s themes in a thoughtful reflection on the approach he took in his ethnographic study of activism in the English Defence League, a study he embarked on with some ‘moral discomfort’. He attempted ‘to treat EDL activists in the same way as I would activists in a movement whose aims I broadly endorsed, so long as this did not entail me becoming complicit in what I considered to be the most fundamentally problematic aspect of their movement: their dehumanisation of various Others – primarily Muslims, but sometimes also ethnic minority groups, left-wing activists and members of “the establishment”.
Busher attributes his ‘non-dehumanisation principle’ to the particular route he took through successive roles working for NGOs and carrying out research projects. He also sees it as being consistent with a core principle of ‘good social science’, which appreciates the full extent of peoples’ agency. By carefully considering what motivated his subjects, Busher provides interesting observations on the nature of the organisation, responding to the fact that EDL activists resisted being labelled as ‘far right’.
Stephen D Ashe’s notes on his study of the ‘electoral rise and fall of the BNP’, which focusses on Barking and Dagenham, are very stimulating. He shows how ‘part of the explanation for the BNP’s electoral inroads lay within local history and the contours of place’. Ashe also focusses on another key issue, which is the political context within which the far right was able to emerge: ‘what was the relationship between the dominant local Labour Parties and civil society both prior to and after the emergence of the BNP’?
John W P Veugelers develops the theme that ‘place matters’ by listing ‘five rationales for local studies of the far right’. These include the need to isolate ‘specificities that explain unusual local success, activity or failure’ and tracing how there can be ‘different paths to a shared outcome’. He illustrates his points with reference to his own study of the Front National in the French city of Toulon.
Style, fashion and behaviour in German ‘far right youth subcultures’ is the subject of Cynthia Miller-Idriss and Annett Graefe-Geusch’s chapter in the book’s final section. Ruth Wodak provides an exemplary and detailed case study of how far-right politicians formulate and promote their exclusionary rhetoric.
Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter conclude the volume with important reflections on ‘far right research’. They note the dangers of researchers being influenced by the current media context, and set out helpful ways to manage these. In this, they usefully apply key arguments from their recent book Reactionary Democracy, reminding us that ‘demonisation and pathologising of the far right [can] serve to separate them … from the mainstream and wider structures and institutions of power’. One risk is that the ‘extreme’ politics of the far right can be presented in ways that position the reactionary anti-immigrant policies of mainstream politicians as ‘sensible’ and ‘normal’. Another risk is that – in spite of the researcher’s intentions – their careful work might add to the trends by which far right politics are becoming mainstreamed, legitimised and normalised. Such dangers need navigating at the same time as ensuring that studies of far-right parties, groups and movements are connected to and form part of ‘structural, systemic analysis’.
To close a review of such a substantial collection by noting a couple of issues which it does not cover may seem churlish – but the following points serve to illustrate how this impressive book stimulates ideas for research in further directions. I would have liked to have seen more consideration of the impact which far right successes have had on the institutions of governance: how are local town and city municipalities, regional bodies, national governments and the European Parliament affected when racist and populist politicians are represented on them, especially when they have achieved decision-making power? How do paid staff and civil servants respond to these developments? What effect has the growth of the far right had on other political organisations and movements? How, for example, has it affected the thinking and understanding of conservatives, liberals, and social-democrats? And, given that so many methodological lessons and fresh ideas and insights have been generated through the specific experience of researching the far right, how can we ensure that these are applied more widely to the study of other political tendencies and social movements?
Perhaps most urgently, how can we ensure that researchers’ insights are applied to developing effective progressive politics which closes down the space for reaction, and addresses the substantive social issues, economic inequalities and systemic contradictions which are generating it? Books and theses on the far right are accumulating as the times continue to darken.
Review published December 2020.
The illustration is a chart showing the growing percentage of seats in the European parliament held by ‘right wing populist parties’ across the period 1979 to 2019. It is taken from a 2019 report published by the German thinktank adelphi: www.adelphi.de