Initial Research Proposal: Understanding end time scenarios as a tool of political agitation: Historical perspectives, environmental humanities’ dimensions and implications for today’s political education

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“The future is uncertain, and analysis of just one scenario does little to communicate much about the range of opportunities and challenges liable to confront us."
United Nations Development Program on Foresight Methodologies

 

In a time considered as the “post-factual” or “post-truth age”, the process of opinion-making in societies must be observed with scrutiny.  If otherwise, one follows the definition of the Oxford Dictionary, the history of mankind could be described as “post-truth”: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief“.

End time scenarios can create such circumstances. They have accompanied mankind since the first religion emerged, throughout the middle ages until today and have been used for political agitation. The Russian philosopher Plekhanov coined the term “agitation” (which was later adapted by Lenin): agitation limits itself to one or very few ideas but conveys them to huge numbers of people.

Doomsday scenarios have proven to be a powerful tool for agitation because they can be of political, economic, social, cultural, religious or ecological nature. They are an effective instrument of agitation because they appeal to deep-rooted fears by posing a threat to human identity or even existence. This threat appears too vague, complex and significant to be fully understood and addressed alone. Consequently, the desire rises to follow ‘leaders’ and share their political beliefs. So, with the intention of mobilizing the people and to prevent the individual from making informed decisions, some movements make use of apocalyptical scenarios in a political, cultural, economic or ecological context. Nowadays, where movements spread wider and quicker and, in some cases, tend to radicalize people, this topic proves more relevant than ever. In recent history, environmental movements can be cited as an example when it comes to using extreme future scenarios as an instrument of political agitation. Sometimes this intention can be recognized solely through the movement's name such as “Extinction Rebellion” which stands in stark contrast to the peaceful “Fridays for Future” demonstrations.

Whereas the current discussion about post-truth politics often revolves around misrepresentation and even denial of facts, this research project takes a different approach by placing the problem in a socio-cultural context.

Therefore, I first want to find out how “doomsday scenarios” are being used to create a social climate in which emotions are more important than truthful facts. The second step is to explain why the stoking up of fears in society through end time scenarios is so 'successful' as an instrument for agitation and how a differentiated social debate can be diminished. Finally, this understanding is used to develop concepts, which can then be applied to political education. Those concepts aim to explain the mechanisms of end time scenarios as a means of agitation in order to sharpen critical awareness and to strengthen a responsible approach in political discussions.

Since these three research questions, especially in that combination, have hardly been investigated in academia the project could generate a research contribution.
To achieve this, an interdisciplinary approach is required. Besides the obvious disciplines of history and politics, I strive to establish links with psychology, social psychology, and sociology as well as communication and educational sciences. Especially, when it comes to understanding and addressing current societal developments, the findings of environmental humanities as a cross-disciplinary approach will provide a basis for analysis. I want to find patterns in the past and translate them into recommendations for the future. Therefore, I want to follow two paths: One that considers events, e.g. in the context of environmental history, and finds similarities and parallels between them to deepen the understanding of doomsday scenarios as a tool of political agitation. This will probably cover two-thirds of the project time. And one that considers the relevance of these scenarios today and shows how an awareness of them can be developed in political education. This phase is likely to take up the last third of the project.

Two methodological approaches follow from this: A descriptive or inductive branch and a design approach to derive recommendations for political education. The second aspect cannot be completely foreseen at this early stage of the project, as it is based on the findings of the first phase. Nevertheless, structured interviews with education experts will probably be an important research tool in this phase. In the first phase of the project, in order to create a basic understanding of the research questions, the qualitative content analysis of primary sources, in particular, the text analysis of interviews, speeches and scripted programs, is an indispensable research method in addition to studying literature, e.g. on the history of social movements. This does not exclude that methods of quantitative empirical social research may also be applied, e.g. to explain the ‘success’ of end time scenarios in different cultural contexts.  

My goal is to use what can be learned from past examples of political agitation and apply it to our current situation. There is a young generation afraid of what their future looks like. This makes people susceptible to political agitation and thus democracies vulnerable. If we understand how “opinions are made”, how movements are created, we could have another way of approaching politics and reasonable problem solving on a global scale: By filtering out some key elements that should be worked into political education this generation would have a chance to approach problems in the future critically, independent, informed and based on reason, to take responsibility for the future in the sense of the introductory quote.

Janina Knörzer

Student, Trinity College Dublin

Currently studying History at Undergraduate level at Trinity College Dublin. Outside of college, I spend my time with music and ballet, catching up on reading ‘old classics’, some amateur photography, and trying to gain a little bit of an understanding of biology and medicine. For the duration of this programme, my research aims to prove a connection between environmental “end time” scenarios and their instrumentalization for the development of social movements. Through a historical perspective, I first want to identify patterns and then in a second step relate them back to universal reasons that make people susceptible to “political agitation”. Finally, I plan to develop recommendations for political education that help promote critical thinking in the context of political and social movements.

3 Comments

Go to the profile of Emma Franck-Gwinnell (she/her)

This sounds so interesting, Janina - I hope when you've completed your research, you'll share your findings with us here! Your research topic really resonates with me - that impending sense of dread when reading the news (especially nowadays, with COVID19 going on). It's contagious, and often based on emotion, not objective fact.

Although your research is in its early stages, I would really like to hear your preliminary thoughts on how the role of the media needs to change to combat this political agitation. I wonder if the media will be reluctant to change its behaviour, given that sensationalist headlines tend to 'sell' better?

Go to the profile of Janina Knörzer
Janina Knörzer 7 months ago

Thank you! It's really great to see other people interested in this as well! While my research is not focusing on the media itself, it undeniably plays a huge role in the process of political agitation. I am quite certain that, as you have mentioned, a large part of the media tends to publish what "sells" instead of fulfilling a responsibility to inform and to educate. A big issue then lies in what kind of "news" people are more willing to pay attention to and therefore in a psychological approach. But I believe that a change in the role of the media would also be a matter of financial independence. I would be happy to keep in touch with you about this.

Go to the profile of Emma Franck-Gwinnell (she/her)

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Janina! A really interesting topic, with no easy answers or quick fixes. I'm looking forward to reading more about your research!