In the meet the team series, we introduce a member of the research group every week to give an impression beyond the scientific work. For this purpose, our student assistant Philippe Sander asked us a few questions.
Today in the interview: Tobias. As political sociologist his research focuses in particular on the role of citizen participation for legitimacy beliefs and how these are related to the substantial “quality” of citizens’ contributions to such participation processes. In addition, he is leading the research group. More infos on his research are available here.
What inspired you to pursue a career in your research field, and how did you get started in your field?
I think it has always been important to me how people can determine their fate and how to ensure that societies agree on how they want to live together. That is why early on in my studies I was interested in political participation and its role in political decision-making. At the beginning of my research, the main focus was on the influence of the Internet. Many questions were still open at that time. One of them was, for example, whether more people would participate through these digital possibilities, or whether online participation could achieve anything at all. Meanwhile, the new media are no longer new and I’m pursuing other questions beyond that, but I’ve remained true to the topic of participation.
Can you describe your current research project and what you hope to achieve with it? What do you personally find the most interesting about it?
In our current research project, the fundamental question is how local authorities can succeed in making the transition to sustainable mobility and adapting to climate change. After all, mobility is a major factor for emissions. From my point of view, the complex issue of climate change and what we can do about it is not a technical question, but rather a social one. To be precise: How do we manage to do these things – which we know we have to do – in such a way that they are ecologically, socially and economically sustainable and accepted by the population?
How do you go about your research? What methods, theories or frameworks do you use?
Well, I think what’s exciting is that our research group works together with Sociology, Urban Planning and Computer Science in a very interdisciplinary way, and each discipline has its own theories and methods. In the field of participation research, the fundamental question is what function the participation of citizens actually has beyond elections. Of course, participatory theories of democracy provide different answers to this question than liberal or even elitist understandings of democracy. Furthermore, we deal a lot with the question of who participates at all and why, or rather why not. In my research, we are mainly relying on the Civic Voluntarism Model. Otherwise, I am primarily interested in the extent to which participation leads to greater acceptance of decisions and also of those responsible for the decision. We talk about legitimacy and work a lot with Easton, Scharpf and Norris.
Methodologically, the project is also quite exciting, because we work both quantitatively and qualitatively and try to combine both. In my research, we mainly work quantitatively, with standardized surveys and corresponding quantitative analysis methods.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your work and how do you overcome them?
That we always have to keep a balance between the actual research, the management of it and the rest of the self-management. In addition, a whole series of challenges arise when science and practice collide, for example in terms of time, because we are often dependent on the planning of the cities with which we work together. In the project itself, it’s extra special because we work with different disciplines. You have to find a common language there. That’s not always easy.
How do you stay on top of the latest trends and developments in your field?
For us as scientists this can be the direct exchange with colleagues, i.e. at conferences. Otherwise, I receive regular updates on the latest articles from journals that I read and that are relevant and pertinent to my topic. I consider this to be a very good way to gain insight into current topics, methods and debates that interest me.
How do you collaborate with other researchers or experts in your field to improve your projects?
I think it is important that we regularly gather feedback, such as at colloquia for dissertations or in workshops that we organize. In the process, we then also receive feedback from people outside our project. In addition, we have a scientific advisory board for our project that gives us valuable tips. In my opinion, it is primarily the constant exchange with others that is important. This can happen informally in the university environment, by meeting in the hallway and talking about some issues, or formally at conferences.
What impact do you hope your research will have on society or the field?
Personally, I consider climate change to be the greatest challenge facing humanity. From my perspective, it is less a technical problem and more a social problem that needs to be solved. We have, for the most part, the technology to do so, but fail to agree on the necessary measures, such as a speed limit. Ideally, our research will help identify a few aspects that are likely to help with this. But we may also find situations for which it turns out that citizen participation is not the right thing to do and other formats or means need to be explored. The big question is how to succeed in bringing about the transformation to more sustainability, and we are trying to provide a small piece of the puzzle.
Can you tell us about any interesting or meaningful experiences you had during your research?
What distinguishes us is our collaboration with practice. It is always exciting to step out of academic debates and be confronted with reality. This might also give new insights. As I said, it’s not always easy, but that’s what I really appreciate. Perhaps a bit more general, but what I also find an important experience: learning how nice it is when other people you accompanied at the beginning of their scientific career do a good job and that you perhaps had a certain part in helping them develop their potential.
What advice do you have for students and aspiring scientists just starting out in their careers?
The first question to ask yourself is: What interests me? The balance between openness and perseverance is important here. In other words, not blindly following trends and hastily dropping topics, but also not being resistant to advice and suggestions of others. The second is more of a formal thing. Academic research holds an incredible amount of possibilities. The upside is, you can always work, the downside is, you will always work: these thoughts and ideas regarding your research cannot be switched off. You have to be aware of that and decide for yourself if it fits with your personal plans in life.
Lastly, can you tell us a little about yourself outside of your work? What hobbies or interests do you pursue in your spare time, and how do they complement your research?
The topic of environmental protection is also one that accompanies me personally. To ask what we can do, and how we can perhaps also convince others to do a bit more than they are doing now. That‘s a nice connection between what is important to me personally and what I can do in my research. And that’s the way it should be. Apart from that, I have a family and can therefore rarely complain about boredom.