Gwendolyn Sasse: “The role of uncertainty and fear needs to be addressed more explicitly”


Which countries and which topic does your current research focus on?

My current research primarily focuses on Ukraine and Russia. I study the impact of war and crises on attitudes and identities in Ukraine – both across the whole country and with a particular emphasis on individuals living in the war zone and the displaced. In my Russia-related research, I remain interested in the attitudes and behaviour of young people and regional variation in political attitudes among the population as a whole. Further research projects include data collection on youth attitudes in Poland and Latvia and the empirical analysis of the interaction of protest and migration dynamics in Poland and Ukraine.

What impact does the pandemic currently have on your work?

The pandemic had an immediate impact on data collection. Most of it had to be postponed because it proved impossible to continue or would have introduced new biases into ongoing work. In some instances, it proved possible to switch to new means of data collection and explicitly address implications of Covid-19.

Covid-19 has made it impossible to carry out face-to-face interviews as part of a number of ongoing survey projects. The first wave of a large new panel survey in Russia aimed at tracing attitudes across a wide range of regions had to be postponed until autumn 2020 (hopefully).

The international project MOBILISE, funded under the Open Research Area, had to stop all quantitative and qualitative data collection for the time being. The project combines nationally-representative surveys (based on face-to-face interviews), in-depth interviews and focus groups in Poland, Ukraine, Argentina and Morocco with online-surveys, interviews and focus groups conducted among migrant communities from these four countries. Future surveys had to be delayed, and discussions are underway whether the project should switch to online-surveys if continued restrictions and ethical considerations rule out resuming face-to-face interviews. Qualitative interviews, which in principle could continue virtually, also had to be stopped, as interviewees were now primarily concerned about Covid19, thereby changing the focus and introducing a bias compared to previous interviews. Focus groups require live interaction and will not even be attempted in an online format.

How has Covid-19 influenced your research topic / the objective of your research?

Covid-19 shapes the thematic scope of my research and my methodological choices. On the one hand, the experience of Covid-19 extends the scope of ongoing projects and necessitates the inclusion of additional or reworded questions in surveys or interview questionnaires in order to adequately address the potential effects of the pandemic on individuals’ perceptions, preferences, political attitudes (e.g trust in institutions), expectations and behaviour. In particular, the role of uncertainty and fear needs to be factored in more explicitly. On the other hand, this extreme crisis may call the comparability with previously collected data into question. For example, the motivations and calculations underpinning an individual’s decision to exercise “voice” (protest) or “exit” (emigration) are likely to be affected by the pandemic.

Covid-19 can be thought of as an additional factor shaping attitudes, identities, behaviour and the dynamics of war, but the pandemic also makes other issues at least temporarily less relevant. The challenge is to incorporate the study of the effects of Covid-19 into ongoing projects without seeing every aspect of the project through the Covid19-lens. My pre-Covid19 research tackled different aspects related to statehood. The pandemic highlights the role of the state even more, for example in the context of border controls, return migration, central state capacity to manage the crisis, and the implications for incumbents and regime types. Moreover, a broader comparative perspective within and beyond Eastern Europe with regard to the role of the state and the political implications becomes more pressing.

In your view, what are the most important long-term effects of Covid-19 in your region?

The socioeconomic impact of the pandemic will be acute in Eastern Europe where many economies remain fragile and dependent on particular markets, a demand for natural resources or specific products, and international loans. Many East European states lack the financial reserves to back up small and medium-sized enterprises or support the newly unemployed or households in general. East European economies are likely to be thrown back considerably in their transition process - at a time when the EU and the international community in general lack resources and the political will to support them. Significant return migration to countries that are heavily dependent on migrant remittances and lack job prospects for returnees will bring additional challenges. At the moment, we see authoritarian tendencies strengthened in various parts of the region – in parts in order to ensure top-down implementation of Covid19-related measures and in parts to utilise the situation to further limit the space for political opposition. However, the ultimate political impact of the pandemic is not clear yet, as an unpredictable crisis also bears risks for authoritarian leaders. Depending on how long the pandemic lasts and how many people suffer or die, authoritarian regimes will have to confront public expectations and possibly protests over the state of their health systems, social policies and political responsiveness.

Overall, the wider region of Eastern Europe is further sidelined in international affairs, in particular as the EU has struggled to develop a coherent position internally and externally. Processes like the Eastern Partnership and EU enlargement are unlikely to be priorities of the EU in the foreseeable future. The EU will also struggle to uphold a united position on Russia. The ongoing war in eastern Ukraine gets even less international attention, as geopolitics are centred on the US-China axis and most countries are preoccupied with internal developments.

Looking at the social sciences, how will the experience of the pandemic change how research is done in general?

I would be careful not to overestimate the effect of the pandemic on the basic methodologies used in social science research. They retain their validity. It rather encourages a fresh look at the concepts informing our research in times of uncertainty. Categories like “the global”, “the national”, and “the local” are intertwined in new ways and require adjustments in the framing of our research. The pandemic has generated a significant demand for scientific expertise informing policy-makers and the public. Understandably, the emphasis has been on the natural sciences, but the social sciences also have a contribution to make, in particular on the social, economic and political consequences of the pandemic. The pandemic offers the chance to establish more truly interdisciplinary work linking the natural sciences with the social sciences and the humanities. The real-life demonstration of a multi-facetted event should be seen as an opportunity to highlight the scope for truly interdisciplinary work that values the different perspective each discipline and scholar brings.

Gwendolyn Sasse is the director of ZOiS.