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The politics of anxiety: vulnerability and gender inequality in politics

The key question for this project is how emotions such as fear and worry affect political life, and more specifically how anxiety may serve as explanation for gender differences – in attitudes and behavior – in politics. The projects draws from and integrate findings from at least three fields of research: research on gender and risk perceptions; research on gender differences in political life and how these can be related to structural inequalities in society; and research on the role of emotions in politics. This integrative approach opens up for theoretical developments in several ways: regarding anxiety as a causal mechanism in democratic developments, but also regarding sex/gender at the cross-road between ‘real-world’ inequalities and the social construction of feminity/masculinity.

Negative emotions such as fear, worry and anxiety may affect the everyday lives of women and men in many different ways. Worries may relate to the individual’s personal situation – fear of violence and crime, unemployment or illness – or to society at large – fear of social unrest, poverty, terrorism, war, environmental degradation and pandemics. Numerous studies have shown that women, generally speaking, tend to be more anxious than men, and studies in risk psychology suggest that this anxiousness stems from feelings of being vulnerable (O’Connor & Bord, 1997). However, the link to the political sphere is still largely unexplored. Yet, feminist researchers have argued that women’s anxiety, and specifically their fear of violence and crime, acts as a form of social control, keeping women from achieving political and economic equality. Hollander (2001, 2002) suggests that vulnerability is deeply associated with gender and argues that it is the key mechanism that keeps women in subordinated positions, not only in the private sphere but also in public life (c.f. Wendt Höjer, 2002).

The problem is that this hypothesis has not yet been conclusively tested in large scale survey research using representative samples. Is vulnerability a factor that contributes to gender inequality in political life? The aim of this project is to explore to what extent and in which ways gender differences concerning anxiety have consequences for political equality between women and men. We pursue our investigation by conducting a large scale survey of the Swedish population, aimed at testing the association, but also at further exploring the mechanisms that provide the casual link between anxiety, gender and political attitudes/behavior.

The empirical data comes from a survey conducted by the well-established SOM (Society Opinion Media) institute at the University of Gothenburg. For the 2010 survey, a number of questions that measure the degree of anxiety among citizens when it comes to undesirable life events (such as the risk of being unemployed, becoming seriously ill, being a victim of crime, but also the risk of experiencing financial difficulties – lacking money when confronted with unexpected expenses) were constructed. There are also questions measuring the level of anxiety when it comes to developments in society at large.

Respondents were asked to indicate their personal anxiety in relation to general social problems/risks such as economic crises, mass-unemployment, organized crime, environmental risks, global epidemics, and some other areas. Moreover, we ask for evaluations about how the news media reports on these topics and additionally for evaluations regarding the responsibility of politicians to solve the problems. A series of variables measuring political attitudes and beliefs, political activity and participation, political and social trust, as well as socio-economic status and position are also included in the dataset.

The study is connected to the MOD Research Group (www.mod.gu.se), led by Lena Wängnerud (coordinator) and with Monika Djerf-Pierre in the steering committee. The MOD research group is a multidisciplinary center of excellence at the University of Gothenburg.

The project is conducted by Monika Djerf-Pierre & professor Lena Wängnerud, Department of political science, University of Gothenburg.

Financed by: the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet)

Page Manager: Mats Ekström|Last update: 2/25/2014
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