How my country influences my behavior

December 12, 2008

Why do I cast my ballot on Election Day, or why do I choose to stay at home instead? What are the main factors influencing my decision? Human behaviour is not only determined at a personal level, but moulded by the social, political and economic context in each country and region. Differences in cultures, institutions, structures and practices help explain differing individual values, attitudes and behaviour across the population of Europe.

The European Science Foundation's (ESF) new EUROCORES (European Collaborative Research) programme HumVIB sets out to answer these issues at a European level by undertaking a "Cross-national and Multi-level Analysis of Human Values, Institutions and Behaviour". HumVIB is the first ever EUROCORES programme in the social sciences and an ambitious attempt to integrate this hitherto fragmented field. "This is a major innovation in the social sciences and for the ESF" said Richard Sinnott, Professor of Political Science at University College Dublin and the original proposer of the HumVIB theme. "The idea is to address a range of research questions using the strategy of connecting individual behaviour with the institutional context as the integrating device that unites the various components of the programme in a coherent whole" continued Sinnott.

Sinnott's brainchild has led to a fully-fledged programme consisting of six Collaborative Research Projects (CRPs) involving scientists from 15 countries. Under the umbrella of the common research strategy, the projects are looking into voter turnout and abstention, welfare attitudes and the influence of the environment on people's happiness. Moreover, the issue of gender inequality is addressed, as well as the question of why political representatives often do not reflect the views of their constituencies. "Europe serves as an excellent natural laboratory for this kind of study due to its enormous cultural, social, political and economic diversity," said Sinnott.

The LIFETIMING CRP, for example, aims to explain variations in the views of Europeans on the organisation of the life course. The periods of life are in general predefined, but at what age a person is perceived as an "adult" or "old" depends on the cultural background and can vary by more than a decade! The timing of events in one's life course, such as getting married or having children, is related to social norms, too. "We also want to find out to what extent people are really able to take initiative with regard to their own lives and consciously plan their future," elaborated Professor Aat Liefbroer from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the project leader of LIFETIMING and co-Chair with Richard Sinnott of HumVIB's scientific committee. Showing that people might actually need to be facilitated in certain areas of structuring their lives could be a useful finding for policy-makers.

Many of the results to be obtained are expected to feed into policy-making, thus linking theory and practice. Examining how institutional frameworks foster gender inequalities, resulting in underrepresentation of women in leadership roles as well as in higher poverty rates among women, can help in designing counter measures and eventually in bridging the gender gap. Similarly, voter turnout does matter, since stay-at-home citizens reduce the legitimacy of government. Understanding why people vote or abstain is a prerequisite for efficient voter mobilisation and ultimately for effective representation.

Without the establishment of the Descartes Prize-winning European Social Survey (ESS), which originated in an ESF activity and is also co-funded by the ESF, HumVIB would simply not be possible. This recent and fundamentally pan-European effort in the European social sciences is based on rigorous sampling and measurement and, crucially in this context, on the use of representative within-country samples in a sufficiently large number of countries. Additionally, data collection for the ESS is not restricted to individual-level information, but includes systematically collected data on events and developments during the fieldwork period as well as on the contextual characteristics of the countries involved. All of HumVIB's projects will work with data from the ESS and take into account the explicit standards for research design and data collection that the ESS has set.

HumVIB is not a purely European endeavour but also encompasses North American scientists like Karen Jusko, assistant professor at Stanford University and one of the Principal Investigators in HumVIB's VTAC project on voter turnout and abstention. "As I study developed democracies, the opportunity to develop a European network and work with the experts in each country is especially important to me" explained Jusko. "The National Science Foundation (NSF) is enormously supportive of HumVIB and has even encouraged me to incorporate extended visits at the institutions of my European collaborators into my research plans" continued Jusko.

With the HumVIB programme having just kicked off in a first meeting at University College Dublin (UCD) last October, the networking phase typical for all EUROCORES programmes has started. Apart from workshops and meetings for all HumVIB researchers, activities for young scientists such as summer schools are envisioned. "It's especially important for the young people to receive training and build up their own network" said Liefbroer, who will play an active role in organising events for the younger generation. Furthermore, the HumVIB members will not only collaborate within the programme, but plan on linking up with important European data centres like the European Data Centre for Work and Welfare and other initiatives.
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Notes to the editors:

The aim of the European Collaborative Research (EUROCORES) Scheme is to enable researchers in different European countries to develop collaboration and scientific synergy in areas where European scale and scope are required to reach the critical mass necessary for top class science in a global context.

The scheme provides a flexible framework which allows national basic research funding and performing organisations to join forces to support excellent European research in and across all scientific areas. Until the end of 2008, scientific coordination and networking is funded through the EC FP6 Programme, under contract no. ERAS-CT-2003-980409. As of 2009, the National Funding Organisations will provide the funding for the scientific coordination and networking in addition to the research funding.

The European Science Foundation (ESF) provides a platform for its Member Organisations to advance European research and explore new directions for research at the European level. Established in 1974 as an independent non-governmental organisation, the ESF currently serves 80 Member Organisations across 30 countries.

European Science Foundation

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