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Introducing a new Nottingham project on the legacy of dictatorships

Written by Anja Neundorf.

Dr. Anja Neundorf from the School of Politics and International Relations started working on a new project that is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Secondary Data Analysis Initative. This project will study the legacy of past authoritarian regimes on its citizens’ political attitudes today. Here we are talking with Dr. Neundorf about this new research project.

What do you mean by the legacy of authoritarian regimes?

We regularly see dictatorships collapse, which are then followed by attempts to introduce democracies. The events of the Arab Spring in 2011 have shown that this exercise is extremely difficult and can lead to a backlash into authoritarian rule. For example, Egypt is now ruled by the military again rather than democratic institutions. The problem is that institutional, economic, and elite structures in part remain after the downfall of old regimes that then form the basis for new institutions and elites to develop. This shaky base can sometimes hinder successful democratisation or at least slow it down. This is what we call the legacy of authoritarian regimes. Thanks to research on the legacy of dictatorships, we already know about the lasting impact of institutions and elites on the democratisation process.

However, we still know relatively little about the long-term impact of these regimes on civil society. Nevertheless, from a long tradition of research on civic culture, we know that successful democratisation depends also on democratic values to be instilled in the mass public. If people do not support democracy and are willing to participate in its process, democracy cannot flourish. Previous research has overlooked the possibility of citizens’ formative experiences in non-democratic systems that might impact their political attitudes, values, and behaviour even after the existence of these regimes. We expect that these legacy impacts have important implications for the development of a democratic political culture in transitioning societies.

How will the project go about studying these legacies?

We will develop a new theory of authoritarian socialisation, which assumes that different authoritarian regimes vary in the way they suppress their citizens, and that this in turn will lead to distinctive beliefs and behaviour in the population. We often divide the world into democracies and dictatorships, but that is too simple. Authoritarian regimes are just as different from one another as they are different from democracy. For example, Communism is very different from let’s say military dictatorships in the way they suppress their citizens. Hence we would expect that the lasting impact of this suppression in the population to vary as well.

Studying the experience of whole generations (or cohorts as they are also referred to) who have been socialised under these different types of dictatorships makes it possible to investigate whether regimes differ in terms of the impact they may have on their citizens’ beliefs. Observing generational differences in political attitudes and values are like studying archaeological fossils as relicts from past times. To achieve this, we will be conducting a comprehensive, quantitative analysis of countries from different parts of the world that experienced different types and durations of suppression during the 20th century. This includes the military regimes in South America, but also the socialist regimes in the former Eastern block. It is not possible to study the impact of these regimes during their existence, as representative public opinion research is not possible during dictatorships. We argue, however, that this is not necessary. Instead we rely on the method of cohort analysis, which is a method that I developed in the last few years.


To test our new theory of authoritarian socialisation, we will merge existing survey data from numerous post-authoritarian countries using data from for example the Latinobarometro, the World Value Survey and Asiabarometer. The different survey questions included in the diverse datasets will be harmonised so that a joint analysis is possible. This is a major task of this project and will yield a unique longitudinal, global database of individuals’ political attitudes and behaviour. In order to assign the regime characteristics under which each generation grew up, we will further merge existing data sources (e.g. Dem-V, Polity IV, and Human Rights data) on authoritarian regimes to measure the distinct features of each regime. We will focus, on factors such as intra-elite structure, extent, scope and density of repression, human rights violation, and transition to democracy. The two datasets of individual-level survey data and regime characteristics will be jointly analysed using quantitative statistical analysis of hierarchical age, period, cohort analysis to estimate the generational differences in democratic attitudes and behaviour.

What role will you play in the project, is there a specific area you will focus on?

 I am the Principle Investigator of the project and will oversee all activities and be responsible for the data harmonisation and analysis. As I am not (yet) an expert in authoritarian regimes, I teamed up with some excellent scholars who have been working on dictatorships for a long time. Together we also combine expert knowledge about different regions of the world. Dr. Natasha Ezrow (University of Essex) is an expert on the Middle East and Central Asia, Dr. Johannes Gerschewski (Social Science Centre Berlin) is an expert on East Asia,  Dr. Tim Kelsall (Overseas Development Institute) has worked extensively on Africa, Dr. Inaki Sagarzazu (University of Glasgow) is an expert on Latin America and I have worked on post-communist Central Eastern Europe. This detailed regional knowledge is important for developing a typology of authoritarian regimes and their legacy on civil society.

What are the goals set out by yourself as a researcher and academic for the project?

This project has four academic objectives. Firstly, we are developing a new theory of authoritarian socialisation. Secondly, we are expanding our analyses to new and developing democracies across the globe. Thirdly, in order to overcome methodological (and ethical) constraints of previous studies, we are developing a methodological approach of studying generations that were brought-up under dictatorships. Lastly, we are developing a typology of regime characteristics and their lasting impact on the population.

What do you believe the ESRC saw in the project and where will this research be used?

I think that there are clear academic benefits of this project, as it will advance our knowledge of the way different types of authoritarian regimes work and how these impact democratisation.

Further, this project has clear practical implication, as we hope to raise awareness of the importance of context to democratic consolidation. This research will have direct relevance for the work of governmental and non-governmental organisations that work on democracy promotion and consolidation. To date these programmes to strengthen civil society rely on very generic tools, insensitive to specific country contexts. Part of the problem, we believe, is that practitioners lack an evidence-based understanding of the effects of different authoritarian contexts on mass attitudes to democracy.

Our first objective is to improve stakeholders’ understanding of this diversity in post-authoritarian countries, and to raise awareness of the fact that different contexts may require different solutions. Secondly, based on our research we will produce a policy brief detailing the potential impact of different regime types on democratisation processes, and will disseminate this among relevant organisations that work in transitioning societies. The policy brief will address practical questions that relate to the development of democratic civil societies. Depending on the regime characteristics of the overthrown dictatorship, diverse societies will require different support, i.e. the design of the (civic) education system, to successfully integrate citizens in the democratisation process.

The goal of our impact work is ultimately that organisations and practitioners will review and revise their aid programmes. We have already secured a commitment from several organisations working in the field of democracy research and promotion to work with us:  The UK-based think tank Overseas Development Institute, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German NGO and the Organization of American States.

For a long period of time, Eastern Europe was governed by communist dictatorship, what role will this project play in illuminating this period of the continents history?

Interestingly, I have written my PhD on this question, which inspired the extension of this question to other parts of the world and other types of dictatorships. In my PhD thesis and several articles, I show that those born between 1930 and 1970 that spent the important formative years under the Communist rule have problems adopting to the principles of democracy. The Cold War generation, as I call them, remain very critical with the way democracy works. Based on my research this is because they were socialised into a different society and expectations about themselves as citizens. It is therefore not surprising that we keep seeing anti-democratic episodes in Central Eastern Europe, as some form of authoritarian values remain in the populations.

Throughout the 20th Century, Latin America was governed by anti-communist military governments, what differences do you expect to see between South America and Europe?

 My colleague Inaki Sagarzazu and I are currently working on exactly this question and we will present a first draft of our paper at the European Political Science Association Annual Meeting in Brussels this June. We do expect the legacy of military regimes in Latin America to differ from the long-term impact of communism, as these two types of regimes are very different. To better understand this, we need to think about the mechanism in which these regimes supress their citizens and the survival strategy of people that experienced these regimes. On the one hand, in Communism the state tried to infiltrate every aspect of life and people literally had to join the party and become part of the system in order to survive. They were drawn into the regime and were indoctrinated with a clear ideology and set of beliefs that became part of their values and attitudes. On the other hand, military dictatorships use physical force and harm to control people. Hence the survival strategy of people is to retrieve into their private sphere and minimise contact to public institutions. Based on these two examples we would expect the population to be very different once these two different forms of authoritarianism are overthrown. In Communist societies these set of beliefs need to be overcome, while in post-military regimes people need to build trust to political instructions again. To sum, citizens need to overcome the legacies of the former dictatorships.

Anja Neundorf is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences. Image credit: CC by Ramy Raoof/Flickr

Published inAcademic ImpactDemocracyEastern EuropeEuropean PoliticsPoliticsResearch projects

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