Tuukka Ylä-Anttila's research project.
A working public sphere is the lifeblood of a democracy. Thus, it is alarming how often Finnish public debates are described as crippled by “polarization”. But there is confusion over what this means, precisely. The MoPo project will diagnose the state of the Finnish public sphere in the 2020s through a theory developed in this project, moral polarization: a lack of shared moral frames between groups, which makes it difficult for citizens to solve moral disputes in the public sphere. The theory of moral polarization broadens our understanding of polarization from the well-established theories of political and affective polarization, which are oversimplifying especially in the Finnish context, and lack an analysis of agency. Moral polarization, I claim, is not a faceless phenomenon but something political actors do. Rather than opinions, moral polarization is about the thus-far understudied moral systems underlying opinions and everyday practices of doing politics in the public, which may act as unintentional and intentional mechanisms of moral polarization. How is moral polarization manifested in Finnish public debates in the 2020s? Who engages in moral polarization, where, when, and how?
The MoPo project studies these questions using a novel methodological toolkit: mixed-distance methods, which includes mixed- distance reading and Justification Network Analysis (JNA), both developed in this project. They enable studying debates both from afar (measuring on a macro level), taking a wide-angle shot of “the whole picture”, and at close range (interpreting on a micro level), producing thick descriptions of surface-level mechanisms of moral polarization. MoPo uses these methods to analyse and compare moral polarization in social media, countermedia, mainstream media and the Finnish parliament. Hypothetical mechanisms of moral polarization include agency, issue affordances, political style, psychological mechanisms, and (social) media affordances.
The project will analyse debates on immigration, climate change, as well as gender and sexuality, but is not limited to these, since moral debates can arise around surprising issues. Polarization threatens to erode social cohesion and trust, both of which are crucial not just for societal stability but progress, too. The project creates tools for citizens and political actors to recognize and understand moral polarization in order to advance democratic debates.