Aspects of social inequality and potential for co-operation

The presentations at ‘Is Finland Becoming Polarized?’ seminar shed light on different aspects of social inequality and the potential for co-operation. Kalle Korhonen from the Kone Foundation reports on the day.

When does co-operation work best between researchers and journalists who write about society? Why is poverty especially hereditary these days? Why doesn’t everyone participate in decision-making? How do values turn into political parties? Is an immigrant the same as a foreigner? These questions were addressed by the speakers of the ‘Is Finland Becoming Polarised?’ seminar on Friday.

The Kone Foundation arranged a two-day seminar entitled ‘Is Finland Becoming Polarized?’ on 16-17 May 2014 at the Korjaamo Culture Factory in Töölö. The seminar had two areas of focus, of which one was related to content and the other more to form or method, as was pointed out by Professor Risto Alapuro, who opened Friday’s seminar. The focus on content dealt with the many forms of social inequality – for example in working life, the economy, health and housing. When it comes to form or method, it was a question of the foundation wanting to promote co-operation between various professions in practice by bringing together social researchers, journalists interested in the subject, and artists. The programme for Friday consisted of presentations that the audience could comment upon briefly, while the programme for Saturday consisted entirely of group work.

In the presentations of Friday’s seminar, the two areas of focus were discernible to varying degrees. The reality of social inequality was handled by the afternoon speakers, in particular, while the morning speakers delved into the potential for co-operation. However, co-operation was also plentifully evident in practice in the afternoon’s presentations, which were all prepared jointly by researchers and journalists. Subjects discussed during the questions from the audience included the co-operation between researchers and journalists and the reality of social inequality, and fruitful interaction took place during both the joint discussions and the breaks.

Morning: who researches, who writes?

The speakers of the morning, Tim Newburn and Elina Grundström, highlighted the importance of genuine co-operation between scientists and those who deliver research results to various audiences. According to Grundström, who is a journalist and professor, in Finland there is still a “strong, synthetic ideal for popularising science that underestimates the public.” This includes the fact that researchers may use publicity only to seek visibility for their projects, or universities may seek visibility for their “own” researchers. Fortunately, the situation is changing, noted Grundström. Tim Newburn, Professor of Criminology and Social Policy, found a joint project carried out over a short period with a newspaper to be a very positive experience.

Newburn’s presentation was about The Guardian’s Reading the Riots project, which discussed the riots that took place in the United Kingdom in August 2011. Why was this particular project chosen? We, the organisers, believe that no other corresponding recent project can be deemed to be as visible or as successful. In fact, Newburn revealed the interesting nature of the project on many levels. One memorable point was the fast implementation of the project in 2011–12, which took less than a year from the first planning meeting to all the results being published. The part which focused on the rioters was completed in four months in the autumn of 2011, for example.

Reading the Riots was also interesting because it was group work that was not detached from society: many of the participants in the project had real links to the same communities that the rioters came from. Newburn also mentioned that the project had not so far given rise to any published traditional scientific writing. This prompted the audience to consider the sense of publishing scientific writings in similar cases. It should be evident that researchers will refer to the Reading the Riots online publication, which has therefore become part of the research literature. Following Newburn’s presentation, a discussion was held on the connections between research results and values, loosely within a Weberian framework. Newburn was of the opinion that it is important that researchers also take part in value discussion even if they believe that research data cannot be used as a basis for directly deciding what should be done.

Afternoon: the reality of social inequality came (slightly) closer

Urban sociologist Martti Kortteinen’s presentation that started the afternoon session described the state of social inequality in Finland. According to Kortteinen, the situation of the new Finnish urban “proletariat” is in many ways worse than that of poor workers in the first half of the 20th century. The poor people of today don’t have the necessary role in production that factory workers had. For poor people, the social change of recent times has meant both worsening conditions and fewer possibilities to defend their own position. The result is hereditary disadvantage.

Lotta Junnilainen, Eeva Luhtakallio and Maria Mustranta highlighted a theme that was also present in Kortteinen’s presentation: the way that the better-off regard the disadvantaged. One decisive factor in the social participation of inhabitants of “problem neighbourhoods” and others who suffer inequalities is whether or not the disadvantaged feel that they are treated with disrespect. Junnilainen, Luhtakallio and Mustranta propose as a solution a policy that recognises and acknowledges the different goals of citizenship and people’s collective and personal bonds.

The political theme continued in the presentation by Tuomas Ylä-Anttila and Esa Mäkinen, which was in the form of a news broadcast presenting election results. This time, rather than reporting the support for existing parties, the sociologist and data journalist created new parties in place of the current parties on the basis of value choices obtained from recent candidate selection engine data. In these mock European Parliament elections, the Liberal Left Wing Greens were the winners, the Finnish Conservative Party was the runner-up, and slightly behind them were the Political Right Wing Party and the Rural Alliance (a similar party round-up was presented with slightly different names in the Helsingin Sanomat of 25 May). Ylä-Anttila and Mäkinen underlined the significance of similar open data as research data – even as a saviour of sociology – although they admitted problems related to the representativeness of such data.

The subjects of the last two afternoon presentations focused on East Helsinki, which prompted those commenting on the seminar to ask whether Helsinki is becoming polarised. Veikko Eranti and Antti Järvi researched the social participation of inhabitants of Meri-Rastila, in particular, in conjunction with a zoning amendment. Eranti and Järvi posed the question of whether new ways of gaining territorial influence are simply a shortcut for educated people to decision-making positions. In other words, are disadvantaged people stuck in a queue from where it is impossible to participate in decision-making?

Heini Lehtonen and Johanna Vehkoo contributed a linguistic point of view: how youths from East Helsinki use the concepts ‘immigrant,’ ‘foreigner’ and ‘Finn.’ According to the study, the concept of ‘immigrant’ has been linked with poor social standing in an interesting way: young people do not generally want to be ‘immigrants,’ and do not necessarily even know who these immigrants actually are. On the other hand, ‘foreigner’ may refer to a multiethnic group, and certain stylistic matters and language expressions are associated with this group: in other words, the group commands social respect. The people from East Helsinki involved in the study found an interesting way to comment on the classification of non-Finnish: by using poorly spoken Finnish in a stylized manner. This includes stereotypical features that the speaker uses to lampoon the situation and to indicate that he or she does not really belong in the group of people who speak Finnish poorly. In this way, language is used to ward off imposition of inequality by others, even the denial of human dignity, that so-called critics of immigration engage in.