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«An Exploration of the Meaning-making of Vehement Hardliners in Controversial Social Issues: Reactions to Youth Unrest in Suburbs of Gothenburg Sweden ...»

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An Exploration of the Meaning-making of Vehement

Hardliners in Controversial Social Issues:

Reactions to Youth Unrest in Suburbs of

Gothenburg Sweden

Thomas Jordan1


The solution, as I see it, is first to impose a curfew for those under 18 years and after 6 pm.

Then those who are caught in the act should be sent to a correctional institution, no

pampering and nice dinners, there should be water and bread. Then parents and children

with a foreign background should be expelled from the country for an undetermined time, with immediate effectuation. Only then the authority has done its job. If the hooligans come to my street, there will be a blood bath!

[Reader comment on a newspaper forum, no. 49] During the last few years there have been a number of incidents in suburbs of in my own hometown, Gothenburg, Sweden, involving groups of young people who have set fire to cars and attacked police and rescue service personnel with stones. The events have not really been comparable to major riots involving large numbers of people, like in Paris or large UK cities.

The number of participants in the disturbances has been relatively small, with less than 50 participants in most cases. As in many other cities, the disturbances have taken place in suburbs characterized by low-income residents, high unemployment rates, especially among youth, and a high proportion of immigrants from the Middle East, the Balkans, Somalia and many other countries. Since such incidents have occurred repeatedly over at least a decade, the general impression is that no effective strategies exist to stop the violence to people and material belongings.

This article does not focus on the troubles in the suburbs as such, but rather on the reactions to them. I am interested in a better understanding of the part of the population that advocate very harsh, radical actions in response to the troubles, and hold contemptuous opinions about the youth involved. The purpose of the article is rather modest. I will report on an explorative effort to pinpoint the properties of the meaning-making of ”vehement hardliners” (explained below) and outline a tentative framework that might provide a point of departure for further, more comprehensive, investigations of the role that complexity awareness plays in the formation of views on controversial societal issues. At this stage, no efforts have been made to review Thomas Jordan is Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Work Science at Gothenburg University, Sweden.

thomas.jordan@gu.se INTEGRAL REVIEW  March 2014  Vol. 10, No. 1 Jordan: Vehement Hardliners 155 previous research on related issues, present a stringent analytical framework or conduct more penetrating analyses.

Cars set on Fire in Gothenburg Suburbs The car burnings and ensuing violence occur in periods. One such period with a lot of incidents occurred during August and the beginning of September 2009. On Friday night, 5 September, cars were set to fire in two different suburbs. On Saturday, the morning newspaper of Gothenburg, Göteborgs-Posten (GP), published several articles about the events, one reporting on what happened in the night before, another with a chronology of incidents during the past month. On the website of GP, a reader forum was opened on Saturday morning shortly before 9 a.m. The headline of the reader forum was: When will it stop? How should the police deal with the young? Website readers started to write comments. In the 2 hours and 45 minutes the forum remained open, 147 comments were posted in the forum.

I happened to see this reader forum while surfing a couple of news websites at about 11 a.m. I got very interested, for reasons I will explain further down, and started to download one page after another of the comments. However, I had just arrived at the most recent comments when the forum suddenly was unavailable. I wrote a mail to the editor in charge and asked for the

reason, and got the following response:

We shut down the commentating, because the posts didn’t keep in line with the topic question, but got more and more racist. ”Put them in a cage in the Borås Zoo” etc.

Indeed. This kind of reader forum is filled with scornful, aggressive, often openly racist opinions, and the actions the commentators advocate are often violent or at least very harsh.

Discussion Forums on the Internet During the last 4 years, I have spent many, many hours reading posts on open discussion forums on the internet. I have been a reader of two different kinds of forums. One is the aforementioned reader forums of Swedish newspapers. These reader forums are only opened in connection with some articles, presumably when the news reported can be expected to trigger different reactions among readers. Such a forum is usually open only for a limited time, usually a day or a couple of days. However, the number of posts can become large (several hundred) in a short time, as readers comment on a topic they have opinions about. Usually there is a starting question formulated by the website editor, but readers don’t feel very obliged to keep their comments focused on answering this question. The treshold to participate is low, participants do not have to register in order to post comments. I have downloaded and read more than 15 such reader forums on various topics, most of them related to events involving violence in public spaces.

The other type of forum is permanent open discussion forums, where anyone who registers a user account can start a discussion thread. The particular forum I have read almost daily for four years is called Flashback (www.flashback.org). Flashback is a Swedish language forum with a large numbers of sections on various topics. There is one section called Aktuella brott och

INTEGRAL REVIEW  March 2014  Vol. 10, No. 1Jordan: Vehement Hardliners 156

kriminalfall, which would translate something like Current crime cases. As soon as media report a new murder or other crime of general interest, someone starts a thread about the case and invites other forum participants to join in the discussion. The basic idea is to find out, through collective effort, what happened and why. Such threads can continue for months and even years, and a single thread can come to comprise tens of thousands of posts. I have, over the last four years, read far more than a hundred thousand such posts on the Flashback forum.

One of my motives for doing this is that the internet forums offer me as a researcher a fascinating insight into how (some) people think and feel about issues of societal significance.

Since the mid-1980s, I have been deeply interested in the field of adult development. I have in various ways, informally and in formal research, studied the variability in adult meaning-making regarding socially relevant issues, in particular in terms of complexity awareness (see e.g.

Jordan, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2006, 2011; Jordan & Lundin, 2001; Jordan, Andersson & Ringnér, 2013). This interest is not merely academic: I do believe that understanding and working with the structures of awareness of individuals and collectives constitutes significant opportunities to contribute to a society with less suffering, more dignity and better lives for human beings.

Reading internet discussion forums with a mind trained in discerning patterns of meaningmaking of course leads to a spontaneous process of recognizing certain patterns and generating hypotheses about underlying structures.

This article focusses one particular reader forum, which I have studied in a more systematical way in order to pinpoint the properties of the reasoning and develop a hypothetical explanatory framework. However, the background for this case study is a comprehensive familiarity with a very large volume of similar material.

”Internet hate” Anyone who has been reading internet forum comments on controversial topics has encountered a particular kind of statements. In the Swedish public debate, there is a name for this category of comments: näthatet, the net hate. Participants pour contempt over certain categories of people, who are described in stereotypical, often racist, terms. The tone is judgmental, aggressive and completely devoid of empathy. The posters advocate simple, harsh (often very violent and radical) measures. The messages take the form of firm assertions: what is to be thought of and done about the issue is presented as self-evident. There are no signs of a willingness to inquire into causes and alternative courses of action. On the one hand, we should be careful not to make the same mistakes as these people do, to bundle individuals with different patterns of reasoning into one category, assuming that if they show one of the characteristics, they also have all the other. On the other hand, there really seems to be a recognizable pattern, with many people expressing opinions that do show several of the characteristics described above. For lack of a better term, I will call people who advocate this kind of views vehement hardliners. The term is really meant to be descriptive, rather than evaluative.

I am interested in exploring the structural properties of the meaning-making that engenders (or at least allows) judgmental, simple and undifferentiated views on problematic societal issues.

I think that we can safely assume that this kind of meaning-making is an important causal component in many serious societal conflicts and other violent actions.

INTEGRAL REVIEW  March 2014  Vol. 10, No. 1Jordan: Vehement Hardliners 157

General Properties of the Data Set The setting has some salient characteristics that have to be kept in mind when interpreting the data. Participants in a newspaper reader forum are anonymous to each other. They chose a signature when they post and I have in no case seen that real full names have been used. The comments are made spontaneously, without much deliberation, since the forum is open only for a limited time. It is likely that many comments are written on the spur of the moment, perhaps in a state of being upset about a piece of news or by a comment from another participant. We cannot know what the poster would say about the issue in another kind of situation, e.g. when being face to face with other people with different views. We also do not know whether the opinions voiced in a reader forum are indicative of how a person would actually behave in decision-making situations, e.g. when voting in elections or when participating in a neighbourhood meeting.

However, there are people who quite consistently advocate the same kind of harsh measures that a lot of forum participants propose. Some of them organize in political parties reflecting these kinds of views, of which some draw enough votes in elections to get represented in political assemblies.

As research material, reader forums of newspapers have the limitation that posts mostly are rather short and that most participants only write one comment. We cannot explore, whether by going through more statements from particular individuals, nor by asking questions, the wider pattern of meaning-making. We only get glimpses of the narratives and perspectives behind the rather brief statements made in the comments. On the other hand, I believe that the kind of views expressed by many of the forum participants are actually representative for the views some people hold on to, but they are views that are, so to speak, fragile if talked about in an research interview situation. In other words, it is probably difficult to get people with this kind of views to speak their mind in a straight-forward way if interviewed by a researcher with recording equipment running.

The limitation is, of course, a major one if we want to arrive at more solid conclusions about structures of meaning-making. However, I believe that this kind of data is useful for explorative studies that can lead to the formulation of empirically grounded hypotheses. Such hypotheses would then have to be tested using richer sets of empirical data, such as interviews, participatory observation or action research (such as engaging people in online discussions).

Quantitative Description of the Data Set During the 2 hours and 45 minutes the forum was open, 147 comments were posted by 112 signatures. I have, when reporting numbers below, assumed that there is a 1–1 correspondence between signatures used and individuals. That is, I assume that the same individual has not posted with different signatures, nor that different individuals has used the same signature.2 Most participants, 90, only wrote a single post. 15 participants wrote 2 posts, 5 wrote 3 posts, 1 wrote 5 posts and 1 wrote 7 posts.

–  –  –

I made a content analysis in order to identify different categories of content in the posts. I

identified five more common categories:

 74 posts (by 63 different signatures) contained suggestions about what action ought to be taken; measures.

 42 posts contained critical comments, generally negative value judgements, about certain categories of people: the perpetrators, politicians, journalists, the police or parents.

 34 posts contained general comments about immigration policies or other aspects of societal conditions and trends.

 12 posts contained critical comments about other posts.

 11 posts contained some idea about causes of the disturbances.

Of course one and the same post may contain statements belonging to several of these categories. A few posts did not contain any of these categories of statements. One post was difficult to make sense of, probably the poster was critical of the website editor. One post demanded that the forum should be closed, because of the racist comments. One stated doubt that the perpetrators really were local young people, another asked other posters what they believe about future developments.3 One poster just expressed personal strong reactions to the events.

A Closer Look at Proposed Measures As mentioned above, 63 of the 112 participants advocated some type of measures. I have sorted the proposed measures into categories (Table 1). Some posters have offered more than one type of measure, then each is counted into the appropriate category below. In the cases where the same person proposed the same type of measures in more than one post, it was counted only once.

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