Since the turn of the Twenty-first Century, countless books and articles have been published on the rise of far-right parties and movements (see for example here and here). While scholars have discussed methodological, ethical and practical questions in far-right research, these efforts remain fragmented. Remarkably, little is known about the practicalities of interviewing radical right respondents. Drawing on existing studies as well as on personal insights acquired during our PhD research, we tried to redress this gap. Between September 2015 and February 2018, Koen interviewed more than a hundred voters and activists of the Dutch Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV) and the French Front National (now Rassemblement National) in order to understand how citizens with different social profiles end up voting for the same political party. Between September 2016 and July 2017, Léonie interviewed eight key representatives of radical right parties in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands to understand why some of these parties fail whereas others succeed. Despite these different foci, we identified many common questions, concerns and challenges. In a recent article, we integrate the overlapping and complementary lessons we learned to overcome these challenges. Thereby we show the similarities and particularities of approaching and interviewing radical right respondents at different levels of political participation, from grass roots to party elites. Here we share some of the key insights.
How (and Where) to Find Respondents
The first challenge for social scientists who want to interview radical right respondents is to find them. Contacting party elites is generally easier; after all, they tend to have (public) email addresses, phone numbers and calendars (as well as secretaries who keep them). This is much more difficult for voters and activists. A usually fruitful tactic to find them is to visit their online spaces (e.g. Facebook groups or Telegram channels) and contact individual users. You might also consider placing an advertisement on their online platforms, inviting volunteers to participate in your research project. A similar strategy can be applied in the offline world. For example, you might look at the public agenda of the party in question. This can provide useful cues about meeting places as well as information about official party conferences and campaign activities. It can also be helpful to place advertisements in local newspapers or visit proxy organizations including youth wings or affiliated research institutes (e.g. partisan think tanks).
At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that most radical right supporters are not politically active; in other words, they might not be particularly interested in party politics or even participate in elections. It can therefore be useful to seek out ‘apolitical’ activities and spaces to get a more complete picture of radical right support bases. For example, radical right supporters are overrepresented in certain regions (e.g. some rural areas and cities) and religious communities (including Catholic and Protestant churches), so it can be useful to visit churches, cafés and other meeting places in radical right strongholds.
How to Persuade Respondents to Participate
If the first problem to interview the radical right is to find relevant respondents, the next challenge is to persuade them to participate in your research project. The first key to gaining access is to prepare a strong introductory letter or statement that describes your project in a way that is likely to be palatable to the potential interviewee. The choice of words is crucial here; it should be simple (avoid jargon) and non-offensive (avoid potentially stigmatizing labels, such as ‘extreme right’ and ‘racist’). It is also important to emphasize that the contribution of your respondents is essential because you cannot really write about them without ever talking to them.
The second key to gaining access is to be persistent and flexible; sending a follow-up email or making a phone call is sometimes necessary (without nagging). It can also help to ‘play the long game’ by making clear that you are involved in an ongoing project, which means that you can make yourself available at any time that is convenient for them, even if that means postponing for a year or two. Moving down the ‘ladder of the party hierarchy’ by switching from the national to the regional level can also be a viable option.
The third key to gaining access pertains to self-presentation; your own background also plays a role. For instance, we both found that being a PhD-student was definitely an asset. Students come across as relatively ‘innocent’ compared to other social groups, such as social workers or human rights lawyers, who might be perceived negatively by potential radical right respondents.
How to Build Rapport during the Interview
Once you have found your respondents and persuaded them to participate, the most challenging part of the process begins: conducting the interview. Every cookbook on in-depth interviewing will tell you that establishing a relationship with your respondents is a prerequisite for a successful interview. However, establishing such a relationship is far from guaranteed: radical right supporters are, on average, less educated, more likely to work in the private sector and much more negative about immigration and the EU than the average academic. This can make it difficult to build rapport. But there are some strategies that can be used to deal with this challenge.
We both found that being first-generation students who grew up in rural areas made us more approachable during our fieldwork. In other instances, our academic background came in handy. Indeed, some respondents talked about Nietzsche, Robespierre and the Maslow pyramid as if they were everyday conversation topics. Some knowledge on these matters thus turned out to be a prerequisite for relevant follow-up questions and maintaining credibility as a social scientist. It is important to note that far-right respondents are diverse, especially when it comes to voters and volunteers, so the more diverse your own background, the easier it will be to find common ground and break the ice. The interview method you choose can be beneficial in this regard. For example, we both used in-depth semi-structured interviews (rather than standardized, structured interviews), since they provided the conversational flexibility that was needed for building rapport. There are, of course, different types of in-depth interview methods, including oral-history and life-history interviews. The latter proved particularly helpful for interviewing grass roots respondents. Koen employed this method to better understand different trajectories leading toward electoral support for the radical right. While letting his respondents talk about their past, this interview method enabled him to cover a broad range of conversational topics, thereby easing respondents to open up to him.
Despite biographical commonalities, it can be difficult to interview someone with whom you fundamentally disagree on certain political issues. In that light, it is advisable to separate your role as a researcher from other roles. For instance, as a researcher, your main goal might be to understand why your respondents hold certain views, while a journalist might seek to challenge or cross-examine their subjects. We also found it helpful to analytically distinguish between sympathy and empathy. While sympathy implies conjuring up compassionate appreciation, empathy implies placing yourself ‘in the shoes’ of your interlocutors. Where showing sympathy for world views you fundamentally disagree with may be impossible, developing empathy for your interviewees allows you to gain insights into their world views without necessarily subscribing to them.
Qualitative research in general and in-depth interviews in particular have long formed a cornerstone of social science research. While most publications in the field of radical right research remain quantitative in nature, recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in qualitative studies relying on interview data (see here and here). These studies have made important contributions to our understanding of the support for and success of radical right parties. However, interviewing people who vote or work for the radical right comes with specific challenges. These challenges are not commonly discussed in the existing literature. Drawing on insights obtained during our PhD trajectories, we set out to address this lacuna, notably by offering a range of practical guidelines and strategies to help researchers in their efforts to find radical right respondents, gain access, prepare for the interview and build rapport during the interview. Conducting interviews with radical right respondents is no easy task, but we hope that this article can serve as a useful starting point for researchers who are willing to take on this challenge.