Department of Political and Social Sciences

Vicente Valentim on Social Norms and Stigmatised Political Behaviour

Every year, about 30 researchers defend their PhD theses in the SPS Department. In order to illustrate the range of their research, each month the department selects and presents a dissertation notable for both its exceptionally high quality and general interest to the public.

23/08/2021 | News - Research

Is extremism becoming legitimised? In recent years, a number of countries have witnessed a number of open demonstrations of right-wing extremism and exclusionary preferences. In his doctoral thesis, Vicente Valentim argues that this is partly due to an erosion of social norms. In the Post-War period many countries developed social norms against right-wing extremism and behaviour linked to authoritarianism. This made it more likely that individuals with these preferences would not publicly say what they think in private, to avoid being judged or punished by others. However, perceiving that these norms have weakened could make them more likely to openly voice their views.

Valentim’s thesis highlights recent political factors that led to such perception of change. It does so by using causal inference methods like regression discontinuity or difference-in-differences combined with quantitative and qualitative text analyses. These methods are then applied to novel measures and sources of data. This allows Valentim to measure the strength of social norms against stigmatised behaviour, and how political factors can weaken such norms. One of these factors is the success of radical-right parties. These parties openly breach established social norms, such as such as those against the derogatory treatment of minority groups. For this reason, radical-right voters may prefer not to publicly display that support. The analyses of the thesis show that this changes once the radical right enters parliament. For each ten individuals that support a radical-right party, four to five more are willing to admit that they did so if the party entered parliament than if it did not.

Another factor that can normalise previously stigmatised behaviour are new issues that come into the political agenda and blur the link between that behaviour and the authoritarian past. To show this, Valentim focuses on the case of Spain where the Francoist dictatorship (1936-1975) had nationalism as one of its central pillars.

Following the transition to democracy in the late 1970s, there was a stigma against showing one’s nationalism in public because doing so was associated with Francoism. The analyses show that this situation changed following the referendum on Catalan independence in October 2017. This referendum felt like a threat to strongly nationalist Spaniards, who are likely to react by voicing those views regardless of the existing norm. This then led to a domino-like process, where individuals see others disregard the norm and become more likely to disregard it themselves.

The thesis shows this change by counting the number of flags in the façade of buildings in the capital of Spain and comparing its evolution before and after the referendum to that witnessed in the capital of Portugal and Greece. These analyses are combined with evidence from an original survey that highlights social norms as the mechanism that made Spaniards more likely to put out a flag on their balconies. All in all, Valentim’s thesis highlights the crucial role of social norms in dictating which political behaviours are acceptable in a society, and how political events can erode those norms.

Read Vicente Valentim's thesis in CADMUS.

Vicente Valentim is a political scientist working on comparative politics, political behavior, and political culture. He is particularly interested in how advanced industrial democracies create norms against some behaviors, and how those norms erode. In September 2021, Vicente will move to Nuffield College, University of Oxford as a Postdoctoral Prize Research Fellow.

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