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Femke Kaulingfreks appointed to Wibaut Chair: “Government must learn to trust people”

Jip Koene,
28 november 2023 - 16:18

Femke Kaulingfreks is the new holder of the Wibaut Chair, which was established to research urban issues. Kaulingfreks is a political philosopher and anthropologist who focuses on social inequality. This Thursday, she will give her inaugural lecture in the Aula of the University of Amsterdam.

One of Kaulingfreks’ main focuses will be citizens’ lack of trust in government. Never before has this been so low, the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) concluded at the end of 2022. Only a quarter of Dutch people over the age of 15 still trust the government. But why is trust in politics so low?
You are the seventh scholar to hold this chair. Zef Hemel, Paul Scheffer, Geert Mak, Jan Terlouw, Annemieke Roobeek, and Willem Heinemeijer preceded you. What have you learned from your predecessors?
“To be perfectly honest, I haven’t studied my predecessors. I did not know them well at all before my appointment. I did have a dinner recently where they gave me some advice for the upcoming five years. Paul Scheffer, publicist and Professor of European Studies, said to me, for example: ‘Look outside Amsterdam.’ I immediately understood what he meant. Both Amsterdam city politics and many residents are primarily focused on their own city. To tackle urban issues such as inequality and the housing crisis, it is useful to look at how other cities deal with them.”

CV Femke Kaulingfreks

- Kaulingfreks was born in 1981 in Amsterdam where she studied political and social philosophy at the UvA.
- In 2013, she received her PhD from the University for Humanistics in Utrecht.
- She has written three books: Uncivil Engagement and Unruly Politics (2015), Street Politics (2017), and Playing Space for Identity (2022, with Stijn Sieckelinck).
- Since 2018, Kaulingfreks has been affiliated with Hogeschool Inholland as a lecturer in Youth and Society.

In Parool, you indicated that you do not believe so much in being neutral as a social scientist. What do you mean by that?
“I believe very much in science that aims to help find solutions to social problems. So as a scientist, you’re not only neutrally reflective but also act somewhat on problems by saying, ‘Hey, pay attention!’ So as a scientist, I want to make a case for solving inequality issues in the city. In that sense, I think conducting action-oriented research is important.”
You were commissioned by the City of Amsterdam to research trust between the government and residents. Why do you think trust in government is so low?
“The low trust in government is partly because people feel let down somehow. Take the example of primary and secondary schools that offer school breakfasts. This indicates that some families don’t have the money to put a decent breakfast on the table. From this, I conclude that opportunities are unevenly distributed due to a lack of resources and facilities at home. That leads to dissatisfaction and frustration of those afflicted and ultimately translates into distrust in the government.”
“In the coming years, I will focus on that deep-rooted sense of inequality. To do this, I will look at income inequality, health disparities, and the impact of things like the energy and housing crises on different populations. Research should ultimately provide the knowledge showing how to make sense of the discontent and frustration of different population groups.”

“There is clearly a big difference between the voting behavior of big cities and rural areas”

The PVV came out as the big winner of the Lower House elections last Wednesday. How do you view this result? Is there a connection between distrust and the PVV’s monster victory?
“It caught me off guard and immediately sparked the researcher in me. I immediately wanted to look for people who voted for the PVV and start a conversation with them: Why did you vote for the PVV? What is the logic behind this choice for you? Because we can only understand processes such as polarization or emotions such as distrust and frustration if we engage directly with people about what they want, where their concerns lie, and what they need.”
“There is clearly a big difference between the voting behavior of big cities and rural areas. Take migration, for example, a major theme in past elections. People are rightly concerned about the security of their livelihood and inequality. A lot of people wrongly think that migrants are to blame. It was also framed that way in the election debates, which scapegoated ‘the others’ for problems that have arisen due to a lack of social support from the government. People have gone along with that idea, especially outside the big cities. Their choice of a racist, xenophobic, and undemocratic party is dangerous and unacceptable, but the desire for a government that is more transparent, responsive, and does more to address inequality and livelihood issues is quite understandable. That’s a legitimate demand and concern of many people, and we see that reflected now in populist voting behavior, with the PVV as the big winner.”

“Ultimately, I hope that people will learn to trust each other again”

What do you hope to look back on in five years?
“I hope that the knowledge from my research will help people in disadvantaged positions organize themselves better, stand up for their interests more effectively, and that they will feel as if they are being heard. The Netherlands lacks a strong tradition of community organizing. I want to contribute to revitalizing the organizing capacity of communities.”
“My focus for the coming years will be to tirelessly facilitate the involvement of residents in urban development so that they can not only participate at specific times under government conditions but can co-create with the government; in other words, in consultation. In addition, I hope to offer the civil service insights on how the government can stand alongside residents, how residents can support the government’s organizational capacity, and how they can jointly find solutions to issues such as inequality.”
“Ultimately, I hope that people will learn to trust each other again. It’s not just about people needing to trust the government more, the government also needs to trust people more. That also means that the government has an obligation to make an active effort. This means coming to people, reaching out to residents, and not just during election time. That’s what I hope to contribute to with my research.”

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