International Society of Political Psychology


Senior Scholar Interview - Jacquelien van Stekelenburg

Posted by Emma O'Dwyer •

This is the second in a series of interviews with senior scholars working in the field of political psychology. This time, we spoke to Jacquelien van Stekelenburg from VU University Amsterdam about her views on the discipline of political psychology, advice for junior scholars, and other issues.

Jacquelien is head of the department of sociology at the VU University of Amsterdam and a current Vice-President of the ISPP. Her research interests include protest participation, radicalisation, social movements and identity. Common to all of her research is a focus on the linkage between socio-political structures and the way in which peoples’ perceptions and interpretations thereof affect their political behavior. Her research has been published widely, in journals such as Social Psychological & Personality SciencePolitical Psychology and American Sociological Review 

What led you to become a political psychologist?

In fact the discipline of political psychology doesn’t exist in the Netherlands; there are just one or two courses of six to seven weeks on political psychology. So the disciplinary identity of political psychology doesn’t exist! Instead I refer to myself as a social psychologist or sociologist. I only realised when I attended the ISPP meetings that it was an actual discipline. It appealed to me because it fits with how I see my research – I firmly believe that behaviour doesn’t exist in a social vacuum. It also fits with the Lewinian idea that behaviour equals person times environment and for political behaviour then that political behaviour can be understood as the person times the political and social environment. I have always thought that the macro and micro levels of analysis are not well connected, and political psychology appealed to me because I think it may help in this.

What is your greatest source of inspiration?

This is a difficult question as there hasn’t been one person, ideology etc. which I would count as my greatest source of inspiration. Rather an idea – that of empowerment – guides my research. I try to get the best out of people and do everything I do with passion and inspiration. I like to give people the idea that they can bring about social change and I hate apathy.

Is there anything that you wish you knew before you became a leading scholar in the field?

Well I come from a somewhat different background; I started my bachelor degree when I was 27. I came from a family where going to university was not a normal thing – I was the only one in my extended family who went to university. So at first I didn’t know the culture of academia, the meaning of certain words…it was an adventure. I still think it’s good not to know anything, to embrace the adventure of it.

Give us one book and one movie that you would recommend to all junior scholars who are working on or aiming to engage with the field of political psychology.

I teach a course on radicalisation, which emphasises the fact that it is normal and can happen anywhere to anyone. A film I show to students is The Wave, which illustrates these issues. I also get students to read an article written by Jones, who taught the course. It’s a real life story, in which he talks about his surprise about how events evolved. And I think this is really interesting to students – it shows that radicalisation is not something out there or removed.

Why is political psychology important?

This is an easy question. Nowadays there is apathy and an erosion of commitment among adults but also young people, which really hurts me. Political psychology can give people the idea that they are their political context, the same political context which they hate and complain about. It can make people more active and committed to political causes in their context. And furthermore, you can get at a lot of detail which might be otherwise overlooked, when you actually ask people what they mean by political behaviour.

What is the most important challenge/s that political psychology is facing today?

I would say at least in the Netherlands its biggest challenge is to grow as a discipline, and gain recognition that it is really a discipline.

What advice would you give to junior scholars in political psychology?

Work hard! You can only strive to get better if you do what you do with passion and motivation. Ask yourself why you like it not why you need it. It is much easier to do something when you like your work and your colleagues. Of course there are always little jobs you don’t like but if you do something you like it’s much easier.

What is your opinion on social media? How can junior scholars make use of the new technological advances in order to promote their interest in political psychology?

Well there are two arguments on this. One view is that social media hasn’t changed anything, while the other view says that things have fundamentally changed. The question is asked whether the media still works as a mediator. It has the potential to liberate people. I would like to think that it diminishes the democratic deficit. Furthermore, perhaps things have altered because of social media, but are politicians willing to listen?

It might be possible to extrapolate this to the international society of political psychology. We need to mobilise members. And thanks to social media, we know we can reach them because of this new media’s supersizing effect. So if something is happening, for example the Arab Spring, we can create a commitment among members. It’s fast and cheap to reach members. Also, social media creates bonding, a feeling of what political psychology is important for. 

Not only this, but the new technological advances represent a great opportunity for political psychologists. Social media offers a powerful new source of data, for example in terms of understanding public opinion.


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