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Political Party Manifestos in Research and Teaching
Rauli Mickelsson, Docent, Senior Assistant, Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of Tampere
Rauli Mickelsson has used POHTIVA, the web database of Finnish political party manifestos, and its pre-stage (partly digitised party manifestos stored at the University of Jyväskylä) both in research and teaching. In this article, he shares his experiences and tells why it is worthwhile to study party manifestos and what they can offer for example to culture researchers, among others.
Opening POHTIVA is an exciting experience. When you browse the manifestos in the database, you can find a complete list of all the parties which have had some kind of a manifesto. There are about 60 of them - the most have ceased to be and have never had a seat in the Parliament. Even some the names of the parties seem exotic, for instance Natural Law Party. Sure enough, the most central parties can also be easily found in the database. Almost all of them have still seats in the Parliament; only the liberal branch - Liberals, Progressive Finnish Party, and Liberal Party - has withered away.
Reading the manifestos brings to mind the statement about political parties becoming more and more similar. It actually does seem that parties which have been active at the same time have really resembled each other much. Although the rate at which they are becoming similar has accelerated especially since the 1960s. At the time when Finnish political parties were formed, the non-socialist parties critically debated issues such as the form of government and the language of the Grand Duchy of Finland. Instead, the Social Democrats aspired to be a part of international social democratic movement and emphasised the rights of the working class and especially universal and equal suffrage. As a result of the general strike of 1905, universal and equal suffrage was enacted in Finland and the foundation for the current Finnish political party scene was laid. At the beginning of the century, the class boundaries were strong, and the Finnish Civil War fought in 1918 strengthened them even more. Political parties defended their own class or group. Although the boundaries between different classes and parties were strictly pronounced for instance by criticising other parties in party manifestos, there were some similarities as well.
After the World War II, the increased industrialisation hastened the modernisation of party manifestos, and political parties moved closer to each other. In the 1960s, all parties wanted to build the welfare state. In the 1980s, environmental protection and equality between the sexes were widely emphasised. Neoliberalism was visible in the manifestos of the 1990s, and climate change and globalisation are the key themes nowadays.
Spirit of the Times in Party Manifestos
The nature of party manifestos sets an interesting starting point for a social science and humanities researcher. Even though manifestos might be written by individuals, they have always been accepted by the whole party - or the opposition has walked out slamming doors while the party chair has banged his gavel as a sign of agreement. Manifestos written by party elite were compiled in the first half of the 20th century. From 1980s onwards, parties have wanted to involve all party members and a great number of citizens in the process, especially when working on the programmes of principles.
In addition to searching for parties' stances on burning social questions, it is also possible to search for ways of thinking typical of certain periods of time in political documents. Party manifestos, in particular, are rich reports on the world view and public opinion of the times because of the amount of processing they have received. Party manifestos are the cornerstone of "partyness". They tell us who we are and what we are aiming at. They also tell us who and what we oppose. Partyness consists of speech, writings, songs and pictures - the parties' programmes of principles contain the core, identity and ethos of their own partyness.
Questions to Party Manifestos
There can be several reasons to study political party manifestos. Imagination is the only limit when formulating a research problem. For instance, one can study changes in party conceptions and ideologies: How has the party related to socialism and the market economy at different times? What has been the party's stance on the equality between the sexes in various manifestos? Is the manifesto saturated with masculine or feminine concepts? POHTIVA, the web database of Finnish political party manifestos, provides an excellent scope for research on the history of concepts, although other material is also needed.
The research problem defines the method used. With POHTIVA, it is possible to use either a quantitative or qualitative method, or their combination. For instance, one can search for the definitions of concepts in the manifestos and study them by using narrative analysis. It is also possible to study issues such as the structure of arguments in the manifestos, the identity of the party, or the party's relationship with other parties.
New Tools through Digitising
I used the pre-stages of POHTIVA when the process of converting paper political documents into digital format was initiated in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Jyväskylä. After the time-consuming scanning and transcription work had been done, it was instantly possible to start analysing them. The digital format of the manifestos offers new opportunities for both quantitative and qualitative research, because it is possible to utilise text analysis software in the analysis.
Computer software provide researchers with a possibility to systematically analyse a large amount of text data. They can for example analyse the frequencies of various concepts as well as their connections with other concepts. In addition, statistical measurements can be performed on quantitative text data. Software for qualitative text analysis, such as NVivo and Atlas.ti set out from hermeneutical thinking, especially from the grounded theory approach developed by Anselm L. Strauss. With these software packages, it is possible to count the frequency of various words, as well as to find out the contexts in which different concepts occur, the relationships between different concepts, and who have used certain concepts, narratives or arguments.
The manifestos are sorted by political parties in POHTIVA. In addition, it is possible to search the database by keyword, which is especially helpful when studying the occurrence of various concepts in the manifestos. It is worth noting that searching only by one keyword is often not enough. For instance, when studying the parties' stance on the armed forces, one should also search for terms such as military, defence, and peace, as well as for potential old-fashioned terms that might have been used in older manifestos.
There are also various software for counting the frequency of words. In this type of research, it would be good if all the concepts in each manifesto were catalogued and the frequencies of words counted. With the help of these catalogues and frequencies, the right kind of character strings could be extracted from the database.
The software designed for qualitative text analysis, such as Atlas.ti and NVivo, can then be used in finding the context for the words searched. Both software allow wide searches and classifications. With Atlas.ti, it is possible to compile mind maps or networks, in which the researcher can define the relationships with various classifications. NVivo produces hierarchy trees, in which concepts can be classified in various categories. Both software are extremely versatile. Although they have originally been designed for the management of qualitative interview data, they are perfectly suited for studying raw data such as political party manifestos.
POHTIVA - Web Database of Finnish Political Party Manifestos
POHTIVA is a web database of current and former party manifestos and other central political texts produced by Finnish political parties over the years. The database contains 829 manifestos from 57 political parties from 1880 to 2008. The manifestos can be sorted for example by political party or they can be searched by keyword. In addition, the current manifestos are listed separately.
The database was introduced at the end of 2006, and it is constantly updated with new manifestos and texts. From now on, the database will cover all political party manifestos from the end of the 19th century to the present day.
» POHTIVA (in Finnish)