Can you please summarize your research question? Why did you choose to go to Belgium on an education exchange?
I work on regionalist political parties and I focus on Quebec, Flanders, and Scotland. I am interested in how political parties frame their demands for regional empowerment. Are these parties advocating for independence using arguments of economic efficiency or cultural protection? In a sense, I want to see how parties ‘sell’ their message to voters and whether or not the framing of this message changes over time. I decided to go on exchange to Belgium because Flanders is one of the case studies in my dissertation. Comprising roughly the northern half of Belgium, Flanders is a Dutch-speaking region (and also a “community”) that has been home to a regionalist political party since the 1960s. In its early days, the People’s Union expressed a number of grievances related to cultural and linguistic protections. However, its successor party since the early 2000s, the New Flemish Alliance, has mostly put forth economic arguments to support their demands for more decentralized powers for Flanders. It is precisely this change in framing that I want to examine in more detail. In addition, I chose to be based in Antwerp partially because of the interesting place that it occupies in Belgian political life. First, it is often seen as the unofficial capital of Flanders and is its biggest city. Second, almost any new political formation to emerge on the Flemish political scene came to in Antwerp.
You were a member of the Media, Movement and Politics (M2P) research group. How did you come to be involved in the group and what was your experience as a full time member?
While at the University of Antwerp, I was working with Stefaan Walgrave, who I had met while he was visiting the CSDC a few years ago. He was interested in my research and invited me to spend time at his M2P research group. Since then, we had kept in contact, so when the chance came to apply for an international exchange grant from the CSDC, I knew exactly where I wanted to go. Going to Antwerp and being a full-time member of the research group was different from what I was used to in a Canadian context. For example, the PhD students are all seen as staff members and have the status of faculty personnel. The group was highly professionalized and worked a pretty strict 9 to 5 schedule. However, some things were also familiar. I took part in the staff meetings that happened every two weeks. These meetings were a place where staff members would present dissertation chapters or articles to be discussed in an open, supportive, and constructive environment. But it was not all work while being with M2P! I had my fair share of ping-pong matches with other staff members and even went along to the research centre’s annual retreat in the Ardennes. One of the reasons why I wanted to be affiliated with M2P was because of their specialization in the link between media and politics. Going into my exchange, I didn’t know much about this field of research. However, talking with my colleagues about their research questions, the data they collected, and the techniques they used definitely opened my eyes to new possibilities. Being exposed to this field of research has helped me grow as a researcher. In that sense, my time abroad was a good way to explore new things and find out what I liked, didn’t like, or remained skeptical about.
How was the Belgian research environment different from what you were used to in Canada?
Part of my fieldwork involved conducting interviews with various politicians in Flanders. One thing that was surprising was how accessible many politicians were. For example, it was not uncommon for me to find parliamentarians’ home addresses and phone numbers on their personal websites! Even though my fieldwork happened to coincide with the run-up to the May 2014 elections, I was amazed at how quickly some MPs replied to my requests for interviews. Of course, many were too busy to talk to me, but others were able to pencil me into their agendas right away. Another surprising thing about carrying out political research in Belgium was the eagerness of politicians to participate. My colleagues at M2P recently carried out a survey of parliamentarians in the Flemish Parliament and obtained a response rate of over 95%! After having my own share of problems getting interviews with Canadian MPs, this openness and responsiveness was refreshing.
How did your stay allow you to move forward in your research?
One of the valuable things that being affiliated with a Belgian university allowed me to do was audit an undergraduate course on Belgian politics. As you can imagine, this is not something that you can do in Canada. While I had been learning as much as I could about the Belgian political system before coming to carry out fieldwork, sitting in on an entire class designed to help Belgian students make sense of their own institutions allowed me to confirm my own understanding. Furthermore, attending lectures once a week in Dutch certainly helped my language skills!