Blog: Can informal politics be studied quantitatively?

By Ward Berenschot

That may sound like a boring question, but it is an important one. Am I exaggerating if I say that the future of democracy depends on it? Informal politics is usually studied through in-depth fieldwork and interviews. Its shady and often secretive nature makes it difficult to study the subject in any other way. For example, in order to understand how deals between business actors and politicians shape elections and policymaking, we are generally forced to rely on insider-informants, patient fieldwork and gossip.

As a result, the studies that discuss informal dimensions of politics of this kind are usually qualitative and anecdotal in nature. We rely on stories and quotes to get an idea of the deal-making and personal exchanges that go on behind the screens. My own work has often taken this form. I have written, for example, about how politicians in India rely on local criminals (‘goondas’) to build electoral support and influence. A quantitative study – for example, a survey – would not have got me very far in understanding how these goondas and politicians help each other.

For this reason, I have been concerned about the quantitative drive that has taken hold of my discipline, which is political science. The tendency of political scientists to want to capture everything in numbers often leads to the exclusion of the informal dimensions of politics. If we study only what we can measure, then important parts of politics in most parts of the world – such as this deal-making between business actors and politicians – would remain almost completely out of the picture. Consequently, political science would be of little use in drawing attention to, let alone addressing, the informal ways in which power works.

One response to this quantitative drive would be to retreat, to leave these quantifiers to themselves and to publish our research in other, more qualitatively oriented journals. That is what happens: fieldwork-oriented researchers and dataset-building people often move in different circles.

That is not a good thing. Because of this division between qualitative and quantitative research, informal politics gets more easily dismissed as an exotic, anecdotal dimension of politics, as something that occasionally undermines ‘normal’ politics. Even more crucially, this division makes it easier to dismiss the importance of informal politics. Fieldworkers might come back with stories about, say, vote buying or collusion between business and politics, but how can their audience assess how common these practices are? They might be exaggerated tales, made out to be bigger than they actually are.

For this reason, policymakers are usually able to do little with such qualitative studies. If there is little agreement about how common a phenomenon is, then it is also difficult to justify taking action to do something about it. Such stories about deal-making between business and politics may sound alarming, but if we are talking about a few bad apples then there is little reason to get all worked up. If we do not find a way of seeing how big the problem really is, then it will remain difficult to convince anybody to do anything about it. In short, if fieldwork-oriented researchers are so concerned about the negative effects of the informal political practices that they are studying, then they need to get out of their comfort zone and find a way of assessing how pervasive these practices actually are.

That has been the aim of a research project that I have been working on for the last four years. I wanted to find a way to assess how common clientelistic political practices actually are in different districts across Indonesia. For example, how often do politicians hand out money to get votes? How often do politicians give government jobs to campaign supporters? And, yes, how often do business actors obtain economic opportunities in exchange for campaign donations? The results of this project have just been published (open access!). In this paper, I develop a new method for studying informal politics in a quantitative manner. I have used an expert survey in combination with fieldwork. By relying on observations from academics, journalists, NGO activists and campaign organisers from across Indonesia, I have developed a ‘Clientelism Perception Index’ that assesses how common clientelistic forms of politics really are in different districts and provinces. The results are both intriguing and sobering. Politics differs considerably across Indonesia: clientelistic practices are much more common in Eastern Indonesia compared to Java’s big cities. But even in Java, vote buying, deal-making between business and politics, and ‘jobs for the boys’ are perceived to be quite common.

This paper also highlights that this form of politics is not likely to go away anytime soon. It was long expected (hoped) that economic growth and democratic experience would serve to curtail these practices. The results of the project suggest that this is not happening. Instead, it seems that certain policy measures and the design of Indonesia’s electoral system – such as the adoption of an ‘open list system’ to elect parliamentarians and the purposively diminished role of political parties – have served to intensify clientelistic practices and collusion between business and politics. This is why I feel that the quantitative study of informal politics is important for the future of democracy: in many ways, policymaking and our faith in the workings of democracy are naïve about the role and impact of informal politics. As a result, bad decisions are made that often serve to deepen the problem. If we improve our capacity to assess quantitatively how common informal and clientelistic practices are, we might also improve our capacity to deal with their downsides.

Get the paper – ‘The political economy of clientelism’ – here

(Ward Berenschot is a postdoc at KITLV researching local democracy, clientelism and identity politics in India and Indonesia. His Veni research project ‘Shades of clientelism: A comparative study of Indonesia’s patronage democracy’ compares clientelistic practices throughout Indonesia.)

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