Daily Archives: May 25, 2023

Social identities and deadlocked debates on nuclear energy policy

Dr Johanna Hornung introduces the third article – Social identities and deadlocked debates on nuclear energy policy – to be published in the Journal of European Public Policy Special Issue ‘The Politics of Policy Analysis’. Hornung uses the issue of energy transitions to show that academics can translate conceptual advances into new avenues of research for analysts. The aim is to go further than encouraging an ‘evidence informed’ process, which is the usual – ineffective – refrain of scientists. Rather, try to understand why policymaking bottlenecks have arisen. Entrenched positions may reflect the ‘dominant identities’ of key participants, which have developed in relation to context-specific events, choices, and debates, prompting social groups to fiercely protect their stances. The implications for policy analysis are profound, since these stances may be impervious to the use of evidence and argumentation to update or challenge beliefs.

Among the multiple crises that our society faces today, the energy crisis is one of them. First put on the agenda in the context of a sustainability-oriented supply of energy, the debate on alternative energy sources has been fueled by global conflicts. It seems almost natural that in times when governments are considering the regulation of energy use in winter, or the reduction of temperatures in public swimming pools, that they are also open-endedly discussing solutions for providing energy efficiently and sustainably.

Yet, it seems as if some options are by default excluded from some national debates, while they are prominently adopted in others. This suggests that logics other than a rationalist or evidence-informed solution – based on a thorough weighing of costs and benefits – are at work.

Focusing on the debate on energy sources currently led in France and Germany, I start from the puzzle that (1) nuclear energy is very differently considered in both countries, and (2) the debates seem to be deadlocked nationally. More specifically, nuclear energy is an option that is not seriously considered as an alternative source of energy in Germany, neither politically nor in public debates. By contrast, France builds heavily on nuclear energy and perceives it as a sustainable source, thereby providing an answer to the current tradeoff between cheap, available, but unsustainable sources of energy on the one hand (especially gas and coal) and between cost-intensive sustainable sources of regenerative energy (especially solar and wind), which are not (yet) able to sufficiently cover demand.

To explain these deadlocked stances on nuclear energy, I apply a social psychological lens on social identities. The idea of the Social Identity Approach (SIA) and the perspective on Social Identities in the Policy Process (SIPP) is to focus on group dynamics and the effects that group identification has on individual thinking and behavior. The main argument is that instead of joining groups on the grounds of shared preferences, individuals hold preferences as a result of group membership. By belonging to a certain social group, individuals take over norms, values, and behavior, which manifest themselves the longer the group exists, the more contact individuals have with other group members, and the stronger the group identity is connected to the topic at hand.

For example, in France, the dominance of nuclear energy can be explained by the presence of a social group within the public sector, including actors from the sectoral industry, who themselves are closely tied to the state administration.

However, in Germany, the opposition towards nuclear energy is closely tied to the Green party, whose group identity is anti-nuclear at its core, which hampers an evidence-informed debate on nuclear energy.

I demonstrate these claims with a discourse network analysis of the period following the EU’s decision to label nuclear energy as climate-friendly.

Understanding the deadlocked debates on energy sources as expression of group identities, that dominate discourses and policymaking on nuclear energy, provides two important insights

1. If the energy decision is dependent on identity – and not on beliefs or rationally formed preferences – new information does not lead to learning or a decision based on an exchange of informed arguments.

2. If it is a question of social identities, overcoming the deadlock is only possible if superordinate social identities are provided, or if social groups are transformed.

These insights contribute to completely different practical advice: to achieve an evidence-informed debate on nuclear energy, it is necessary to pay attention to social group dynamics and the identity of groups, and not to the provision of rational arguments.

This article does not take a stand for or against nuclear energy. Rather, it shows that policy theory insights help to identify and resolve deadlocked debates.

Hornung, J. (2023) ‘Social identities and deadlocked debates on nuclear energy policy’, Journal of European Public Policy, https://doi.org/10.1080/13501763.2023.2215495

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