Seeding a Learning Community: First Annual CIVICA Political Behavior and Institutions Conference and Public Lecture

Initiated by CIVICA’s Democracy in the 21st Century theme group, the first annual CIVICA Political Behavior and Institutions Conference (PoBI) was hosted by the Hertie School May 25-26. The conference opened with the CIVICA Public Lecture “Policy Responses to Political Crises: Lessons Learned from the COVID Pandemic” and was followed by eight panel discussions featuring 31 papers over two days from CIVICA faculty and early-stage researchers focused on topics across political behavior and institutions.

“The idea is to cultivate a CIVICA community where researchers see each other repeatedly and become aware of projects and works that colleagues are engaged in, and to integrate PhD students. We want to build up an academic and intellectual community working on political behavior and institutions,” said Mark Kayser, Professor of Applied Methods and Comparative Politics at the Hertie School and co-organizer of the conference.

Zsolt Enyedi, Professor at Central European University (CEU) who serves as CIVICA’s Democracy in the 21st Century theme group lead remarked, "I think this event was so successful because it was a genuine bottom-up initiative. Mark Kayser came up with the idea at one of the thematic group meetings. His proposal fit perfectly into the ambition of CIVICA to bring early stage researchers and senior academics together. Instead of formalities and diplomacy we could all focus on issues we care about."

Kayser highlighted that the PoBI conference is intentionally designed to build community over time. An annual convening encouraging repeated contact among researchers working in similar areas, half of the event’s attendees are composed of faculty and half are composed of early-stage researchers. “Political behavior and institutions is a field that's fairly well represented at most institutions in CIVICA, so we have broad representation across all of the CIVICA member universities,” said Kayser, adding, “Most research projects and collaborations are organic…Through repeated contact, one might express an interest or contact a person about a new idea that would then get connected to the research area of the other person.”


The CIVICA Public Lecture

“An important new priority is to organize bottom-up events and have initiatives organized by researchers and students, where we have early stage researchers and senior researchers doing substantive work with each other,” said Enyedi in his introduction to the CIVICA Public Lecture. He also announced that the second annual PoBI Conference will be hosted by the European Research Institute (EUI) in Florence.

The CIVICA Public Lecture considered how, more than three years after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world face a new series of crises, testing the trust citizens place in policy leaders and democratic systems. The keynote, delivered by Heike Kluver of Humboldt University, drew some conclusions from research that looked at crises such as COVID, the war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis. She found that incentives are effective instruments to ensure compliance with policy measures among the majority of citizens but have a differential effect on trust among noncompliers. She also emphasized the importance of communication in ensuring compliance and enhancing trust and noted that better education on scientific knowledge production is required to allow for policy updating without negative electoral repercussions for incumbents.

Watch the event here:


Roundtable Discussion on Governance in Crisis

Following Kluver’s keynote, Mark Kayser initiated a roundtable discussion on governance in times of crisis. Michael Becher (IE University) drew from his research exploring to what extent democratic support and resilience is undermined by human hardships caused by crises. He noted, “People don’t blindly punish governments if they are given information about health and economy… there can be rewards for good crisis management, and even in polarized political times, it could be a sound political strategy to pay attention to expertise.”

Dorottya Szikra (CEU) added to the discussion the results of WELDECO, one of the CIVICA Research-funded collaborative research projects. She also mentioned that “welfare states started managing pandemics in early modernity. Like wars, they are events that effect the whole community and don’t stop at the border, they affect poor and rich communities, they require joint efforts, and history tells us there may be more solidarity between people during these times.”

Joachim Wehner (London School of Economics) emphasized the increased frequency of executive authority being wielded during the pandemic, and the importance of who is in charge during a time of suspended checks and balances. Studying leaders in that crisis context, he noted that reported anecdotes do not necessarily represent a broader pattern: “The attributes that people associate in public discourse with the examples we looked at are not systematically related with the policy measures that we analyzed.”

The remaining panels of the conference focused on a range of topics including elections and outcomes, policy-making, voter preferences, political rhetoric and communication, inclusion and attitudes toward minorities, political polarization, and fragmentation and democratic backsliding.

Korinna Lindemann, a PhD researcher from Hertie School, says that the conference hit its mark: “Events like this really foster collaboration. In this case, the group was about 30 people, so you could connect multiple times in an approachable environment. Getting to know each other in a conference setting really helps establish these networks to a greater extent, so I think CIVICA has a great potential in fostering this work between people in different institutions.”

Dirck de Kleer, a PhD researcher from Bocconi University, also reflected on the value of the two intensive days with senior and early-stage researchers: “This being my first academic conference, I was invested in connecting with other scholars who study political behavior and institutions… After all, they will be my colleagues for the next decades to come.” De Kleer presented “Rural Resentment and Support for (Violent) Political Protests” as part of a panel on voter preferences, which featured a pre-analysis plan of a study he is conducting with co-authors Simon van Teutem and Catherine de Vries. “For me, the PoBI conference was a reminder that I am part of a larger network of social scientists and that I can tap into a larger pool of opportunities and resources across universities.”

“From the faculty perspective, I think the payoff for PoBI in the long run is to build networks and an awareness of each other's research that can then lead to more collaboration,” said Kayser. “From the student perspective, the convening is showcasing different institutions and people doing different types of work. It is also very good market exposure. Faculty at multiple schools can see what early-stage researchers on the market are actually working on and this can help PhD students in pursuing jobs.”

This initiative is organised in the framework of CIVICA – The European University of Social Sciences. CIVICA brings together ten leading European higher education institutions in the social sciences to mobilise and share knowledge as a public good and to facilitate civic responsibility in Europe and beyond. CIVICA was selected by the European Commission as one of the pilot European Universities in 2019 and confirmed as successful alliance in 2022 for its full roll-out. Read more on