Anne Marthe van der Bles: "Societal Discontent -- Deciphering the Zeitgeist"

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Anne Marthe van der Bles: "Societal Discontent -- Deciphering the Zeitgeist"

On September 28, 2017 Anne Marthe van der Bles successfully defended the PhD thesis entitled "Societal Discontent -- Deciphering the Zeitgeist" at Groningen, 16.15 uur.

Prof. Tom Postmes

Prof. Rob R. Meijer


This dissertation examines a phenomenon that has become increasingly common in many countries in recent years: a deep-seated collective discontent with the state of society. When we started this research, there were no concepts or measurement instruments available in the social psychological literature that we believed fully captured this vague yet consequential phenomenon. We proposed a new conceptualization of societal discontent, based on the assumption that it is an aspect of the “Zeitgeist”: a collectively shared, tacit, generalized perception of the state of society. The aim of this dissertation was twofold. First, based on our proposed conceptualization, we developed an operationalization of societal discontent as a general factor Z. This method also led to the development of a scale to measure Z (Chapter 2). We assessed the validity of this Z-scale for use in research in various countries, and developed an international Z-scale that could be used to compare societal discontent across countries (Chapters 2 and 4). Second, we aimed to gain insight into the phenomenon of societal discontent itself. In Chapter 2, we found that societal discontent measured as Z influenced the impromptu interpretation of news headlines and attribution of news stories about society. Chapter 3 showed that it predicted voting for extreme right- and left-wing political parties, more so than personal-level discontent did. In Chapter 3, we investigated the relationship of education level and media use with societal discontent, and found that people who more frequently used tabloid-style media and people with lower education levels had more negative Zeitgeist-perceptions. In Chapter 4, we studied the incidence of societal discontent across countries and conducted preliminary analyses of the relationship of societal discontent with indicators of country-level welfare. In Chapter 5, we examined the influence of micro-level communication processes on the development of collective discontent over time, albeit discontent with a different kind of society (a scientific discipline). The main academic contribution of our work is that we designed a novel theoretical and methodological approach to studying societal discontent. Our results so far have been consistent with this approach, implying that we seem to have found a way to measure this vague sense of doom and gloom about the state of society; but our results also open up questions for future research. The main societal contribution that we hope to make is a better understanding of societal discontent, one of the major driving forces of this political era.

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