AMR: The questions deal with the research and its relevance to policy-making now. So let’s start with research. How has the theme “uses of the past” shaped your research?
SB: I am mainly a quantitative economic and financial historian, with a special focus on the relationship between institutions, financial development and macro-economic outcomes. As an Italian working in a Spanish university, I have developed a growing interest in comparing and developing an understanding of the historical experience of modernization of Southern European countries. The “uses of the past” theme has helped me to explore a cultural dimension that I had always in mind as a relevant issue, but had no opportunity to develop in my previous research.
AMR. How have you dealt with this framework from a methodological perspective?
SB: The main contribution of the Carlos III team to the project is to explore how the past of Southern European countries – their history, institutions and culture – has been represented and used in the public discourse in Northern European countries. We decided to follow an approach based on the emerging field of digital humanities. Our aim is to apply text mining, sentiment analysis and other quantitative techniques to large-scale historical text corpora, such as collections of speeches, or magazines articles.
AMR: What about the relevance of your research? Can you give an example of your research with a close parallel to a contemporary debate?
SB: We are using the full collection of the German weekly magazine Die Zeit(from 1946 to 2018) to explore which words have been more frequently associated with Sothern European countries, and how these co-occurrences evolved over time. The idea is to uncover what lies behind the famous – and derogative – acronym PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain) widely used in the international press since the 1990s. This is an example of a “country-grouping heuristic” – a discourse strategy that categorizes countries into peer groups with common characteristics. Its echo is clearly visible in the notion of a North-South cultural divide, based on divergent histories and identities, which reemerged at some stage during the Eurozone crisis. The idea that a “cultural clash” may act as a powerful obstacle to economic and institutional integration is also explored by recent research in political science and international political economy.
AMR: How did your UPIER research help you improve your understanding of policy-making?
SB: We do not focus explicitly on how the use of the past may contribute to shape policy making. However, it is obvious that policymakers’ choices, and the public discourse in general, are to a large extent constrained by ideas, values and norms shared by citizens at large. We hope to contribute to a better understanding of the cultural roots of the public discourse and of its impact on the relationship between the North and South of Europe.
AMR: How could policy-makers benefit from the past to take better decisions?
SB: This is an extremely difficult question. Good policymaking must always be based on evidence and the past is definitely part of the evidence available. Awareness of the past also helps to make sense of present circumstances, assess obstacles, and work out intended and unintended consequences of policy actions. The past can also be used to shift the public discourse and the political debate onto a higher level, less biased by short-termism, or by volatile rhetoric on social media. But that would require more intellectually honest politicians and less spin-doctors. I’m afraid this is not the direction we’re heading in at present.