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The AxPo Research Agenda

The purpose of AxPo’s research program is to bring together research in sociology, political science, and economics on multiple forms of polarization which may contribute to the fragmentation of democratic market societies. AxPo will notably focus on socio-economical and socio-political polarizations, and their interrelations.

Current research suggests that today’s market economy strongly contributes to socio-economic polarization. It manifests at two levels: firms and workers.

While the divergence between small and large firms has always been constitutive of capitalist economies, market competition seems increasingly challenged by the rise of “superstar” firms holding increasing market power. This concentration may both result from the characteristics of new markets (notably digital ones) with winner-take-all structures, and from deregulation policies and political promotions of national champions. A possible outcome worth studying is superstar firms’ increased political leverage to orient state policies (notably subsidization, regulation, and fiscal policies).

Moreover, firms’ polarization also translates into processes of divergence both at the macro level and the micro level. At a macro level, levels of activity diverge by sectors, notably between those sectors that are at the core of a country’s growth model and other sectors. One step higher, the difference in countries’ growth models leads to polarization within a supra-national ensemble like the European Union. At a micro level, within firms, de-diversification, downsizing, offshoring, outsourcing, and subcontracting all contribute to firm fissuring and enhance oppositions along global value chains between headquarters, conception bureaus, and production sites, or contractors and subcontractors.

Firms’ polarization comes with workers’ polarization. This latter process was initially viewed as first and foremost a process of wage polarization due to uneven technological advancements. Digitalization is said to contribute to the disappearance of unskilled routine jobs, which populated the middle of the wage hierarchy, and creates jobs both at the bottom (manual non-routine jobs) and at the top (abstract non-routine jobs). However, we have also learned that many factors have enhanced polarization, including financialization and firm fissuring. Moreover, polarization is not limited to a widening wage distribution but also translates into workers’ sorting and deepening of workplace and geographical segregation.

AxPo will therefore document these processes of socioeconomic polarization, investigate the precise micro- and macro-mechanisms fueling them, and measure their societal consequences. A key dimension is to understand the links between socio-economic and socio-political polarizations.  

Indeed, many researchers have pointed to the growth of political polarization, visible, for instance, in the growing difficulty in adopting multi- or bipartisan compromises or in the growing tensions surrounding societal issues (for instance in the U.S., guns, abortion, religion, vaccines). Increased socio-economic segregation likely fosters this phenomenon. Limited interaction with persons of different social status could contribute to ideological divergence. However, its impact seems at first glance paradoxical. Socio-political polarization moves away from economic issues and develops via socio-cultural ones: life-styles, inclusion, health, immigration, environment, etc.  

The digitalization of the public sphere, with notably the critical role of algorithmic recommendations and smartphone fast-forwarding, amplifies cleavages. People interact within spheres that are increasingly separated, and hold different views of what holds importance, what are facts, and what is truth. This societal polarization contributes, especially in majoritarian systems, to the radicalization of political opposition between technocratic mainstream parties and populist ones or between various forms of populism. It may pave the way to undemocratic options. Hence, polarization is a challenge for the sustainability of democratic societies.   

To conduct this research program on market society polarization, the AxPo observatory will serve as a platform for coordinating research on polarization that is conducted within Sciences Po’s various research centers. Additionally, AxPo will promote new research through ambitious postdoctoral and visiting scholar programs detailed throughout these webpages.

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