Christopher Vanden Berg

Christopher Vanden Berg

PhD Candidate, Political Science

Vanier Scholar

My Research

My research focuses on the concept of 'political apathy' in political theory and in Canadian politics. I begin from the assertion that the problem of political apathy has been causally framed in one direction: citizens are uninterested in formal politics, do not vote, therefore they are considered politically apathetic subjects. Moreover, this signification, limited to those individuals who abstain from participation in formal institutions, universalizes all who do vote as ‘politically active’ subjects. These reductions represent a general trend in the literature: a coterminous association of ‘political apathy’ with ‘a lack of interest in voting’. What remains to be conducted is an investigation which extends the understanding of political apathy beyond the abstaining of voting, to an inquiry as to why certain acts or behaviors are deemed legitimate ‘political’ activity while others are not, and what the causes or explanations are for why a citizen chooses to abstain from a particular type of behavior. In other words, what is missing is an understanding which looks to the social totality, not merely the individual, to understand political apathy.

My project contends that considering political apathy within the frameworks outlined by members of the so-called Frankfurt School of Critical Theory can provide new insights into the nature of apathy in Canada today, and expand the approaches presently taken to the current crisis of low voter turnout. These theorists held that individual behavior could not be divorced from the larger characteristics and forces which make up society as a whole. Such a position would understand the current notion of the politically apathetic individual – that is, as an isolated subject detached from political engagement – as inappropriately positivistic, failing to recognize the mediated relation between the individual and society. Within such a framework, apathy would be considered not indifference to political life, but instead consider that indifference as being produced by a particular political life. Political apathy would therefore be understood not a behavior external to our politics, but one produced by and within it. This research will contribute to topics surrounding the understanding of politics, democratic citizenship, and the subject in contemporary political theory, as well as urgent discussions on democratic reform in Canada.