AN INTERVIEW WITH HERMAN VAN DE WERFHORST | by Katrin Bernsdorff and Theresa Schmitz



Name: Herman van de Werfhorst
Field: Sociology
Country: Netherlands
Occupation: Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, Director of the Amsterdam Centre for Inequality Studies
Research Interests: Sociology of Education, Social Stratification and Mobility, Labour Market Sociology, Quantitiative Methods, Statistics.


 ▐  "It is the best field there is!" Herman van de Werfhorst is so sure of this statement that he has spent his whole life studying the way societies take shape and how we influence them. He also enjoys influencing his student's perceptions of society: "I think sociology is a field that changes your mind, changes your vision of things immediately. I am teaching a second year bachelors course and I conclude the course with: 'I'm sorry that I've changed your world view forever.'"

   After very short detours into policy science and educational science, Professor van de Werfhorst has dedicated his life to studying sociology, specifically inequality and education. With great success: His study on educational inequality in the Netherlands gained vast media coverage and led to a renewed debate on educational policy in the Netherlands in general. Several of the team's recommendations were even entered as amendments in the Dutch parliament. This is why he specializes in inequality in the first place: "I'm always interested in topics that are relevant from a societal perspective, not only from a sociological perspective. That's why I think I study inequality because it's clearly related to all kinds of policies and institutions, regulations. I think it's the field that is interesting to me because it allows me to speak not only to sociologist or economists but also to policy makers and people in the society because they have an opinion too. […] I think they [politicians] can learn a great deal from social sciences. At least many of them are concerned about the same issues as we are. So I think it's useful to keep talking to them and to constantly feel some sort of urge, not on a daily basis, but at least regularly, to go out into the 'real world' so to say, with the things we found and the interpretation of society as we have it."

   Beyond this, Professor van de Werfhorst is the director of the Amsterdam Centre for Inequality Studies and an aspiring blogger. "Although I should do it more […],I like doing it. It's the perfect medium, not necessarily my personal blog […]. But the idea of blogs with academic content like short research papers, very short posts with some graphs or some results are very useful for the debates. […] We can just write a brief paper on an issue rather than waiting half a year or a year before an article gets published. One of my blogs for example was cited in a letter of the minister to the parliament - just my blog on a website somewhere deep in the University of Amsterdam's system. That was nice. But don't get me wrong, of course your graduate students also need to write papers!"

   "I believe in the naivety,
   the pureness of the science."

   Looking at the streamlined path of his academic career, he himself is sometimes surprised. "I didn't plan. Even when I was a PhD student I never would have thought I was going to become a professor." But pursuing an academic career became all about his belief of what science is as a profession. "[I believe in] the naivety, the pureness of the science. It's only about the content not about the message really. So I think that it's ultimately about the truth. Well, whatever you consider the truth. But not about something else, like political games. Politicians are completely different from scientists. It's a really different species almost. So in that sense I think science is much nicer and the people overall are more honest and sincere."


   As straightforward as his path to becoming a sociology professor was, the values and ethics which guide his research are equally clear: "It's not our task to say this [a specific policy] is better than that. That's a political discussion. The only thing we can say is: "If you do this, this might be the down sides or the positive sides." And that's how you do it. So in that sense I do have an ambition, not to be completely value free, but at least to present the work as if it was value free."

   Besides the mentioned study on educational inequality in the Netherlands, Professor van de Werfhorst has secured a vast amount of (research) grants for the University of Amsterdam.  However, he does not put so much effort in to the applications just to further his career. His main goal is to bring in large grants to support his department at the university. "I'm more interested in my group's position rather than my own career. We have different groups in Sociology in Amsterdam. I came from a group that was very small and marginal. One professor retired at some point and I was able to replace him with someone more from my field rather than his field. That really helped to shape the group. We were two professors and now we hired a third one last year. So we have three full professors in our group and we have about 25 people. It gave us a much stronger position and that has always motivated me. I like to take on grants because it's good for the group, it builds the group and it improves your position within the university - also outside the university. You get a more clear focus of your research and it's visible now that if you want to study educational systems, people think of Amsterdam as a place to go and I think that’s nice."



// Interview: Katrin Bernsdorff & Theresa Schmitz / Editing: Theresa Schmitz







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