Getting ‘sucked into parliament’: Tracing the process of professional political socialization


How do newly elected members of parliament become attuned to the role of the professional politician? Drawing from research on organizational socialization, which highlights instances of sensemaking and identity formation, the article uses a four-stage model of organizational socialization to examine a state-level parliamentary group of the Pirate Party of Germany, a party deeply invested in renewing political institutions. The findings indicate that even though the Members of Parliament set out to change established parliamentary practice, they felt the necessity to adjust their identities and behavior when entering the state parliament. In emphasizing the organizational dimension, the article refrains from taking a normative stance on the transformation of individuals from regular citizens to professional politicians.


Regardless of their affiliation, people change when they become professional politicians, and if we follow public opinion, they often change for the worse. Long before the current surge in populist resentment against ‘the elite’ all over the Western world, the opaque proceedings of politics were seen as having a corrupting effect: by transforming idealistic newcomers into professional politicians with questionable morals, eventually alienating the public. It is a widely accepted view that people turn into the worst versions of themselves once they become politicians. Consequently, politicians today are among the least liked and trusted professional groups. Considering this popular view, the lack of research on how exactly people become professional politicians – that is, the process of professional political socialization – is remarkable (cf. Reiser et al., 2011). To date, research has provided only scarce insights into how the political process transforms those involved and whether such a transformation is inevitable.

This comes as a surprise as there are two bodies of literature that we might suspect to have a strong interest in this issue: research on political professionalization and research on political socialization. Turning first to findings from studies in the field of political professionalization, we indeed come across important insights into how amateurs become politicians, albeit in a rather scattered fashion. These insights concern all three dimensions of the political (cf. Hyman, 1969). In the polity dimension, studies highlight procedural knowledge that needs to be acquired upon entering a political office (cf. Sarcinelli, 2011: 131). In the politics dimension, Wodak (2009: 74), among others, discusses the drastic (and exhausting) change of daily routines as well as interpersonal relations. Lastly in the policy dimension, studies show how politicians’ political beliefs are affected by the new task: ‘when compared to the general population, representative elites are more favorable toward democracy, more tolerant of minorities, more appreciative of parties and their competition and less supportive of the practices of participatory democracy’ (Best and Vogel, 2017: 353). Still, as this research tradition is strongly rooted in (normative) democratic theory (Mughan et al., 1997), its main focus is on the relationship between officeholders and citizens, that is, between political elites and the general public (Vogel, 2018). It therefore offers no concepts or theories that could help examine how newcomers empirically become professional politicians, and how they make sense of the process. The following quote from a Member of Parliament (MP hereafter), cited by famous parliamentary scholar Searing (1986: 372), speaks to the drastic changes newly elected representatives undergo: ‘I think instead of me turning [the parliament; L.R. and J.B.] inside out, [it] turned me inside out a little.’ To better understand such processes of remarkable personal transformation, that is, of being turned ‘inside out,’ we draw from research on political socialization.

The process of socialization has been studied extensively, with research typically focusing on the formation of perceptional, evaluative, and behavioral dispositions that individuals develop through the interaction of the self and (social) environment (Hurrelmann et al., 2008). Political socialization, in turn, refers to that same formation process insofar as it studies how individuals acquire political orientations and behavior (Easton, 1968: 125). This line of research, however, not only had its heyday some 50 years ago, but still seems to be more focused on primary political socialization, that is, the development of basic political beliefs, than in secondary, or professional political socialization (cf. Niemi and Hepburn, 1995; van Deth et al., 2011). As a result, scholarly debates usually revolve around the question as to what might be the most crucial phase within primary political socialization – early childhood or adolescence? We thus know a lot about how children and/or adolescents first encounter politics, for example by what means they internalize crucial norms of democracy, who the main agents of socialization throughout adolescence are, and how the process of engaging with politics may be impeded. However, we only know little about how people become involved in professional politics and especially how they learn to be politicians.

So far, this issue has neither been addressed systematically by research on political professionalization nor by research on political socialization. Making use of the extensive body of literature on organizational socialization, the article argues that in order to understand how amateurs become professional politicians, we need to examine how formal organizations are involved in this process. By offering an abstract theoretical lens to conceptualize personal transformation, research on organizational socialization allows us to (a) study a diverse set of organizations such as companies, the public administration, hospitals, schools, universities, and of course political parties as well as parliaments, and (b) to overcome the potential biases of specialized fields of investigation. The most obvious bias of political research is its root premise that politicians should first and foremost be concerned with representing citizens, deriving from the close intertwinement of normative political theory and public opinion when it comes to the role of politics on modern society (Brichzin, forthcoming; Ringel et al., 2019). As a result, the complex set of tasks and activities politicians are concerned with in their daily lives, not least the process of becoming a professional politician, are of little to no interest to political research.

Empirically, we explore a rather extreme case of political professionalization: the Pirate Party of Germany, a party intimately connected to digital activism and notorious for its radical views on a host of issues such as transparency, participatory democracy, and copyright legislation. Being elected into four state parliaments in 2011/2012, the party, which prides itself on its broad rejection of professional politics, was suddenly represented at the core of institutionalized politics and therefore underwent a ‘reality check’ in two regards: (a) it suddenly had to put its organizational ideals into practice and (b) it had to deal with the pressure of adapting to the established ways of parliamentary practice. In the course of this article, we will show that these two commitments are contradictory. Our data set is comprised of qualitative interviews with members of the biggest parliamentary group of the party in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which had 20 representatives in the 2012-2017 term. By focusing on the organizational aspects of the Pirates’ socialization experiences in parliament, we will unveil subtle, yet powerful mechanisms that were hitherto unnoticed or unaccounted for by political research.

In the following sections, we discuss the tenets of research on organizational socialization and outline a four-stage model which we use to analyze our findings. After briefly presenting the research site and the research process, we discuss our findings. In sum, we demonstrate that the Pirates, despite their deeply-rooted skepticism of established parliamentary practice, not only adopted the formal and informal norms of their new workplace. They also at least partly integrated them into their concept of the self in order to be able to participate in a meaningful way.

Organizational socialization

Socialization into parliament is, by default, socialization into a specific type of organization. Some features of parliaments arguably make them a rather unusual type of organization: their members enter and quit the organization periodically due to legislative turnover, with the number of newcomers and resignees often amounting to a large part of the organizational population; there is no way of planning the composition of the parliamentary staff as it is determined by general elections and thus by nonmembers of parliament; and parliaments have limited means to discipline their members because of their often constitutionally guaranteed free mandate. In other respects, however, parliaments are typical organizations: membership is clearly defined by the legal framework, parliamentary proceedings are structured by formal rules, organizational charts assign tasks and responsibilities, and new members of course have to learn the ‘rules of the game’ (Brichzin, 2016; Ringel, 2017; 2019a). To analyze how the rules are learned, we borrow from research on organizational socialization.

Research on organizational socialization has produced an impressive body of literature since the 1970s. In general, organizational socialization is defined as ‘the process by which an individual acquires the attitudes, behavior and knowledge needed to participate as an organizational member’ (Bauer et al., 1998: 150). As Ashforth et al. (2007) highlight in their literature review, this process is complex and multifaceted, and it involves activity on the part of the newcomers as well as the organization. In light of our focus on professional political socialization, we have adopted a stage model frequently used in research on organizational socialization, which allows us to analyze the changes individuals experience as they become fulltime politicians step by step. By further combining it with an interpretative approach, we are able to trace instances of identity formation and role interpretation (Ashforth and Schinoff, 2016). Although stage models have become classical tools, Ashforth et al. (2007: 9) maintain that they ‘continue to provide a useful heuristic for thinking through the challenges that newcomers (and their employers) tend to face’. They identify four stages of organizational socialization: the anticipation phase, the encounter phase, the adjustment phase, and the stabilization phase, which we will review in detail.

The first stage concerns anticipations formed before entering the organization, which ‘includes activities through which individuals develop expectations regarding the organization in preparation for entry’ (Ashforth et al., 2007: 9; see already Merton, 1957). Although this is likely to be a crucial phase – organizational socialization usually involves ‘changing from’ as much as it does ‘changing to’ (Louis, 1980) – organizational research has yet to harbor its analytical and empirical potentials. This is also the case in legislative research which has paid little to no attention to pre-formative phases when studying processes of socialization in a political institution. In consequence, we might ask: how do previously formed expectations shape the ways in which individuals engage with their new role as MPs?

In stark contrast, the second stage, the encounter, has been extensively investigated. Experiencing a new organizational ecosystem often causes a ‘reality shock’ (Hughes, 1958) as discrepancies between expectations and reality become apparent (Louis, 1980). New members of an organization face uncertainty in such an ‘anxiety producing situation’ (van Maanen and Schein, 1979: 214), sometimes resulting in quite intense emotional reactions (Weick et al., 2005). They are therefore likely to engage in what is often referred to as sensemaking: when facing ambiguous circumstances, which they fail to explain by applying established frames of reference, individuals try to regain a grasp of what is happening by actively searching for and effectively creating meaning. This helps them integrate ongoing events into a plausible narrative, form a stable identity, and develop strategies for action (Weick, 1995; Weick et al., 2005).

Sensemaking involves the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalize what people are doing. Viewed as a significant process of organizing, sensemaking unfolds as a sequence in which people concerned with identity in the social context of other actors engage ongoing circumstances from which they extract cues and make plausible sense retrospectively, while enacting more or less order into those ongoing circumstances. (Weick et al., 2005: 409)

This quote indicates that sensemaking is usually not a clearly distinguishable and singular event, but an ongoing activity in which action and talk are intertwined in a cyclical relationship. In other words, it is ‘about continued redrafting of an emerging story so that it becomes more comprehensive, incorporates more of the observed data, and is more resilient in the face of criticism’ (Weick et al., 2005: 415). Furthermore, sensemaking is a fundamentally social activity: actors craft meaning in social interactions to make their cognitive frameworks fit the respective (organizational, cultural, national, etc.) context. ‘Fit,’ however, does not mean that concepts correspond to some underlying reality; sensemaking is not about finding out what reality really is, but concerns the creation of an intelligible narrative – a working theory – of what is going on.

During the encounter stage, newcomers engage with other members. Studies indicate that they are usually put on probation, not only formally but also practically, with long-term members – the ‘insiders’ – withholding full ‘inclusionary rights’ (Van Maanen and Schein, 1979: 222) until the abilities, motives, and values of the newcomers have been approved. Again, we only find scarce remarks on how individuals cope with the need for sensemaking and establishing trust in the literature on political and legislative socialization. We might speculate that this is due to the fact that normative theories of democracy tend to ignore the concept of meaning and processes of meaning making as empirical phenomena in need of study (cf. Brichzin et al., 2018).

In the course of the adjustment stage, new members are integrated into the organization. As a result, they are ‘given broad responsibilities and autonomy, entrusted with “privileged” information, included in informal networks, encouraged to represent the organization, and sought out for advice and counsel by others’ (Louis, 1980: 231). Studies report different organizational strategies to facilitate the integration of new members, distinguishing collective versus individual, formal versus informal, and fixed versus variable tactics, just to name a few (Ashforth et al., 2007; van Maanen and Schein, 1979). Parliaments are special in this regard because they barely, if at all, institutionalize such techniques to facilitate integration, which leaves the task of adjustment usually to the parliamentary group and the individual MP, respectively (Reiser et al., 2011). For adjustment processes to be successful (Porath and Bateman, 2006: 185), sensemaking that started in the encounter stage must now lead to the formation of a (relatively) stable identity, that is, a concept of the self that enables individuals to successfully navigate their new situation.

The fourth and last stage concerns stabilization. By then, organizational proceedings have finally become self-evident to the individual, sensemaking has produced a coherent narrative of what is happening in the new environment, and identity troubles have largely been resolved. Thus, stabilization signifies ‘that individuals are bona fide organizational insiders, including promotion, sharing of organizational secrets, lower stress, termination of mentoring, and integration into a group’ (Ashforth et al., 2007: 9). In parliament, newcomers seem to reach the stabilization stage when they are fully familiar with parliamentary rules as well as proceedings, and succeed in forming a self-concept as MP, setting them apart from the electorate (Reiser, 2018).

In sum, research on professional socialization in parliaments can benefit from concepts of organizational socialization in multiple ways. Most importantly, it theorizes the different stages individuals go through upon entering a professional political organization and the pressures they are exposed to.

The Pirate Party of Germany: a newcomer to the political system

Against the backdrop of these conceptual considerations, we decided to study an extreme case of professional political socialization. By extreme, we refer to the distinct challenges to be anticipated when individuals, whose beliefs deviate considerably from the established parliamentary practice and who have only little prior experience in professional politics, transform from amateurs into ‘insiders.’ The case that we have chosen to study is the Pirate Party, a relatively young party founded in Sweden in 2006 and in many Western as well as non-Western countries thereafter. The rise of the Pirates is preceded by and connected to a variety of new social movements and technological advances, particularly the Internet. These new social movements typically emerge outside of traditional political arenas, are often hard to locate on the left-right axis, and remain highly skeptical of traditional political institutions such as parliaments, which they believe to be the root cause of many societal problems (Fredriksson Almqvist, 2016b). As a result, the Pirates are passionate believers in the greater good of comprehensive forms of government transparency. They frequently engage in digital activism and are fervent users of social media platforms, which serve as important electronic infrastructures for debates, temporary organizing (planning of events, etc.), and the implementation of participatory democratic procedures. It thus comes as no surprise that activists are often highly critical of the expansion of copyright legislation targeting the digital sphere, which they see as an impediment for citizens to exert their freedoms online (Fredriksson Almqvist, 2016a). Consequently, copyright infringement has been the most important issue of the Pirate Party from the very beginning (Fredriksson Almqvist, 2015).

However, even though the Pirate Party evidently originated in an environment that largely rejects institutionalized politics, it soon sought representation in the institutional core of the political system and participated in elections in multiple countries. In contrast to how the Pirates are often perceived, this seems to indicate that ‘the primacy of institutionalized politics is not only a pragmatic choice by the most dedicated party activists but also consistent with the political imagination of their less organized followers’ (Fredriksson Almqvist, 2016b: 104). Put bluntly, the Pirates felt that in order to change the political system, they first had to adopt some of its conventions and to participate in organized forms of electoral competition for representation. This begs the question of what happens when a party that is not only dedicated to fringe issues (e.g. largely abandoning copyright legislation), but also to organizational procedures that in some ways radically deviate from the political common sense (see below), moves to the core of the political system in the wake of elections.

For a variety of reasons, the German Pirate Party is an ideal case to investigate this question. First, being elected into four state parliaments in 2011/2012, it left the largest mark on the electoral map of all of the Pirate Parties. The German Pirates were elected into the state parliaments of Berlin (15 seats), North Rhine-Westphalia (20 seats), Saarland (4 seats), and Schleswig-Holstein (6 seats). By comparison, they moved closest to the center of political institutions and were likely exposed to more pressure than Pirate Parties in other countries. Second, with its members being particularly skeptical of parliaments, even compared to the Pirates in other countries (Fredriksson Almqvist, 2016b), we might expect a high level of friction between the party base and the elected representatives. Third, with its emphasis on (a) comprehensive transparency and (b) radical participatory democracy, it promotes procedural norms that deviate from the German political post-World War II consensus. In both regards, the German political system is particularly averse to the reforms touted by the Pirates.

(a) Despite occasional endorsements of transparency, the German political culture is firmly entrenched in the belief that a considerable amount of privacy and secrecy is necessary and desirable (Eilfort, 2003; Mayntz, 1989; Schöne, 2010). The lack of effective freedom of information legislation further indicates the cultural importance and legitimacy of secrecy in German politics. (b) Germany has a highly representative political system, with little to no participatory elements. As earlier evidence of studies on the Green Party and their experiments with grassroots politics and participatory models of decision-making suggests, whoever tries to implement such measures in the German political system faces severe challenges (Poguntke, 1993).

Of the four German states in which the Pirates gained parliamentarian representation, North Rhine-Westphalia seemed to be the most promising case. Receiving 7.8% in the snap election in May 2012 at the height of the party’s national popularity (public polling had them at over 10%), the state Pirate Party was eligible to form a parliamentary group with its 20 newly elected representatives amidst high degrees of media attention. In contrast to Berlin, the Pirates in North Rhine-Westphalia moved from the margins to the center of the political system within a relatively short amount of time, and due to the snap election, they had only little time to prepare. The first author studied the parliamentary group between 2013 and 2016, focusing on how the members of the parliamentary group tried to put their organizational ideals of transparency and participatory models of democracy into practice. The core findings have been published elsewhere (Albu and Ringel, 2018; Ringel, 2017; 2019a; see also Ringel, 2019b for a detailed account of the research process and data collection). For the purpose of this article, we have revisited the data set to focus specifically on organizational socialization, a theme the other publications had not explored. The data set consists of a variety of data, such as narrative interviews, video streams, blog posts, twitter feeds, and newspaper articles, analyzed according to the grounded theory methodology (Glaser and Strauss, 1971). We specifically examined narratives and mechanisms of attuning the newly elected MPs to the ways of the state parliament. We further investigated processes of identity formation and struggles thereof, starting with the period before the election, the moment of encountering the full force of the state parliament, and the specific type of adjustment in the months following the election.

Professional political socialization in parliament

We have analyzed our findings using the four-stage model presented above. As we will demonstrate in this section, the Pirates’ core beliefs (4.1.) clashed with those held by established actors in the state parliament. As a result, the newly elected MPs had to engage in sensemaking to create a meaningful interpretation of their new situation and to acquire a stable identity (4.2.). In the months after the election, the Pirates adjusted to the established ways of the state parliament by a large degree even though there were no rules or authorities forcing them to do so (4.3.). In effect, they were able to become a – somewhat – normal member of the state parliament and to enjoy some of the privileges of being ‘insiders’ (4.4.).

Anticipation: ‘renewing the operating system’

The informants had strong anticipatory expectations before they became members of the state parliaments, which were only loosely grounded in actual political experience as the party had resided on the margins of the political system. As previously mentioned, the Pirate Party not only stands for digital activism and related issues such as rethinking copyright legislation, but also or even more so, a core set of procedural and organizational ideals. There is reason to believe that those ideals particularly made the Pirates compelling to the electorate as they tackled a variety of longstanding problems of the political system. Calling for ‘renewing the operating system’ (‘Das Betriebssystem erneuern’) (Appelius and Fuhrer, 2012) of the political system, the Pirates wanted to make decision processes participatory, thus reducing the autonomy of ‘political elites,’ to have flat hierarchies, and to render government and public organizations as transparent as possible, ultimately creating a ‘state made out of glass’ (‘gläserner Staat’). These themes also come to the fore in our interviews.

Participation was clearly an important issue for our informants and for some of them, the main reason why they joined the party in the first place:

This is not a party in which you just tick the right box every couple of years in the voting booth. It’s about being involved in organizing, that everybody can meet up, engage, participate at the local level. (Interview I)

In a similar vein, informant O was intrigued by the possibility of ‘becoming a member of the party and participating right away, organizationally and politically.’ Clearly, what made the Pirate Party appealing was its ability to provide low-threshold opportunities for political engagement and the rejection of entrusting expert delegates with the task of discussing and formulating policy positions. This is reportedly what some of the MPs had experienced as members of other parties.

I was a member of [Party X] and soon began to realize that even though I like their policies, I’m not comfortable with the way they are organized. […] The Pirates allowed me to voice my opinion right away, without restriction. That was a lot tougher in [Party X] where one has to climb up the ladder and only after a long trial period can participate in decision-making. (Interview I)

While it takes a long time and a high level of engagement before members of traditional parties are granted access to decision-making, the Pirate Party welcomes its members to participate immediately as it is convinced that deliberative processes benefit from unleashing the ‘swarm intelligence’ of the many (Piratenpartei Deutschland Wiki, 2012). Accordingly, democratic politics should be taken from the hands of the elites and given to the people, who should have equal opportunities in determining their lives.

Closely related to participatory forms of organizing decision processes is the ideal of flat hierarchies. The Pirate Party is deeply skeptical of formal authority because they assume that ‘we all are the party base’ (Informant A), no matter what the position: ‘This critical view of hierarchies and power, the exercise of power, is what characterizes us’ (Interview L). This again is part of the reason why some MPs decided to join the party: ‘What I found especially appealing was this system of very flat hierarchies, which allows everyone to come in and take part equally. That’s what made me curious’ (Interview K).

While the Green Party had already experimented with both flat hierarchies and participatory decision-making in the 1980s, the Pirate Party’s quest for transparency was truly novel and subsequently became the cornerstone of their identity, at least in Germany (see the in-depth discourse analysis by Hönigsberger and Osterberg, 2012). Once more, embracing this mode of organizational governance appealed to the informants when they decided to join the party: ‘What I really appreciated was that they posted their protocols on the Internet right after the meetings. No other party did that. So I decided to go to one of their meetings’ (Interview O). The informants thus clearly shared the general sentiment that ‘everything has to be transparent’ (Interview A).

When running for office in 2012, they practiced openness in accordance with the party’s ideals and refrained from restricting the stream of information from the inside out: party conferences were streamed online via video, meetings and mailing lists were open to everybody, candidates used social media and interviews to speak their mind freely, and the party finances and expenditures were published regularly. Facing little to no push back from the other parties, being hyped by the media, and gaining an astonishing 20 seats in the state parliament, the Pirates felt accepted. Naturally, they expected to be able to continue in this fashion and to change the ways of parliamentary politics for good. According to informant A, at that time, they indeed passionately felt that ‘there can be no conversations behind closed doors, all meetings must be public: board meetings, everything has to be streamed simultaneously’ (Interview A). Another representative affirmed this sentiment publicly: ‘Next stop: state parliament! Working hard to achieve the impossible: establishing our political ideals in parliament!’ (Marsching, 2012).

Encounter: ‘reality shock’

In all three regards, democratic modes of decision-making, flat hierarchies, and transparency, established practice in German parliaments (at the national as well as state level) drastically deviates from the Pirates’ imaginations: Elected politicians generally develop an ‘esprit de corps’ across party lines (Mayntz, 1989) and consider themselves experts best equipped to make decisions, thus defying participatory forms of deliberation; even though parliamentary groups (and parliaments for that matter) are formally prohibited from disciplining individual representatives, studies indicate that there is a rich variety of informal mechanisms to establish and enforce de-facto hierarchies (Eilfort, 2003); and, while all parties emphasize the necessity of transparency, they nevertheless frequently engage in backroom negotiations (Depenheuer, 2001).

So how did the newly elected representatives process these differences? Instead of acting as institutional entrepreneurs who are to bring about change, the interviews clearly indicate that the MPs experienced a severe ‘reality shock’ (Interview L). Especially in the first couple of weeks, they felt overwhelmed:

None of us had a real idea of what was to happen. I didn't, many others didn't. No, the others, they didn't either, even if some of them said something different. No, we didn't know what was coming our way. (Interview C)

On the one hand, the new MPs faced challenges within the parliament. Above all, building up an autonomous organizational unit and navigating the formal and informal structures of the state parliament proved to be a complicated and time-consuming task. On the other hand, they had to deal with unforeseen reactions from outside the parliament, public perception in particular, which seemed to have changed dramatically:

Before the election, people had a positive view of [us being chaotic], so we had a bit of a sympathy bonus. They said we are fresh and new and everything. (Interview D)

This ‘sympathy bonus’ however, faded quickly and the MPs faced a dissatisfied party base which claimed that ‘no news were to be heard about us anymore, as if we had vanished into the orbit like a satellite’ (Brand, 2012). As for media coverage, journalists stopped favorable reporting and started to scandalize the parliamentary group. From leaving a stack of pizza boxes in the parliament’s cafeteria to the public handling of internal conflicts, the Pirates became the subject of intense criticism (Ringel, 2019b). What surprised the MPs most about this situation was that they were suddenly criticized for behavior that had generally been praised before the election such as the public handling of internal affairs. As a result, the MPs were deeply confused, a state of mind typically associated with ‘disjunctive socialization’ (Van Maanen and Schein, 1979: 32), that is, situations of discontinuity between the ‘old’ and the ‘new.’ As much of their confusion derived from the three maxims of organizational governance – participation, flat hierarchy, and transparency – we will discuss the difficulties that the MPs experienced in more detail.

In terms of participatory decision-making, the MPs realized that ‘when you ask the party base, you often don’t get an answer’ (Interview L). They also had to learn that members of the party base are often inadequately equipped to participate in policymaking, particularly in complex matters: ‘If you work full time [in a non-political profession, L.R and J.B.] you only have a limited amount of time that you can dedicate to studying political issues, your grip of issues will remain rather shallow’ (Interview K). Some informants felt that the online forms of participation (e.g. Liquid Feedback, a digital tool designed by members of the party) are prone to acts of sabotage, which should be taken into account when seeking to implement inclusionary measures:

I can make an online survey and within two to three hours I got thirty respondents. Considering that we have six thousand members in North Rhine-Westphalia alone, this makes barely a half per mil of all of us. No, that does not work. (Interview H)

For these reasons, the MPs struggled to follow their initial intent to grant the party base immediate and unlimited access to policymaking.

Keeping hierarchies flat implied having no mechanisms to reprimand or to discipline those who were out of bounds, for instance, when they released critical blog posts, made controversial statements, or publicly contradicted a position the parliamentary group had agreed upon internally. Two early scandals stand out both in terms of public reactions as well as the internal turmoil they created (see Ringel, 2017 for a detailed account). MP Birgit Rydlewski became the target of criticism for two tweets. In the first tweet, she talked about an HIV test she took due to an accident during sexual intercourse; in the second tweet two months later, she complained about long and tedious plenary sessions. The media reported excessively on both tweets and used them to create a narrative according to which the Pirate Party was in crisis. A blog post by then manager of the parliamentary group, Monika Pieper, is indicative of the chaos the tweets had created (Pieper, 2012). Pieper reflected publicly on breaking up the parliamentary group as internal chaos grew and, according to her, the Pirates displayed a total lack of skills in collective organizing. A second scandal revolved around another tweet by MP Dietmar Schulz, who made a controversial remark about Israel and its involvement in wars. In the wake of these (and related minor) events, the MPs struggled to continue rejecting hierarchies and disciplinary measures.

Finally, the Pirate Party’s vision of bringing unrestricted and comprehensive transparency to the parliament caused severe problems as well. On the one hand, MPs struggled with political rivals’ requests to have private conversations. Such informal meetings, however, are a necessary prerequisite for success in parliament:

Well, there's no other way. I can't force this on others. I can tell them I want to record it. Then they can decide, do they want that or not. If they say no, then the conversation simply does not take place. (Interview M)

Implementing transparency in a highly interactive work environment thus turned out to be more complicated than anticipated: the Pirates had to learn that disrespecting other peoples’ need for privacy entails being excluded from the aforementioned informal discussions. On the other hand, the MPs report factual reasons as to why they struggle to implement their original vision: the party base simply cannot handle the flood of information created by unmitigated transparency. One of the MPs explains:

That's the downside of transparency. If you make everything transparent, then you really have a lot of raw data which you have to somehow process. That's just the case, unfortunately. (Interview I)

The MPs then, grew painfully aware that transparency needs filtering.

Adjustment: ‘sucked into parliament’

Following their initial surprise and feelings of uncertainty, the newly elected MPs tried to adjust to their new work environment within a matter of months. Van Maanen and Schein (1979) define three responses to organizational efforts of adjusting newcomers: custodianship, content innovation, and role innovation. Those who become members of an organization in terms of custodianship accept the status quo and try to learn the formal and informal rules of the game. Individuals engaged in content innovation make ‘substantive improvements or changes in the knowledge base or strategic practices of a particular role’ (ibid.:228). Lastly, when newcomers innovate their roles, they reject ‘most of the norms governing the conduct and performance of a particular role’ (ibid.:  229) and seek to completely redefine it. Clearly, the Pirates’ initial goal was to innovate the role of what it means to be an MP and how parliaments should conduct their business. However, in the first couple of months, it seemed as if they had arrived at a mode of engagement that more closely resembles a mix of custodianship and content innovation. Strikingly, there was no formal authority mandating and organizing the process of adjustment. The main facilitator seems to have been intense interactions between the Pirates and a variety of socialization agents. Subsequently the MPs were able to create a stable narrative and a new vision of the self, containing a blend of both the Pirate Party’s organizational ideals and the traditional norms and practices of the parliament.

Remarkably, notwithstanding all intentions of changing the ‘operating system of the political system,’ the reality of the state parliament seemed to have hit the newly elected MPs like an objective force: informant H, for instance, felt ‘sucked into parliament’ (Interview H), and when the MPs describe their first steps, they excessively use such terms as ‘we must,’ ‘we had to,’ ‘of course we need to,’ and ‘it was necessary:’

And, we really had to set up the faction from scratch. We had to write a statute, we had to develop rules of procedure, all these formalities. And then we had to think about the practical stuff, too. We have to hire staff – at first, we were no more than twenty people, only the twenty MPs, nobody else. But a parliamentary group does not only consist of representatives, we need people who occupy the offices, who take care of the correspondence, we need people who work with us professionally, assistants – yes, everything had to be set up from scratch. (Interview I, emphasis added)

Put differently, the MPs felt that they ‘had to learn the how to’s of the state parliament’ (Interview A). The phrase ‘how to’ is particularly illuminating as it suggests that established parliamentarian practices – the traditional ‘operating system’ – are highly codified and offer neutral and objective guidance similar to the instructions of technical manuals.

The MPs were aware that coworkers are a crucial source of information. Their situation was quite exceptional in that they could not rely on experienced colleagues in the parliamentary group to support and to help them learn the ‘rules of the game’ step by step. One of the new MPs explains:

Don’t forget: in every other company, if you are new, there's someone who takes this newcomer by the hand and shows them the ropes. That’s how it usually is. Touring the office: here's the toilet, and here's the coffee machine, and here's the phone if you need to make a call. It's like that in every other company. We didn’t have that. (Interview F)

Deprived of such internal expertise, the MPs asked the other parties and the administrative staff for advice. Informants report having conversations with political rivals, in some cases even before the election, whom they perceived to be friendly, helpful, and even welcoming. The administrative staff might have been even more important:

We've been in touch with the parliamentary administration on a regular basis […]. We had different heads of department coming to caucus meetings – which took place, as I already told you, every day at that time. And they introduced us to certain procedures. (Interview K)

The MPs not only sought the advice of external sources, but also hired aides based on their previous experience in parliament. When talking about this process, informants emphasize the non-political nature of many responsibilities: ‘I’m happy we had such people who did not try to exert undue influence, but who simply showed us how things are done around here’ (Interview A). Aides who worked for the parliamentary group did not ‘need to be a member of the Pirate Party, [they] can even be members of another party’ (Interview M). There seems to have been a consensus regarding this hiring practice; even informant D, who was openly critical of his colleagues’ engagement with political rivals, held a favorable view: ‘We hired a handful of people with prior experience in parliament who could show us how things were done’ (Interview D).

Experiencing established parliamentary practices as an objective reality to which they had no other choice than to adapt, and being exposed to a diverse set of socialization agents, the MPs eventually edited their ideals of participatory decision-making, flat hierarchies, and transparency. The following quote indicates that this process entailed intense discussions and meaning work:

Suddenly, we got together almost every day for hours in a room, and were now supposed to be a team. And these were of course group dynamics, just like in any other group. Of course, you are somehow at odds at first, people have different agendas. The dynamics were fierce at first. And at the same time, we had to get to know the structures, to organize the parliamentary group, to make our own structures. (Interview A)

The MPs became much more skeptical of the promises and even the possibility of radical participatory decision-making:

The thing you have to keep in mind is that we are 20, or now 19, MPs. We are professionals. We are highly specialized and everyone focuses only on a handful of topics with additional resources at our disposal: staff, parliamentary group staff, personal aides. At the same time, if you consider the party base’s participation, uh, that is, people outside the state parliament, so to speak, hobby politicians – they do politics on a voluntary basis and in their spare time, alongside their own job, where they are busy 40 or even 50 hours per week. They want to be taken along, too. (Interview L)

As this quote indicates, the MPs began to apply and to feel comfortable with the distinction between professionals and hobby politicians or amateurs. While professionals are in a position to immerse themselves deeply in the subject matter, the party base simply does not have the same resources at hand and is in need of guidance – the party base needs ‘to be taken along,’ as informant L puts it. The informants thus justified an emergent imbalance between themselves, that is, those who have become professional politicians and those who are amateurs, by referring to different degrees of expertise. The MPs still sought the input of the party base, but they only recognized suggestions that made sense to them and that were in accordance with a certain standard of professionalism.

While the MPs felt an increasing distance to the party base, they seemed to move closer to their colleagues whose judgment they began to trust implicitly: ‘You have to trust people, right? Because you can't take care of everything yourself’ (Interview C). Preparations of the so-called ‘bee proposal,’ which mandates the regulation of monocultures for the preservation of bees, are a good example. The proposal was put forward by the Pirates and subsequently passed by the state parliament in February 2013. A group of MPs and aides of the parliamentary group worked autonomously on a proposal, as their colleagues trusted them and did not feel the need to intervene or to mandate their own opinions. Over time, MPs grew more and more accustomed to following each other’s recommendations in caucus meetings; expertise and knowledge had become an important part of their shared identity.

Even though the Pirates were and still are highly critical of hierarchies, there are some indications that they had become more willing to embrace some rudimentary disciplinary measures, following their negative experiences with public scandals in the encounter stage. Again, this could be observed when the parliamentary group sought to pass its ‘bee-proposal.’ During informal negotiations between the Pirate Party and the Green Party, an MP of the Pirates crafted a press release criticizing the Green Party, which the Greens felt was too harsh. Informant J describes how those involved in the negotiations successfully pressured their colleague to take the statement off the homepage. As the following quote indicates, these types of interventions seemed to occur more often after the first couple of months:

It is interesting to see that at first nobody said anything, and now there is a group that speaks up, exerts pressure. Something is under way now, also regarding people who are constantly late. Now it’s possible to say: that’s enough! That wouldn’t have been possible only three months ago. (Interview C)

Even though the Pirates passionately oppose the exertion of pressure as their members believe that everyone should be allowed to speak their mind freely no matter what the consequences, informant C argues here, on the contrary that there are good reasons for such measures – especially when the behavior of fellow MPs involves transgressions of professional norms.

As has been established, unrestricted and comprehensive transparency is the hallmark of the Pirate identity (Hönigsberger and Osterberg, 2012). However, as they tried to implement transparency, their frustrations grew and so they began to question its merits. Again, the ‘bee-proposal’ is an illuminating example. The group of MPs and aides responsible for drafting the proposal did not only work autonomously, but also in secret. The proposal was brought up in the caucus meeting only after the group had finished it, not leaving other parties enough time to steal the idea and to submit their own version. As a result, political rivals felt compelled to voice their support in the plenary session since voting against animal rights is generally unpopular. The Pirates were quite aware of their strategic moves: ‘We played chess and checkmated the others because they simply couldn’t be against it’ (Interview F). The MPs had realized that secrecy and invisibility were sometimes necessary in order to succeed. They therefore edited their basic belief of instantaneous and unrestricted transparency – ‘I don’t have that attitude anymore,’ (Interview A) – as MP Michele Marsching elaborates publicly on his blog:

A protocol in and of itself does not guarantee transparency. Quality is of equal importance, which is also true of legislative work. Open sessions in and of themselves do not guarantee transparency because not everyone is able to participate. […] Participatory decision-making only works if all participants are highly informed, otherwise we just promote information elites. (Marsching, 2013)

The MPs came to the conclusion that transparency does not necessarily mean that information has to be provided in real-time. Informant J even mentions having overheard aides telling the following joke: ‘If you want to hide information, just put it in the public wiki [of the Pirate Party] where no one can find it.’ In contrast to their original vision, the MPs crafted a more nuanced and modest concept of transparency:

I define “transparency” as the traceability of decisions. The best example for this are the proceedings of the court of arbitration: in this instance, transparent procedure means documenting the proceedings and publishing them AFTER the fact. (Marsching, 2013, capital letters in the original quote)

Hence, transparency was no longer seen as an absolute condition of straightforward visibility. According to the informants, it may have actually concealed what it pretended to unveil. In order to be transparent in the true sense, information needs to be edited.

Stabilization: dealing with the ‘Pirate disease’

Having become regular members of the state parliament, the MPs had gained the trust of their colleagues and were therefore granted certain privileges and access to information they did not have initially. Some MPs and aides had confidential conversations and meetings with members of other parties and thus gained important insights into the backstage of the state parliament. For instance, at a collaborative barbecue after work, press officers learned that the Pirates were soon going to be attacked in public, giving them ample time to prepare an appropriate response in advance.

However, despite being accepted as members of the state parliament and self-identifying as professional politicians, the MPs occasionally ‘went off script,’ making their newly acquired identity fragile. MP Daniel Schwerd, for instance, lashed out at his fellow parliamentary group members in a blog post published one and a half years after the election. He gave a detailed account of what had happened in the closed part of a caucus meeting, a practice that was clearly considered inappropriate and off-limits according to established parliamentarian practices:

my proposal was not accepted. […] Even though I tried to voice my concerns, I failed. Then, 20 minutes before the deadline for submitting proposals, we had a vote on whether or not to discuss my proposal. I gave up and left the meeting. All of that happened in the closed part. (Schwerd, 2013)

Informants argue that such public outbursts are occasionally likely to happen because individual MPs tend to ‘fall back into old habits’ (Interview B). In more drastic terms, informant L labels such behavior the ‘Pirate disease’ (Interview L).

While some might be quick to rush to judgment and to call such behavior irrational and a consequence of emotions taking over (or conversely, the expression of true democratic sentiment), there might be another explanation: organizational members often have to navigate membership in multiple contexts. Such phenomena have surprisingly attracted little attention in the literature on organizational socialization, which often seems to assign organizations an almost ‘tribal’ character with individuals being a member of only one of them. In their seminal paper, Van Maanen and Schein explicitly argue for the restriction of the analytical framework to processes in the focal organization, despite acknowledging the relevance of the broader context:

changes in the larger environment within which organizationally defined roles are played out may force certain changes upon role occupants despite perhaps vehement resistance or whatever particular backgrounds, values, or predispositions define those who presently perform a given role. But, these factors go well beyond our interests here for they essentially lie outside an organizational analysis. (Van Maanen and Schein, 1979: 229)

However, following Weick (1979) and others, we maintain that it is crucial to consider that individuals are inevitably only partially included in most organizations and are therefore likely to hold multiple commitments: no one is only a politician, accountant, doctor, scientist, teacher, or travel agent, but also a father, mother, worshipper, member of a bowling club, and so on. Some of these commitments concern organizations (e.g. being a member of a bowling club), and some do not (e.g. father, mother, that is, being a member of a family). Carefully considering such multiple memberships might be crucial in explaining organizational phenomena such as the success or failure of socialization processes.

In the case at hand, the MPs of the parliamentary group had to balance the different facets of their newly acquired professional identity with their membership in the Pirate Party. The MPs could not completely abandon long held ideals of participatory decision-making, flat hierarchies, and radical transparency and sometimes felt compelled to reaffirm them, thereby violating established parliamentarian practice. Informant B poignantly sums up this complex by stating: ‘perhaps it's always like that – if the pendulum swings too far in one direction, you want to stop it. And perhaps, then it will swing a little too far to the other side.’ In other words, to understand the behavior of the MP’s properly, it is necessary to consider the full set of valued commitments they hold – not only to the focal organization (the state parliament), but also to other contexts (the party). As the above quote indicates, such commitments can be mutually exclusive: individuals who take action according to the Pirate Party’s ideals violate established parliamentarian practices – and vice versa. In other words, as long as the party promotes organizational ideals that are at odds with institutionalized practices in the political system, there are limits to how comprehensive the professional political socialization of their elected representatives can be.

Concluding discussion: professional political socialization as organizational socialization

In the course of this article, we have examined the social process of professional political socialization by tracing the transformation of newly elected MPs’ identities and behavior. Drawing from data collected in a study on the MPs of the Pirate Party of Germany in the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia, we studied the process step by step, starting with anticipatory expectations, the first encounter with the ways and norms of the state parliament, the adjustment in the following months, and finally a fragile stabilization thereafter. Making use of the stage model suggested by Ashforth et al. (2007) and Weick’s concept of sensemaking (Weick, 1995; Weick et al., 2005), we found that by recognizing the anticipations and previously held beliefs, studies can explain individuals’ reactions to and handling of new work environments.

Our findings suggest that the newly elected MPs experienced a severe ‘reality shock’ upon entering the state parliament caused by the divergence of their beliefs regarding participatory decision-making, flat hierarchies, and comprehensive transparency on the one hand, and the established parliamentary practices on the other. When they found that they were unable to reconcile those ideals with the ways of the state parliament, they adjusted to the latter by editing the former and creating a new identity that aimed to bridge the divide. They grew cautious of participatory decision-making and saw themselves as professionals, best equipped to form an opinion on matters of policy, making the possibility of participation contingent upon expertise; they introduced rudimentary forms of intra-organizational disciplinary measures in order to navigate parliamentary processes; and they embraced a narrower vision of transparency, grounded in the idea that true visibility needs to be carefully crafted and cannot be realized by merely dumping large quantities of information on the internet. Interestingly, we did not find any indication of a formal or informal authority ‘putting the screws’ to the MPs, rather it seems as if they themselves were the main drivers behind those efforts as they actively looked for help from various socializing agents such as the administrative staff of the state parliament, political rivals, and aides they recruited based on prior experience. However, we have also shown that the process of integration into parliament was never completely finished, with the MPs occasionally deviating from the norms of the state parliament, for instance by writing an angry blog post. This behavior is due to the fact that the MPs are not only members of parliament, but also committed to the Pirate Party and thus feel compelled to act in accordance with the party’s ideals.

What are the main takeaways of our study? First, in borrowing from research on organizational socialization, we were able to draw attention to how newly elected MPs make sense of their work environment and edit shared identities to establish a coherent interpretation of the situation. While such processes have been studied extensively in other work contexts, research on political socialization has largely neglected them, either focusing on the formation of political opinions in childhood/adolescence or on how well-attuned elected politicians are to the preferences of the electorate. While these studies have helped us develop a better understanding of politics, we argue that by studying political organizations such as parties or parliaments as formal organizations (and thus by making use of the analytical tool kits of organizational research), we might gain even greater insights into the political processes (see also Ringel et al., 2019).

Second, the study indicates that organizational socialization is not necessarily mandated by formal or informal authorities as often implied in the literature, which tends to focus on how the organization adjusts newcomers, thus conceptualizing the latter as reacting to stimuli. In the case of the Pirate Party, the newly elected MPs felt ‘sucked into’ the state parliament even though no one directly applied pressure to them. Quite the contrary it seems as if the MPs had actually been actively looking for socializing agents to tell them what to do. In other words, even in situations in which individuals enter an organization to inspire fundamental change, there is reason to believe that regardless of their motives, they will be affected by established practices and beliefs once they have crossed the boundary from the outside to the inside, especially in the case of organizations with longstanding traditions and well-institutionalized structures such as parliaments. By taking a comparative perspective, future studies might look more closely into how inevitable the adjustment to their new workplace appears to those who enter an organization, which implies a more phenomenological approach that is sensitive to actors’ perceptions and processes of sensemaking.

Third, in contrast to the above cited call of Van Maanen and Schein (1979) to limit the analytical focus on the focal organization, we suspect that embedding processes of organizational socialization into a wider context (multiple organizations, fields, sectors, or even society) can have its merits. Borrowing from Weick (1979), we have argued for expanding the scope of research on organizational socialization by accounting for commitments to multiple social spheres – in our case to the professional environment of the state parliament and to the ideals of the Pirate Party – which can help explain why the MPs occasionally ‘fall back into old habits’ (Interview B).

In closing, we would like to emphasize that in the course of this paper, we have made use of research on organizational socialization (a) to offer an alternative interpretation as to why politicians often become detached from the electorate and (b) to suggest new avenues of research by studying politics in terms of how it is being conducted within the confines of formal organizations. We are not arguing against public discourse and political research, both of which tend to discuss the alienation of professional politicians from the electorate either in normative terms by referring to the questionable ethics of politicians or in systemic terms by evoking ideologies such as neoliberalism or corrupting factors such as the close alignment of societal elites. However, we would like to stress that there are certainly other factors that need to be considered to get a ‘fuller picture.’ Exploring how amateurs become politicians allows us to focus more closely on what they are doing in their everyday lives, and why they are doing it. Future studies of professional political socialization might still come to the conclusion that such transformations are problematic. But if they do, they must take into account that upon entering formal organizations such as parliaments, personal transformations are hard – if not impossible – to avoid.


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the author(s)  

Leopold Ringel is a lecturer at the Faculty of Sociology of Bielefeld University, Germany. His current research focuses on the unintended consequences of organizational transparency and quantification, rankings in particular. He has published in Organization Studies, Research in the Sociology of Organizations, and Politics & Governance. He holds a doctoral degree from Heinrich-Heine-University Duesseldorf. Germany.

Email: leopold.ringel AT

Jenni Brichzin is a postdoctoral fellow at the  Bundeswehr University Munich. She completed her PhD at Munich University with a thesis on political work in parliaments. Currently, her work revolves around two main areas: investigating democracy and democratic practices (both inside and outside of political institutions) and retracing anti-essentialist thinking, its limits and its influence on current society.

Email: jennifer.brichzin AT