PhD Position in communication, rational polarisation and the structure of society (1.0 FTE)

PhD Position in communication, rational polarisation and the structure of society (1.0 FTE)

Published Deadline Location
16 May 18 Jun Utrecht

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Are you interested in political polarisation and the polarisation of opinions on climate change? This PhD position may be for you.

Job description

This PhD position is part of the interdisciplinary UU PhD programme of the Faculty of Humanities, funded by the administrative agreement (‘bestuursakkoord’) between the Ministry of OCW and the universities. We are seeking to hire a highly motivated, driven, and talented PhD candidate to carry out this project in a period of four years. The PhD project will be located in the Theoretical Philosophy group at the Research Institute for Philosophy and Religious Studies, Utrecht University.

Political polarisation and, more generally, the polarisation of opinions (be it on climate change and how to combat it, or on how best to respond to a pandemic) is to some extent the result of our communication environments and the technologies that shape them. The beliefs that individuals in a society end up with are not just an outcome of these individuals weighing the evidence that they possess (as traditional epistemology would have it), but are also influenced by the structure of the large-scale communication environments these individuals are embedded in.

Primarily, communication has the effect of spreading information across an epistemic community. But when communication is iterated and pursued over an extended time horizon, further effects can occur. For instance, an agent’s current belief, as formed by things heard or learned early on in the process, may not only affect what kind of information they search for next, but also which types of incoming messages they might or might not trust. Moreover, iterated communication may reshape the underlying communication network itself, leading agents to connect to their like-minded peers and shy away from others. In principle, these mechanisms are epistemically neutral, but they may have a number of long-term effects. Those may be beneficial for epistemic communities – for instance by enabling the spread of reliable information, the emergence of expert networks, or the creation of a resilient civil society – but they can also have detrimental effects – leading to polarisation, echo chambers, and even societal and economic inequalities.

The guiding question of the project is how superficially similar structural features of communication networks can lead to vastly diverging epistemic outcomes. For instance, how can the rational exclusion of certain sources of information and epistemic trust in specific informants lead to expert networks and scientific progress in one case but to blind belief in debunked conspiracy theories in another? The PhD candidate will (i) explore the epistemic effects of agents’ trust-relations, vulnerabilities, and action structures on the structures of communication networks and (ii) identify epistemic structures that increase polarisation of beliefs or opinions among individuals. One hypothesis to be explored is that a methodological shift from the isolated epistemic focus of much existing work in network analysis to a more encompassing view that incorporates both the agents’ epistemic and practical considerations allows for a more fine-grained analysis that can explain the different epistemic outcomes of seemingly similar communication structures.  

Methodologically, the project may combine a number of techniques, including classic philosophical analysis and formal tools such as epistemic network models and computer simulations thereof. In doing so, the project pursues two directions. On the one hand, we want to obtain a better assessment of existing structures, say, how actual communication can lead to polarisation or even conspiracy theories. On the other hand, we take an idealised perspective to better understand certain phenomena – for instance, whether conspiracy theories or political polarisation may also occur among ideally rational agents. This understanding, we hold, can further philosophical theories, but also a sociological understanding of the underlying phenomena. The project will emphasise this interdisciplinary aspect through organising a series of interdisciplinary workshops that bring together researchers working on epistemic networks in philosophy and the social sciences.


Utrecht University


Our ideal candidate has:
  • completed, prior to appointment, a Master’s degree or an equivalent degree in philosophy or a related discipline;
  • demonstrable knowledge in at least one of the following areas: social epistemology, formal modeling (e.g. game theory, network models, computer simulations, etc.), or formal epistemology;
  • high proficiency in academic English;
  • the ability to work both as an independent researcher and as a team member;
  • affinity for interdisciplinary research;
  • strong organisational, social and communication skills;
  • ability to meet deadlines;
  • readiness to learn new research methods.

Conditions of employment

We offer a position at 1.0 FTE, starting 1 September 2023 or, by mutual agreement, shortly thereafter. The initial appointment is for 18 months. Upon good performance and a positive evaluation, the contract will be extended for the remaining four-year period.

As a PhD candidate (‘aio’) you can devote 10% of your four-year appointment to non-research related tasks, such as teaching. Note that, given the limited amount of teaching, it is not possible to obtain a University Teaching Qualification (‘BKO’) during your PhD.

We offer a temporary position of 1.0 FTE for the duration of four years. The gross salary starts with € 2,541,- per month in the first year and increases to € 3,247,- per month in the fourth year of employment (scale P according to the Collective Employment Agreement of the Dutch Universities) for full-time employment.

Utrecht University offers a pension scheme, a holiday allowance of 8% per year, an end-of-year bonus of 8.3% and flexible employment conditions. Conditions are based on the Collective Employment Agreement of the Dutch Universities.

In addition, Utrecht University offers excellent secondary conditions, including an attractive retirement scheme, professional development, (partly paid) parental leave, sports and flexible employment conditions (multiple choice model). For more information, please visit working at Utrecht University.

It may be possible to offer this position as a six-year lecturer/PhD candidate appointment, for those with the ability and willingness to teach in Dutch. This would involve a 40% teaching load, and will include the possibility of obtaining a University Teaching Qualification (‘BKO’). If you are interested in this type of position, please indicate and motivate this clearly in your motivation letter.


Sharing science, shaping tomorrow. A better future for everyone. This ambition motivates our scientists in executing their leading research and inspiring teaching. At Utrecht University, the various disciplines collaborate intensively towards major strategic themes. Our focus is on Dynamics of Youth, Institutions for Open Societies, Life Sciences and Sustainability. You can watch the Utrecht University Campus Tour to get an impression of our university.

The Faculty of Humanities has around 7,000 students and 1,100 staff members. It comprises four knowledge domains: Philosophy and Religious Studies, History and Art History, Media and Culture Studies, and Languages, Literature and Communication. With its research and education in these fields, the Faculty aims to contribute to a better understanding of the Netherlands and Europe in a rapidly changing social and cultural context. The enthusiastic and committed colleagues and the excellent amenities in the historical city centre of Utrecht, where the Faculty is located, contribute to an inspiring working environment.

Also, everyone deserves to feel at home at our faculty. We therefore welcome employees with a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives, regardless of race, skin color, religion, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, origin, disability or age.

The core values of the faculty for Humanities are professionalism, transparency, responsibility, connectedness and safety. The core values apply to everyone and we uphold these values in our work and in our communication with each other and with others.

The research is conducted at the Theoretical Philosophy group within the Research Institute for Philosophy and Religious Studies (OFR). OFR is part of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies in the Faculty of Humanities.


  • PhD
  • Language and culture
  • 38—40 hours per week
  • €2541—€3247 per month
  • University graduate
  • 1210325



Janskerkhof 13, 3512 BL, Utrecht

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