Posted on 17 January 2020
Nadia Urbinati delivering her Max Weber Lecture 'The Populist Ambition'.
Nadia Urbinati is a distinguished political theorist and journalist. On the 15th of January she delivered the first Max Weber Lecture of 2020.
Her latest work focuses on decoding populism, a hot topic which is often misunderstood. Now teaching at Columbia University in New York, she spent the last twenty years making her name in the United States.
However, her career started much closer to home.
In the 1980s, Professor Urbinati was a philosophy student at the University of Bologna, where she focused on 18th Century British liberalism, investigating how thinkers such as John Stuart Mills and the Benthamites influenced the Italian Risorgimento.
The field’s strong overlap with politics led her to apply to the European University Institute for a Ph.D. in Political Science. The EUI was an obvious choice: ‘back in those days, Italy did not offer Ph.D programmes’.
At first, she found the linguistic shock testing. ‘For me it was very challenging, because for the first time we were regularly using another language, despite being in my country.’ However, the benefits soon outweighed the initial struggle. ‘I had never had the experience of meeting and interacting with people from other countries. It was a European experience, truly’. She described her time at the EUI as an example of ‘how different your work as a researcher or scholar can be in a domain that is not national’.
A strong defender of plurality in academia, she is critical of attempts to blur differences among countries under the guise of internationalisation. Urbinati most appreciates those European policies that stimulate research exchanges, especially those involving students and collaborative projects. For Professor Urbinati, universities need to find ‘ways to organise from below, with many universities teaming together’.
For Urbinati, this type of exchange characterised her experience here as a Ph.D. researcher, where she found the Institute to be a ‘real school of international relations, human international relations’. With her highly-regarded EUI qualifications in tow, the Professor crossed the Atlantic to become a Fellow at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Studies, where she stayed for two years. In 1996 she became professor at Columbia University.
Nadia Urbinati is Kyriakos Tsakopoulos Professor of Political Theory at Columbia University and was awarded the title of Commendatore della Repubblica by the President of the Italian Republic in 2008. She completed her Ph.D. at the European University Institute in the Political and Social Sciences Department in 1989. She is a frequent contributer to newspapers such as Il Manifesto, La Repubblica and Il Sole 24 Ore. Her latest book Me The People: How Populism Transforms Democracy, was published by Harvard University Press in 2019.
Watch the Max Weber Programme's interview with Professor Urbinati here.