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Thesis defence

Leviathans of Scandinavia

A Weberian-Foucauldian Study of the Politics of COVID-19 in Norway and Sweden

Add to calendar 2024-06-12 09:30 2024-06-12 11:30 Europe/Rome Leviathans of Scandinavia Hybrid Event Sala Europa (Villa Schifanoia) and Zoom YYYY-MM-DD


12 June 2024

9:30 - 11:30 CEST


Hybrid Event

Sala Europa (Villa Schifanoia) and Zoom

PhD thesis defence by Lars Erik Gjerde

The coronavirus pandemic was an exceptional period in recent history. It represented an extraordinary political and social context, where everyday life around the world was suspended. This produces many possibilities for theory-building and theory-testing, on numerous levels and in numerous sub-topics. This thesis exploits the politics of COVID-19 in Norway and Sweden to explore the manner in which the state governed during this time. The objective of my thesis is to study the issue of state power in these two countries.

With the diverse activities of various states, the COVID-19 pandemic offers us an excellent empirical context for testing and building theory in general, but it is an especially potent case for exploring questions related to power and the state, as the state micromanages numerous activities with forceful capacities few would have expected the state to hold, especially in liberal democracies. This way, the crisis reveals state capacities in a manner we are unlikely to observe during our everyday lives. However, its diverse capacities and the complex ways which the state’s powers manifested at local contexts during the pandemic invite us to rethink the state. As such, how can the politics of the pandemic best be understood?

In this thesis, I offer a Weberian-Foucauldian theoretical lens, as I synthesize between Weberian and Foucauldian scholarship, and especially between the work of Michael Mann and Michel Foucault. I argue that this synthesis opens potentially new pathways to the study of state power. I find that this ‘marriage allows us to explore the state as an actor while taking the macrophysics (or sources) and microphysics (or mechanisms) of power into account, by examining how power works and how it is made to work. These insights are based on years of empirical study, as well as my engagement with the literature on the politics of COVID-19 in general, and specifically in Norway and Sweden. I will make this clearer in chapter 2, as I cover the literature on COVID-19. I will allude to gaps which I seek to cover, of both an empirical and theoretical nature, related to both my cases and to the overall literature. This invites us to the purpose of chapter 3, which is theory-building, as I seek to make the Weberian and Foucauldian approaches compatible, so as to enable an analytical framework which I then operationalise. Chapter 4 covers my methodological steps, equipping us for the analysis. In chapter 5 and 6, I cover the two cases. I shall analyse Norway and Sweden independently, using the Weberian-Foucauldian theory of the state to make sense of the powers of the state (ideological, coercive and infrastructural power), and how these powers manifest at the micro-level in discipline, self-regulation, juridical-sovereignty and control (over access), in order to better understand these two empirical contexts.

This way, I discuss how the agency of the state can be enacted through the sources of power, which allows the state to exercise power, manifesting in mechanisms of power. This combines Weberian and Foucauldian insights on how power works, to illustrate the potency of a pyramidical conception of power, combined with an agential understanding of the state, for the purposes of understanding the workings of the state and, more generally, of power. Chapter 7 handles the governmentalities of the two states, seeking to explain and describe the discursive processes which made the states act as they did. Exploring the reasoning of the two states, we can better understand the reasons behind these choices. Thereafter, I shall end the thesis with conclusions about what my two Scandinavian cases, and my studies of them, unveil regarding state power, and the potential utility of this Weberian-Foucauldian analytical framework.

Lars Erik L. Gjerde is a PhD researcher at the European University Institute. He is a political sociologist primarily interested in the theoretical questions of power, the state and ideology. His empirical work primarily revolves around the politics of COVID-19 in Scandinavia, which he studies with qualitative methods, especially interviews and discourse analysis. Before coming to the EUI, he received a master's degree in Sociology from the University of Oslo, and a bachelor's degree in Sociology from the University of Tromsø. 

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