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European University Institute - Department of Political and Social Sciences

Understanding power in politics: the EUI welcomes Professor Stefano Guzzini

On 1 September 2023, Professor Stefano Guzzini joined the EUI Department of Political and Social Sciences (SPS) as Chair in Political and Social Theory and as Swiss Co-chair in Federalism, Democracy and International Governance.

28 September 2023 | Research

New SPS Professor Stefano Guzzini

Stefano Guzzini, who is an EUI alumnus in the SPS Department, comes to the Institute from Uppsala University and the Danish Institute for International Studies. In an interview, he describes his background, scholarship to date, and work-in-progress.

Please introduce yourself. What is your background and how did you come to choose a specialisation in social and political theory?

My academic career owes a lot to some lucky circumstances during my student years. First, growing up in the Saarland, I attended one of Germany's few fully bilingual high schools (Deutsch-Französisches Gymnasium / Lycée franco-allemand), affording me early access to scholarship in German and French. 

Second, I started my undergraduate work in political science at the University of Saarbrücken, which at the time was a small department that offered seminar-style instruction – capped at 25! – even for beginning students. The education was geared towards probing evidence and theoretical assumptions. We questioned statements and findings. Then came a total clash of educational style: I won a scholarship to follow my then girlfriend to Paris, where I applied to and was admitted to Sciences Po (of which I knew nothing). This institution, focused on the preparation of the country's elite, taught me all of the answers, taking the relevant questions for granted. I wanted to return to probe the assumptions of these answers. I turned to social and political theory.

My next stop was the LSE and a MSc in Politics of the World Economy. Besides international political economy, I focused on issues in the philosophy of science and wrote my thesis on T.S. Kuhn and the Inter-Paradigm Debate. My supervisor, Susan Strange, then relocated to the EUI just as I was about to start my doctoral studies, and so I applied to the EUI to continue working with her. At the EUI, I was steeped in political theory with my other supervisor Steven Lukes (SPS) and in social theory with Alessandro Pizzorno (SPS) and Gunther Teubner (LAW). They geared me to my critique of power analysis in international relations (IR), which became my thesis, Power analysis as a critique of power politics: understanding power and governance in the Second Gulf War. Methodologically, they showed me ways to do concept analysis and theoretical critique and reconstruction.

You hold a chair in political and social theory. This is an extremely broad field. Can you describe the problems or issue areas that most intrigue you? 

Political and social theory is indeed an impossibly broad field for one position. I can cover only so much. Much of my work has been on theories of power and domination, and I take the so-called realist tradition to task, in international relations (IR), but also elsewhere. 

In IR, the realist school has a strong focus on power that serves the function of linking a human-nature assumption (the drive for domination) with an often utilitarian explanatory theory (actors maximise power) that also provides the background for a foreign policy strategy of prudence. I use social and political theory to show that realism actually fails to take power seriously enough, as realist assumptions systematically ignore certain mainly symbolic and structural power relations.

Moreover, as I explain in my book Power, realism and constructivism, the very measure of power needed to establish when there is a "balance" of power, or when power is "maximised", is of no avail, if understood as an objective measure. But it exists as a social convention. And although power and money are both social conventions, they are not analogous because the definition and hence value of power are actively negotiated. Before diplomats can count, they have to agree on what counts. There is a power politics of power definitions: its content decides about the ranking of actors in international society. 

And this can give rise to self-fulfilling prophecies where theories, meant to externally assess reality, interact with social reality. If everyone believes in "soft power", as proposed by Joseph Nye, as the real game in town for establishing international rank, world politics changes in that international competition is not to be fought with arms. If, conversely, geopolitical theories win the day, we get a reversal of Clausewitz's famous dictum, and instead of seeing war as a means to achieve political ends, we see politics as the mere prolongation of war with other means.

Recently, however, I have come to criticise my own focus on power. There is a realist fallacy, from Weber to Foucault, that as all power is about politics, all politics is about power. To move beyond this, I am now exploring other theories, also in my teaching.

What courses do you plan to teach at the EUI?

In the autumn terms, I will (co-)teach the department's field seminar in IR. In the second terms, I will cover different theoretical debates intended to provide, I hope, relevant background for our students' research. So far, I have in mind to cover theories of power (this year), of recognition and of translation (coming years). Theories of recognition allow questions of identity to be connected to power without being reduced to the latter. Theories of translation are a way to engage the issue of diversity in domestic and world politics, in particular in the context of post-colonial thought.

Tell us about any research projects or publications you are working on at the moment.

Currently there are several publications; I'll mention two that particularly intrigue me. In one, I am part of a team of "Western" theorists invited to dialogue with Chinese IR theorists. I chose Yaqing Qin's Relational Theory of World Politics, engaging his approach that combines a specific cosmology with an explanatory theory and a foreign policy strategy.

In the other, tentatively called "Be(com)ing a stranger", I reflect on the position of scholars from the semi-periphery in IR. My first academic position was at the Central European University in Budapest. I have kept ties with "the region" ever since, becoming the President of the Central and East European International Studies Association and also editing its Journal of International Relations and Development (JIRD). In this lecture, delivered at the University of Ljubljana, celebrating 60 years of IR in Slovenia, I discuss the downsides but also occasional advantages of being in the semi-periphery of research, as well as strategies to deal with it.

Last update: 28 September 2023

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