Sofia Näsström

Professor at Department of Government, Faculty

+4618-471 6127
Visiting address:
Östra Ågatan 19
753 22 Uppsala
Postal address:
Box 514
751 20 UPPSALA

Visiting researcher at Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study (SCAS)

Visiting address:
Thunbergsvägen 2
752 38 Uppsala
Postal address:
Thunbergsvägen 2
752 38 Uppsala

Short presentation

Sofia Näsström specialises in political theory. She has written on the state, legitimacy, the people, representation and precarity. Recent publications include The Spirit of Democracy: Corruption, Disintegration, Renewal (Oxford University Press 2021) and Demokrati. En liten bok om en stor sak (Historiska Media 2021), under tr. Her next monograph is entitled Democracy and the Social Question. During fall 2022 she will be a fellow at SCAS, Uppsala. For more info, see CV and biography below.

Keywords: political philosophy democratic theory • social theory and social change history of ideas political theory

I work in the field of political theory, with particular focus on issues connected to democracy, constituent power, the people, representation, freedom and precarity. My current focus is on the difference between political lifeforms (in Montesquieu's sense of the term), and I have recently published a monograph on this topic, The Spirit of Democracy: Corruption, Disintegration, Renewal (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2021).

Democracy is today challenged by populism and elitism, as well as by the resurgence of new forms of authoritarianism. The Spirit of Democracy: Corruption, Disintegration, Renewal argues that while we have good reasons to worry about the corruption of democratic practices and ideals, these worries are often attributable to questionable assumptions about what democracy is. Drawing on Montesquieu's classical work on the spirit of laws, the book sets out to reconceive how we understand and conceptualize modern democracy: from sovereignty to spirit.

According to Montesquieu, different political forms are animated and sustained by different spirits: a republic by virtue, a monarchy by honour, and a despotic form by fear. Montesquieu did not live to see the birth of modern democracy in the revolutions in the late eighteenth century. This book argues that modern democracy is a sui generis political form animated and sustained by a spirit of emancipation. The removal of divine, natural, and historical authorities as collective sources of political legitimacy unleashes a fundamental uncertainty about the purpose and direction of society. In a democracy, we respond to that uncertainty by sharing and dividing it equally. It emancipates us from a state of self-incurred tutelage. Based on this argument, the book develops a new theoretical framework for studying the corruption, disintegration and renewal of democracy; what it is, how it begins and where in society it plays out.

As of 2019, I am coordinating a project on "Democratic Self-Defense: The Social Model" funded by Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation (2019-22). Fall term 2022 I will spend time as a research fellow at SCAS, Uppsala.

Selected publications:

The Spirit of Democracy: Corruption, Disintegration, Renewal (Oxford,UK: Oxford University Press, 2021).

"Democratic Self-Defense: Bringing the Social Model Back In", Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory, 2021.

Demokrati. En liten bok om en stor sak (Lund: Historiska Media, 2021).

"A Democratic Critique of Precarity", Global Discourse (2015), Vol. 5, Issue 4: 556-573. Co-authored with Sara Kalm. Access here.

"Democratic Representation beyond Election", Constellations (2015), Vol. 22, Issue 1: 1-12. Abstract

"The Right to have Rights: Democratic, not Political", Political Theory, (2014) Vol. 32, No 5: 543-568. Abstract.

"Where is the Representative Turn Going?", European Journal of Political Theory (2011), Vol. 10, No 4: 501-510. Abstract.

"The Challenge of the All-Affected Principle", Political Studies (2011). Vol. 59, Issue 1: 116-34. Abstract.

"The Legitimacy of the People", Political Theory, (2007), Vol 35, No 5: 624-658. Abstract.

"Representative Democracy as Tautology: Ankersmit and Lefort on Representation", European Journal of Political Theory, (2006), Vol. 5, No 3: 321-342. Abstract.

The An-Archical State. Logics of Legitimacy in the Social Contract Tradition, (Stockholm: Department of Political Science, Stockholm Series in Politics 99, 2004).

"What Globalization Overshadows", Political Theory, (2003), Vol. 31, No. 6: 808-834. Abstract.


Democracy and the Social Question

Sofia Näsström

In a time of mounting challenges to democracy worldwide, scholars, politicians and citizens pay increasing attention to “the social question”. To fight the resurgence of authoritarianism and recreate confidence in democracy, it is not enough to support rule of law and elections. A stable democracy also requires economic security and social integration. It diminishes hostility between groups and increases toleration in society.

Still, many democratic theorists hesitate to include the social question in the concept of democracy. They argue that doing so undermines democracy: it satisfies material needs at the expense of political freedom, it confuses democracy with the ideological substance of politics and/or it replaces democracy with bureaucracy.

The purpose of this new monograph is to examine the underlying assumptions behind these arguments, and show that they all rely on an overly reductionist understanding of democracy; as ideational, procedural and discursive respectively. The hypothesis is that by redefining democracy as a political lifeform (in Montesquieu’s sense of the term), it is possible to integrate the social question in the concept of democracy without falling prey to said dilemmas.

The renewed international interest in a social defense of democracy places this project at the forefront of existing research on the crisis of democracy. The motivation for writing the book is not only to offer new knowledge on the conceptual link between democracy and the social question, and so fill a lacuna in contemporary democratic theory. In a more general and long-term perspective, I hope it will contribute to better theoretical tools to evaluate and understand trends of democratic decline and renewal, including variation in democratic resilience.

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Sofia Näsström