Ellen Lust is a professor of political science at Yale University and is one of the world's leading experts on politics in North Africa and the Middle East. She has been recruited to the University of Gothenburg thanks to the Swedish Research Council's investment in internationally acclaimed researchers.

Top researcher from Yale to Gothenburg

Svenska 2015-03-12

Sixteen internationally acclaimed researchers have been recruited to Sweden with money from the Swedish Research Council. Political Scientist Ellen Lust is one of them. In June, she will move her research from Yale to the University of Gothenburg.

“The most exciting aspect about working in Gothenburg is the collaboration in big groups. And the co-workers seem to be deeply engaged in each others’ work”, says Ellen Lust.

Her own research is on political participation and leadership in the Middle East and in North Africa. In Gothenburg, she will be a part of the international project Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) and also collaborate with the QoG Institute, which stands for Quality of Government.

Started recruiting

Ellen Lust has now started to recruit researchers to her own group at the Department of Political Science. This group will run a project that she started at Yale called Programme of Governance and Local Development (GLD). The group will study political leadership and local development in the Arab world, Africa and Asia, and will include political scientists, sociologists, economists and anthropologists.

“This programme is aimed to inspire others to immerse themselves in issues that have been overlooked in the past. Political scientists have not dedicated a lot of time toward local politics, nor towards social institutions; how society is organised within the social sphere. We do not even have the language to discuss this, and we need to learn more from ethnologists and sociologists”.

Ellen Lust speaks passionately about the opportunities for collaboration with V-Dem that are working on constructing a huge database of factors that are related to democratisation, and with QoG that are researching the importance of reliable public institutions.

Wants to measure leadership

One of her ideas is to develop a way of measuring how local political leadership works in different places, so that you can compare and research why situations are stabilized in some places while civil unrest and chaos surfaces elsewhere. Social structures and norm presumably play an important part in this development.

“The uprising the Middle East in 2011, which brought down authoritarian regimes, also opened the door for researchers. Now it is easier for us to study local dynamics and politics, and how society governs itself”. However, another effect of the uprisings has been that several states have been weakened, and that areas with weak leadership have been taken over by extreme groups. These are important and complex issues to study.

She concludes that many people in the West believe that people in the Arab world are motivated by their religion.

“My experience is that people, to a large extent, are driven by survival. Can they provide food for their family? Is their area safe? More often than not, it is about these matters rather than about a broad existential debate. That in itself can help us understand how an organisation like IS can gain support quickly, providing that they fix food for the shops, and establish safe zones etc.

Different understandings of democracy

Another common, and in some ways opposite approach is to think that “Muslims actually also want democracy”. However, Ellen Lust argues that this approach is over-simplified. Despite people in North Africa and the Middle East saying that they want democracy, this can mean different things.

In a survey conducted in Egypt, 70 per cent answered that democracy meant that the gap between the rich and the poor would decrease. Thus, life’s necessities were the issue, rather than the ability to freely chose politicians.

Ellen Lust also interviewed voters in Tunisia in 2011 that were voting in the first free election in the Middle East after the Arab Spring. The election was on the country’s Constituent Assembly which was going to write a new constitutional law.

Lust asked the voters if it was important for them to choose someone with legal knowledge. “No, why?” was a common answer. “I want a good person who looks after the area where I live” The work on the new constitutional law was not perceived as important – it was everyday tasks and needs that mattered.

Creative research environments

Ellen Lust looks forward to starting her work in Sweden. She says that, from what she has seen, the University of Gothenburg and the Department of Political Science seem to be creative research environments, thanks to good resources and a flat hierarchy in which co-workers dare to come up with new ideas and suggestions.

“In order to be creative, there must be an atmosphere that allows everyone to get involved an express themselves. At the same time, clear leadership is important to ensure that people aren’t just floating about. I think both QoG and V-Dem have achieved this”.

Does a world-class research environment require these same things?

“Yes, basically. And time, so that you can be productive and deliver high-quality results over a long period of time. A distinguished research environment cannot be built over night, it takes years to develop. But if you ask me, the Department of Political Science in Gothenburg is on its way to becoming one. People have heard of QoG and V-Dem, and if it goes my way, they will soon have heard of GLD as well”.

Getting more research time

The move from Yale to Gothenburg does not feel like a loss in terms of the research environment. Here, she is given more research time than at Yale, where a lot of here time was taken up by teaching.

What is more, Sweden is closer to the Middle East and to North Africa. Ellen Lust travels to the region that she is researching on average once a month, and when she was based in the United States, her jet lag was almost constant. She is counting on having more energy and being more productive from now on.

“A north-south commute to work will be amazing” Besides, my husband works for the World Bank and is currently placed in Kabul. So, this means that I am now on the same side of the Atlantic as him, so logistically this is a superb move.”

Text: Lisa Kirsebom
Photo: Johan Wingborg