Exploring critical themes with Global Humanities professor Spyros Sofos

December 19, 2023

Global Humanities professor Spyros A. Sofos brings a wealth of knowledge to the fields of critical theory, nationalism, populism, and European Muslim identities and politics. His research, spanning Turkish and Greek politics and culture, critical theory, and conflict with a focus on the Middle East and Southeast Europe, examines the intersections of societal insecurity, identity, and collective action.

Spyros has held teaching and research positions in the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Italy, including at Lund University and the London School of Economics and Political Science. His latest book, "Turkish Politics and ‘The People’: Mass Mobilisation and Populism,"
published in 2022, provides a genealogical perspective on the emergence of populism in contemporary Turkey.

His other publications include "Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks" (Palgrave 2013, co-authored with Roza Tsagarousianou), "Tormented by History: Nationalism in Greece and Turkey" (Hurst and Oxford University Press 2008, co-authored with Umut Özkirimli), and "Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe" (Routledge 1996, co-edited with Brian Jenkins). Spyros initiated #RethinkingPopulism, originally in partnership with openDemocracy, and is its lead editor.

Read more from our interview with Spyros below. 

Your research has delved into complex topics such as nationalism, populism, and identity politics. Could you please share a pivotal moment or experience that initiated your interest in studying these themes, and how has this journey shaped your perspective over the years?

It is hard to identify a single pivotal moment. But I can recall a few instances which coincide with key moments in the evolution of my research. Back in Greece, in the 1980s I witnessed the ascendance of the Panhellenic Socialist Party (PASOK) and was exposed to the discussion about its populist character. These discussions, in my opinion, were not sufficiently historicized and ignored the cultural developments in Greece since WWII that contributed to the construction of “the People” as a moral and political subject. Addressing this “deficit” was my entry point into the study of populism during my tenure of a Research Fellowship at the University of Kent in the UK. As I witnessed the violent escalation of the conflicts that marked the end former Yugoslavia a few years later, I became interested in what I termed at the time “populist nationalism” and embarked on fieldwork in the region during that conflict. The genocide in Srebrenica, the cultural “justifications” used, and the use of rape as a means of war in Bosnia prompted me to look at the gendering of conflict, as well as the cultural underpinnings of the violent nationalism that made this possible. The tense relationship between Turkey and Greece in the late 1990s that brought the two countries to the brink of war drove me to focus on the history of the two respective nationalisms, and, eventually, to a closer emphasis on Turkish politics as, a few years later, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embarked on the transformation of Turkish society through a combination of a populist appeal to the “downtrodden” and the “outcasts” of the Republic, and his religious conservatism.

Your latest book, "Turkish Politics and ‘The People’: Mass Mobilisation and Populism," takes a genealogical approach to understanding populism in contemporary Turkey. Could you provide a sneak peek into the intriguing historical roots you explored during your research and how they contribute to our understanding of populism today?

From a theoretical point of view, Turkish Politics and ‘The People’ approaches populism, not as an ideology or rhetoric, but as a logic, a way of seeing, that sharply divides “the people” from its foes (elites, foreigners, conspirators) in ways that have profound political implications with regard to the conceptualization of democracy and rights. This logic turns “the people,” an entity hard to define, and whose voice is hard to decipher, into the sole bearer of rights, at the expense of particularistic or individual rights and civic liberties instead of “socializing,” deepening, and radicalizing them. Such an understanding of democracy disregards the rights of dissenters and undermines the legitimacy and efficacy of institutions that may challenge or scrutinize appeals to popular will, such as courts, other watchdogs, effective pluralistic parliaments, and constitutions at a time when these institutions are not only needed more than ever but should become more inclusive, as the populist democratic reversals experienced in several “liberal democracies” suggest.   

At a more empirical level, it seeks to understand the present moment in Turkish politics by setting it in dialogue with its past. It covers a period of one hundred years of modern Turkish statehood and constitutes an effort to understand why representative democratic and civil society institutions have not managed to take root in the Turkish Republic, giving rise to what I call “a difficult democracy.” Against the background of this “difficult democracy”, I argue, the populist turn of the past decade cannot be explained solely by referring to the charismatic personality of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who has dominated Turkish politics. It needs to be set in the context of a longer history of appeals to “the people,” but also of the ways this “people” has been constructed but also infantilized, considered savage and unrefined, denied agency, mistrusted, and ultimately put under surveillance and tutelage by the political elites. Turkish Politics and ‘The People’ also integrates modes of analysis from a diverse body of scholarship: It uses psychosocial notions of angst to make sense of the anxiety of the Ottoman military and state elites as the empire collapsed and peer into the emotional economies that underpinned what I call the internal colonization of the Anatolian communities that found themselves within the boundaries of modern Turkey. It draws on critical theory to analyse the Turkish Republic as a perpetual state of exception and stresses the relative lack of a democratic political culture in a politics where authority and “the people” are both situated outside the democratic institutions and where democratic experiments have been routinely interrupted by military and judicial interventions. It employs insights from perspectives on statehood in the era of decolonization to reconstruct nation-building in Anatolia, and the notions of “savageness” that informed the self-appointed civilizing role of the elites of the Turkish state. 

You've had the opportunity to teach and conduct research in countries like the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Italy. How have these varied academic environments influenced your research methodology and insights, particularly when studying the intersections of societal insecurity, identity, and collective action across different cultural contexts?

Any attempt to answer such a question will oversimplify a complex journey. I would say that I consider myself privileged to have started my studies in Greece, at Panteion University, at a time when it was a site of experimentation and innovation in terms of pedagogy and research. I have benefited immensely from the vibrant intellectual environment cultivated by outstanding teachers and mentors, and it is there that I developed an intellectual curiosity and passion for my work. The much more multicultural context of the UK helped me link my somewhat parochial research concerns to broader discussions. The international character of the cohorts I taught there enhanced my appreciation of engaging, student-centred teaching and learning methodologies, and think critically and reflexively my place and role in the classroom. In terms of research, in the UK I experienced first-hand the ethnographic turn in the social sciences and the humanities as well as a renaissance in interdisciplinary studies. Both these moments enriched and left an indelible stamp on my research. Lund University, in Sweden, gave me the opportunity to explore Middle Eastern Studies, again in a multidisciplinary context, exposed me to a research culture that values “popular science” (in stark contrast to the UK) and gave me the opportunity to communicate my research to diverse readerships and audiences. And I would be remiss if I did not mention my enormous debt to students I taught in the UK, Italy and Sweden who have taught me as much as (if not more than) I have taught them, and helped me become a better and more attentive teacher.

To learn more about the courses Spyros Sofos will be teaching, please visit our upcoming course offerings page.

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