Last Anniversary Celebration of the Institute for Advanced Social Research, IASR: Peeter Selg on Academic Freedom in the IASR

On Academic Freedom in the IASR

Without exaggeration I can say that the two-year period in the IASR back in 2013-2015 was the biggest boost in my academic career: virtually all the topics I am currently working on were either conceived or set on a fruitful direction during my stay in Tampere. It was not just out of courtesy that five years later I mention my stay at the IASR in the acknowledgments of my most recent book (with Andreas Ventsel) Introducing Relational Political Analysis: Political Semiotics as a Theory and Method (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). The academic freedom in the IASR was truly empowering and the institute itself a perfect place for people like me who have never been too keen on disciplinary boundaries and fixed academic identities. Having a degree in philosophy and political science, but working also quite extensively on sociology, semiotics and even to a certain extent on historiography and policing at the time, it sounded natural to introduce myself as having “a background in academic misbehavior” at the IASR anniversary meeting in 2013, where the new research fellows were asked to say a few words about themselves. And this “misbehavior” was not only accepted, but also encouraged. Being able to try new things without being afraid to misfire from time to time – this is the ethos of academic freedom that will be missed by those who have been in the IASR, the very lucky few indeed. I was truly fascinated by the devotion to this ethos by the Director Professor Risto Heiskala as well as the fellows more generally. I remember asking Risto about the evaluation indicators of the researchers at the very beginning of my stay. Being from the East-European neoliberal environment (Estonia) I presumed quite rigorous quantitative indicators for measuring my scientific output, especially given that we were payed very handsomely even by Western standards. But Risto’s response was basically that since it has been so difficult to select the fellows and there have been so many filters through which the finally selected few out of the hundreds of applicants have been going, that they trust us. Without such a trust I would probably not have taken up the crazy ideas that I have been working on for years (and years to come) after I left the IASR.

Since 2018, I have been working as a Full Professor of Political Theory at Tallinn University, Estonia. I am currently finishing a four-year project on a relational approach to governing wicked problems (funded by the Estonian Research Council). By the way, the idea behind this very project was conceived during my stay in Tampere. It was my second collegium lecture (March 2014) where I first turned to the interconnectedness of relational approach I had been developing mostly at the theoretical-methodological level and the so-called wicked problems of governance – problems that refuse to be solved or even defined properly but at the same time are in urgent need to be dealt with. With a couple of colleagues in the project we are currently working on a monograph with the title From Governance Failure to Failure Governance: A Relational Turn in Governing Wicked Problems, where we articulate both theoretically and practically what we see as a proper mode of governance in view of the increasing indeterminedness and wickedness of the social world. I am absolutely certain that whoever else we would like to thank in the acknowledgments of this book when we submit it in the spring of 2021, the IASR will definitely be there in the list.

These are but a few examples of the true strength of the academic freedom in the IASR I have been fortunate to experience. I would not be where I am today without this institute. Thank you is never enough for that!

Peeter Selg
Full Professor of Political Theory, Tallinn University, Estonia
IASR Fellow 2013-2015