Juho Korhonen: ‘’Democracy as a political process is only meaningful if it has the capacity to challenge existing political structures’’

Assistant Professor Juho Korhonen joined Boğaziçi University Department of Sociology recently. After having experienced different academic environments and ‘’traditions’’starting from Finland, later Germany, Russia and USA, Mr. Korhonen says it was the right moment to join Boğaziçi University when he saw the job ad of Sociology Department last year.

Juho Korhonen received his BA in Political History in University of Helsinki where he got his MA in 2012. He continued his MA in Russian and Eurasian Studies at European University at St. Petersburg. Later, received his Ph.D from Sociology at Brown University in 2019. Mr. Korhonen’s main interests include Historical Sociology; Eurasian History, Global and Transnational History, Sociology of Empires, Nationalism and Post-Socialism.

Recently he has published an article at the Global Blog where he compares changes in the relations and interconnections of nationalism, statehood, sovereignty and democracy through the examples of the Russian and German Empires. We have interviewed with Mr. Korhonen by e-mail, chatting about todays academia and the value of academy today, the weaknesses of nation-state-based democracy in today’s world and the teaching experience at Covid-19 times…

I'd like to start with a classical question; would you tell us about  yourself, your academic background and areas of interest?

I come from the countryside in Eastern Finland. Growing up I was told that getting a good education will always pay off and is a value in itself. Well, they forgot to mention that it’s true as long as you don’t become an academic yourself. Anyway, jokes aside, I started by studying mathematics at the University of Helsinki because my grades were not good enough to enter the philosophy department that had been my real goal. Along the way I found history, which at the university I discovered to be much more of an intriguing, critical and uncertain field, unlike the more narrative based and simplified perspective that high school had offered. And I always found history’s theoretical and political side more interesting than the more descriptive archival detective work. Unlike how we often think, most of history and historical knowledge is in fact history politics, i.e. struggles and contests for what matters and how we understand the world. Therefore, also, most of history is in fact about the things we decide to exclude, occlude and deem unimportant, in favor of those that we want to highlight, even celebrate and mythicize. This interest then led me to doing my PhD in historical sociology.

And after receiving Ph.D degree in Sociology in Brown University you have joined Bogazici in 2019. What brought you here in İstanbul and  Bogazici? And what were the  reasons of choosing Boğaziçi University  for your academic career?

Luck had a role to play, I saw the job ad at the right moment and what the sociology department was looking for seemed to fit my profile. Then, when visiting the campus to give my job talk and meeting my current colleagues, I was convinced that I would like it here both personally and academically.

Also, at the time I was quite disillusioned by American sociology’s lack of interest and knowledge about the world and histories beyond the US. There was this feeling of a constant need to explain and justify why my research, about Finland and Eurasia, and about histories and trajectories that are perceived as less impactful, should be of interest to sociologists. Whereas, Istanbul, like many other borderlands regions or a little bit more peripheral places, like Finland too, has a little more contention and thereby more variety when it comes to views on knowledge about the world, which includes also space for thought that has less of a tendency to hierarchize what matters and has more interest in also considering and caring about the less obvious or not the most loud ideas, most central locations, or the most powerful and dominant connections and perspectives.

‘’The idea of academic freedom for basic research is wavering’’

You have experienced different academic environments starting from Finland, Russia, USA and now Turkey. What are your observations about  the academy now after experiencing different ''traditions'' ?

I should add Germany to the list too, where I studied for a year at the Freie Uni in Berlin. Academia much like many other things is a manifestation of global and local dimensions coming together. Historically academia, especially humanities and social sciences have played a large role in shaping and often limiting our view of the world. The invention of nationalist traditions is a good example.

As such, academia too has a global hierarchy with locally varied manifestations and “traditions”, as you mention. We like to think that academic knowledge and inquiry is somewhat objective, but it is in fact highly specific, based on these global knowledge hierarchies and their local manifestations. I would like to specifically highlight how, because of these structures, a lot of research on a host of important topics never gets done if it is not considered interesting or meaningful at a given time and space.

The idea of academic freedom for basic research is wavering and I fear that the effects of the current pandemic may erode it further. For example, we like to think in Finland that our institutions are not similarly subject to political influence or restrictions as is the case, for example, in Russia. However, through the mechanisms for funding, increased academic labor market competition, and small networks of decision makers, to some degree similar effects on the academic environment are created.

Overall, I would say that this type of politics of knowledge are present everywhere, and it is very important for the academic communities to actively and periodically reflect and, indeed, research them so that they have a clear picture of their own positionality and the ways in which both national and global hierarchies, and especially the interactions of the two effect their ideas and considerations of what is good academic knowledge and how it is produced.

On a more anecdotal, simplified and personal level, I would characterize these different environments that I have so far experienced in the following ways: in the US research is work and a profession. They don’t really have a concept of academia as a separate field of free pursuit of new knowledge. In Finland the ethos of pursuit of knowledge exists but it’s always interpreted through the lens of academia as a functional and, most importantly, useful part of the society as a whole, which more and more has come to mean the economy. The value of academy as an “organic” part of society is understood there through its perceived input to societal development, which so far, luckily, still somewhat includes also the idea of societal self-reflection, where the humanities and social sciences are key.

In Germany academia is understood less pragmatically as in the US and Finland, it holds status and importance in itself as a foundational pillar of social order, in both conservative and more progressive senses. This grants academia a certain prestige and autonomy, but might sometimes also rigidify and stifle it a bit. German academia on average has been far superior in recognizing and researching history politics, my own field of interest, perhaps partially due to this distanced relationship with society. Whereas in the US, the concept is often not even understood, though I am interested to see if such research will pick up as a consequence of the recent upheavals in the US.

I have not been quite able to wrap my head around Turkish academia yet. Especially without the language skills (though I am learning) many of its intricacies still remain out of my grasp. But so far academic life has felt more socially oriented to me, in a good way. This is of course just an unfounded feeling I have and might be completely wrong, but people seem to honestly care about what kind of research they do and how. They do not consider academia simply as a work or a profession like any other, as in the US, and this guides their activities and interests.

Academic research and perspectives almost become like extensions of one’s persona, which is something that I personally like and think can be quite productive. Though it can have its downsides too, for example, by setting a high emotional and psychological toll in the face of adversities and uncertainties, which unfortunately are more and more characteristic of academic job environments globally nowadays.


Your article published in recent August in the Global Blog discussing  ''democracy'', ''sovereignty'' and ''nation-states''. How this article emerged?

It is one kind of a summary of some findings from my doctoral dissertation, in which I compare changes in the relations and interconnections of nationalism, statehood, sovereignty and democracy through the examples of the Russian and German Empires.

These interconnections have changed and transformed over time and will continue to do so, even though since the end of WW II and especially after the fall of the Soviet Union, we have lived in a historically exceptional and monotonic world, where the nation-state connects and, more importantly, also restricts and channels all the possible manifestations of political phenomena. If that is the empirical side of the story, the analytical side has to do with the relationship of, in my case, humanities and social sciences to these configurations, to how they take them into account or not.

A famous example, that we often refer to, is so called “methodological nationalism”, which can take various manifestations depending on what is being researched, but could be summarized as accepting an aspect of the politics of nation-statehood as given, as pre-determined, as a universalistic reality instead of as an object of analysis for research. In comparative studies, for example, this problem often surfaces if we accept as natural the division of the world into nation-states and think of those as comparable units. In the case of democracy and democratization, this problem becomes compounded as democracy in itself is, in many cases but not all, supposed to be a process of countering exclusive and oppressive politics via more inclusive and self-regulatory forms of participation.

However, not only are the manifestations of the current component parts of democracy in nation-states, i.e. nationalism, sovereign statehood and the distinctions they bring about in terms of say, foreign and domestic relations, citizenship, or participation in the global economy, highly restrictive, enclosing and division-oriented ideas, but more importantly, when all of these are joined together through that one tangent of modern nation-statehood, it actively prevents any political alternatives for the model of democracy to surface, for example the kind of models  that I analyze in the Russian and German Empires. In the Grand Duchy of Finland of the Russian Empire, for example, democracy was geared for the promotion and preservation of non-sovereign rights, but in today’s world non-sovereign democracy has little room to grow, as the case of Hong Kong, for example, shows.

Whereas in the German Empire some conceptualizations of democratization located its importance in bridging and bringing together communities and societies that were linked through their subjection to the economic and colonial politics of the state, but divided through geographic, racial, national, and cultural distinctions. Today the idea of creating a connection or coming together across global national and economic relations through democratic means and processes is quite unimaginable.

On the contrary, democratic polities today are based on dividing and distancing their decision-making structures from each other in the name of national self-determination. Yet, despite the political and historical uniqueness, historical particularity and monolithic one-sidedness of nation-state-based democracy in today’s world, most of our analyses and research of it tend to assume that it is a universal and general form, an analytical starting point instead of an object of study. This is something that I specifically tried to point out in that blog piece and suggest the we could try to move our analytical starting point away from nation-state democracy toward a more varied, more dynamic, and more comparative notion of democracy.

Weakining of democracy

As of today, what is the meaning for ''democracy'' in a global and  a more complex world? O, what is our interpretation of it?

Today, what we are increasingly witnessing is the undermining of democratic politics, which I would attribute to its very restricted and inflexible definition, or marriage, with nation-statehood and a world order built on nation-states.

Simply put, being so confined and cornered, democracy is having a hard time defending itself from attacks and manipulations. If in some sense, as you put it, our political realities and perceived relations and connections have become more global and more complex, it has put democracy in its present manifestation under a two-pronged attack.

First, the narrow definition and space for democratic politics in nation-states is unable to counter new forms of more global and complex challenges, it lacks the self-regulatory and participatory space to do so. It’s sort of like locking a large animal in a small cage and then prodding it through the bars. If it was given more space to maneuver it could defend itself powerfully, but being encaged it rather starts to hurt itself in its futile effort to defend itself.

Secondly, the positive effects that democracy had in other political projects in that confined and restricted environment are starting to erode because those other types of politics, like nationalism, are not similarly effected but rather become often strengthened in their divisive dimensions as a response to a more global and complex world, this then at the same time undermines and weakens democracy domestically.

How democracy can survive in today’s world?

Covid-19 crise has coincided with a period that the democracies have become more fragile, populist and nationalist movements, plus the authoritarian figures  are rising in some countries. In such a pessimistic political  landscape what  are your assumptions for the near future? Do we have the capacity for creating a more  democratic world or the existing global problems will be much more  complex in the coming period?

This is a really difficult question and while I hesitate to answer the question itself, I can maybe distinguish two separate perspectives for thinking about the question. I think that democracy in its current manifestation is much too restricted to survive in a way in which it would retain sufficiently its initial emancipatory and transformational effect on politics.

 In fact, to a large extent the original motivation of confining democracy to a nation-state form, was to provide a fail-safe to make democracy more a tool for the maintenance of hierarchies that allow certain groups to enjoy self-regulation on the expense of others, even while some emancipatory concessions were made. In other words, democracy has been made more and more a tool for the renewal and reproduction of boundaries rather than of the body politic.

But now we are living in a wholly different world with problems beyond the confines of the political organization that was imaginable earlier and the fail-safe is now hindering democracy instead of moderating it. For this reason, I am very skeptical of thinking about any new forms of democratic governance that would still be predicated on a nation-state base, such as a supranational world government or a regional one, like the EU.

In this sense, I am actually quite confident that a form of politics that we call democracy by name will survive and continue to legitimize hierarchies and divisions, and indeed will continue to offer a set of solutions that seek to increasingly simplify and make palatable the varied localized political solutions to more and more global and complex problems.

But, in terms of thinking of democracy historically and comparatively, this type of democracy by name is not a sufficient perspective for any insight. It does not tell us anything of the processes and effects of democracy as political action and participation and it does not tell us much about the relationship of democracy to other political realities, as has been discussed, which are dimensions that proper historical and comparative work must consider and cannot overlook.

From my analytical perspective, grounded in analyzing the changes in the ways in which people understand and make sense of their communities, societies, polities and the world, democracy as a political process is only meaningful if it is allowed to and also has the capacity to challenge existing political structures. It is a specific form of self-reflection and renewal of the body politic, even in cases of conservative or status quo politics because this renewal and rethinking is more a question of form rather than substance.

The beauty of history is that even the status quo needs reform and self-reflection to maintain itself. But currently democratic processes are so enclosed that there is no space for democratic reflection and reform.

This brings me to the second way of thinking about the question, which is to ask, rather than whether democracy as it is can survive or make the world more democratic on that same foundation, what could and should democratic politics in our era look like. What are the political structures and arrangements that would support an expansive and rejuvenated expansion of democratic arenas and experiments, knowing that not all of them will work, be effective and survive?

Teaching can not replace real life interactions

Lastly, how this extraordinary period affected your teaching  experience as an academician?

In terms of teaching it has been very unfortunate especially for a newcomer like me, because I was able to interact with the students in a class room environment only for 6 weeks or so, before everything went online.

I do not mean to say though, that I would directly juxtapose class room and online teaching with each other, in fact online teaching can be very useful and complementary, but it cannot quite replace real life interactions. I hope that in the future teachers and students can have a wider and more flexible work environment, in which different available tools will be mobilized based on the solutions that work the best, so that we are not confined to either our physical campus environments or to the virtual environment. This, however, will require our academic institutions and decision-makers to have the kind of democratic imagination I have talked about, a self-reflexive, self-regulating, trust-based and inclusive idea of the work community.