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Researcher profile: Li Bennich-Björkman

Academic freedom fighter

Li Bennich-Björkman, Skyttean Professor of Eloquence and Government, is an untiring defender of academic freedom and long-term research projects. In her own research, she likes to make space for existential dimensions, most recently in a book about what it means to live a life in exile.

When Li Bennich-Björkman wrote her first academic paper, her life changed. Investigating reality, identifying problems, delving deeper and writing was very stimulating.

“Writing that essay opened the door to a new world,” she explains.

The drive to delve deeper led on to doctoral studies. Today, she sees herself as a social scientist and humanist and is actually not really at ease with strict dividing lines between the social sciences. She likes to cross boundaries. Her research spans the refugee issue, cultural policy, research policy, multiculturalism and post-communist politics.

“I try to do political science in my own way,” she notes.

Bennich-Björkman is a pioneer in many ways. In 2007, she became the first woman professor at the Department of Government at Uppsala University. The following year, she was the first woman appointed Skyttean Professor of Eloquence and Government, with an official residence in the 18th century building called Skytteanum.

The Skyttean Professorship is probably the world’s oldest professorship in political science, established in 1622. One important duty is to communicate scholarship. Another is to appoint the recipients of the Johan Skytte Prize, which is awarded annually to an internationally renowned political scientist. The prize is SEK 500,000, one of the largest prizes in the world in the social sciences.

When Bennich-Björkman accepted the professorship, she carefully thought through how she would act both internally and externally.

“I decided that I would not appeal for understanding, that it was important to establish my authority as quickly and clearly as possible. The Department of Government was very male-dominated at the time and I knew that many would have preferred to have somebody else in the position. But I stayed away from that kind of information. I read no comments about myself, for instance. Then some time passed and one day I discovered that I had moved on. What had seemed a little daunting at first wasn’t any more.”

She often engages in debate about conditions for research, in the local newspaper UNT and the national daily Svenska Dagbladet, for instance. For her report “Will academic freedom survive?” (2005), she was awarded the Swedish Association of University Teachers Prize for the Promotion of Academic Freedom. How does she think academic freedom is doing today?

“It’s in a tight spot. Younger researchers face very bumpy conditions and difficulties establishing their own research profile with long-term projects where it’s possible to delve deeper. Universities are becoming increasingly centralised and bureaucratised and power is shifting from the faculty to the university administrations. In many cases, the decentralisation that has been the hallmark of the universities – the fact that the researchers, academic teachers and students themselves govern the universities – has been entirely done away with. But Uppsala University is one of the few universities in Sweden that has successfully maintained collegial governance.”

To keep up their spirits in the hostile winds blowing through academia, Bennich-Björkman and some colleagues at the department founded the Collaborative Group for a Good Research Environment.

“We view ourselves as a resistance group. In 2016, we published Det hotade universitetet (‘The threatened university’), an analysis and defence of the values on which academia has long rested. We also have an international network. It’s an invigorating group.”

But perhaps the most important invigorating factor is directing her own research as she sees fit.

“Part of my time is earmarked for research and I am determined to devote my energy and time to what I feel is important to write about. As I grow older, it has become clearer to me what to do and what not to do,” says Bennich-Björkman.

In her latest book, she investigates various existential dimensions of living in exile. Sörja ett liv, leva ett annat: om flyktingens mörker och ljus (‘Mourning one life, living another: on the refugee’s darkness and light’) builds on interviews she and other researchers have conducted over a period of 20 years, among the Estonians who came to Sweden in 1944 and among the Bosnians who fled the war in the Balkans in the early 1990s.

In the book, Bennich-Björkman has also interviewed her own mother who fled from Estonia, so it is also an exploration of her own story.

“In this book, I want to highlight a number of dimensions that I believe are generally applicable to everyone living in exile. I felt that there was a strong need to write about the existential aspect, about being. The way we talk about integration and migration in politics and research easily becomes so ... inhuman.”

One of the dimensions she takes up is how crucial it is to have some sort of acceptance that life has changed, and to be treated and viewed as an individual. Another dimension is about being able to choose to be in one world or more than one, both in the old and in the new home country.

One of the most important answers Bennich-Björkman found in her study is precisely that her mother and others in exile have mourned their lives and nonetheless lived another life, and that this is very difficult.

“I am happy that I wrote the book and that my mother was involved.”

She often thinks of Sweden as a country where Progress has been everything and where there is no room for melancholy. She hopes that the fact that we have now become and will remain an immigration country will change this.

“The loss experienced by refugees must be given a place in the tapestry of society. The experience of melancholy needs to be incorporated into social understanding. I think that makes a society more whole.”

Lisa Thorsén
2018-05-22

Facts: Li Bennich-Björkman

Title: Skyttean Professor of Eloquence and Government. Member of the Royal Society of Arts and Sciences of Uppsala since 2004, member of the Swedish Research Council’s Scientific Council for Humanities and Social Sciences 2007–2010, member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences since 2010, elected to the Royal Society of Sciences in Uppsala in 2015.
Right now: Writing a book about the existential resistance in intellectual and artistic circles in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine during the Soviet era, and how it affected the transition to democracy. Contributing to an anthology on the future of democracy being published by the Swedish Parliament in connection with the centennial of universal suffrage.
Family: Husband Karsten Lundequist, two grown children, mother, the dog Bosco and the cats Elvis and Simba.
Lives in: The official residence in Skytteanum in central Uppsala.
A good day at work: When thoughts become clear and you suddenly see the connections.
On the bedside table: “Moominsummer Madness” by Tove Jansson. It’s comforting.
A famous person I have met: Viktor Yanukovich, notorious former president of Ukraine.
My favourite spot in Uppsala: Graneberg and Vårdsätra, where it’s overgrown and leafy in a magical way.