An Interview with Professor Stephen Sawyer

We sat down with Center Director, Professor Stephen Sawyer, to understand the academic underpinnings of creating the Center.

What were the origins of the Center for Critical Democracy Studies?

The Center creation is a confluence of three separate developments. The first is the long tradition of American and French dialogue on democracy, with Paris scholars in particular representing an extraordinary history of thinking on democracy. As a result, the intellectual scene at AUP is tightly connected to the current renaissance of democratic scholarship occurring in Paris. 

The second is the convergence of the current state of democracy in the European Union and France’s place there, which raises questions that we must explore both at AUP and in the broader community of what democracy will look like in the 21st century.  

Finally and importantly, AUP has taken on the publishing of the 36 year old Tocqueville Review, the bilingual and interdisciplinary journal that focuses on transnational and global questions of politics and society. Tocqueville’s legacy of pursuing the history, literature, sociology, political science and theory of democracy lives on in the review, and given the nature of these investigations they belong to no one area of academic scholarship. Thus the creation of a Center at AUP to pursue these cross-disciplinary investigations into the very topical and pressing subject of democracy and its evolution.


How do your research passions and scholarship connect to the Center for Critical Democracy Studies?

The “critical democracy” idea, and my own background are fundamentally rooted in four intellectual schools of thought. As a French historian and scholar of liberalism, the foundation of my thinking on the history and theory of democracy is derived from several generations of scholarship on Critical Theory associated with the Frankfurt School, from the work of Michael Foucault in “La Critique,” from the work of Claude Lefort on democratic indeterminacy, from the thinking of Pierre Rosanvallon, author of the more recent book Democratic Legitimacy, and back to John Dewey in America whose early 20th century notions of democracy and a democratic education are experiencing a resurgence. Lefort in particular has revisited the Tocquevillian ideas on behavior in democracy as not pre-determined but rather open-ended. 

Tocqueville also provided ways for us to think critically about power in a democratic society and how to position ourselves with regard to power and the state, topics that are ripe for pursuit by the Center for Critical Democracy Studies. Recent pro-democracy movements have been anti-state on both the far left and the far right, and we have not as of yet used democratic theory to discuss the role of states in a democracy.  


What is the vision for the work and output of the Center?

We expect to provide an interdisciplinary space where AUP faculty, students, and the wider intellectual community in Paris and beyond can think in new ways about democracy. We plan to engage with other French and European institutions as we host conferences, bring in speakers, present student and faculty research and ultimately create critical democracy labs to work on various pedagogical initiatives. We will continue the tradition of French and American dialogue on democracy begun so long ago by Tocqueville and furthered by his 20th century interpreters. 

Democracy around the world is one of the “big” questions of our time. Center scholarship will look through an interdisciplinary lens at the kind of inequalities emerging in democratic states, along with other problems such as absenteeism, stability and representation now associated with democracy. The Center will encourage a more robust notion of what studying democracy will mean for all those involved.