On 1 November 2021, Professors Graziella Moraes Silva and Gopalan Balachandran were appointed co-directors of the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy. Their interdisciplinary leadership, which begins with their complementary backgrounds in, respectively, sociology and history, reflects the aims and ethos of the Centre.
What is your background and which approaches will you bring to the Centre?
One of us [GMS] is a sociologist, the other [GB] is a historian. Both our research agendas have been profoundly influenced by our experience of inequalities, colonialism, decolonization and development. These issues are vital to broadening current debates about democracy, including its so-called present-day “crisis”. As nationals belonging to two large democracies from the Global South (Brazil and India), we appreciate the historical and transnational forces that have shaped democracy in different parts of the world. We hope to continue the mission of the AHDC to enlarge the disciplinary, geographical and temporal frames in which (un)democratic politics and practices are discussed. With democracy seemingly under threat in both countries, our interest is not merely intellectual, it is also somewhat personal.
Why do you think it is important to develop an interdisciplinary perspective on democracy today?
One of the roots of the current crisis of democracy lies in the tendency to think of it only as a formal political system. It is clear even if we go back to Alexis Tocqueville’s writings that democracy as a political system in the US depended on social conditions that enabled (white) men to think of themselves as equals, including through their “habits of the heart”. In different degrees the consequences and contradictions he identified have proved enduring and universal: the exclusion of racialized and other minority groups, the enrichment of a small elite accompanied by growing inequality, and the resistance of entrenched elites fearing a loss of their power and privilege. We need different disciplinary perspectives for understanding how democracies negotiate such tensions and contradictions.
Our Democracy Centre at the Graduate Institute is named after Albert O. Hirschman: what does his intellectual legacy inspire to you?
Of course, the first reason relates to the previous question. Even in his own time, Hirschman was quite exceptional for his inter(or trans)disciplinary approach and insights. He sometimes preferred to think of one ‘social science’ rather than ‘social sciences’, in the plural, with their disciplinary configurations and boundaries. Hirschman’s possibilism is another source of inspiration for reimagining social and political change not as a deterministic process, but as an open-ended one beset even with creative or quirky possibilities that he sought to understand in terms of ‘inverted sequences’, ‘unintended consequences’, ‘blessings in disguise’, and so on. Such insights also remind us of the rich possibilities inherent in a truly meaningful democracy.