Global Governance Centre
09 December 2022

PhD Student Highlight: Astrid Skjold

Astrid Skjold is a second year PhD Student in International Relations/Political Science, now working with Annabelle Littoz-Monnet on her new SNSF project, De-blackboxing the Production of Expert Knowledge in Global Governance. In this interview, Astrid situates her research on climate politics and tells us what it is like to be a Research Assistant.

Originally from Norway, you pursued a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Economics at the University of Birmingham before coming to the Geneva Graduate Institute for your postgraduate studies. What brought you to study at the Institute?

During my Bachelor’s studies, I kept coming across books and articles written by Graduate Institute researchers, including some PhD dissertations that had been turned into books. Many of these were important for shaping my thoughts on and interest in international politics and issues of global governance. When finishing my Bachelor’s degree, I was looking for a study program that offered both deep theoretical engagement and opportunities to interact with practitioners, and the Graduate Institute does both. When you add the fact that the Institute is located in the midst of key global governance actors and fabulous mountains, the choice was a rather easy one.


In your doctoral research, you are investigating the politics of attributing disasters such as floods and fires to climate change. What is your main research puzzle and how do you expect to contribute to current debates?

There has long been widespread agreement in the natural sciences that the impacts of anthropogenic heating are unfolding – that ice caps are melting, storms are more frequent and intense, and the sea level is rising. In recent years, there has been growing political acknowledgement of this, which we especially see in the aftermath of disaster events. I am interested in the political effects of this. On the one hand, there is an expectation that making this link temporally relocates climate change from the future to the present, thereby mobilizing support for more ambitious climate policies. On the other hand, there is a strong tradition in disaster studies that highlights the social, political, and economic aspects of disasters, the idea being that there is no such thing as a “natural” disaster. In this vein, there are worries that blaming disasters on climate change is a way of absolving authorities of their responsibilities. In my doctoral research, I seek to intervene in these debates by empirically exploring (1) the different causal claims made during and after disasters, and (2) the effects these have on community configurations, priorities, and policies.


In September 2022, you were hired as a research assistant for a four-year Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) project led by Annabelle Littoz-Monnet that investigates how expertise is produced and stabilized in global governance. What is your main role in this project?

We are currently in the starting phase of the project, which means that we are planning the next four years and defining the different aspects of the project. Specifically for me, this involves looking into which conferences and workshops might be relevant to attend, thinking about ideas for papers that can be part of the project outputs, and setting up a project website. I am also assisting Professor Littoz-Monnet with articles that she is writing within the scope of the project. This includes conducting and transcribing interviews and browsing relevant scholarly literature. Finally, I am looking into some of the methods we plan on using, specifically qualitative/visual network analysis, and I get to attend a workshop to learn the technical aspects of this method.


To what extent does the theoretical, methodological, and empirical focus of the project overlap with some of your more general research interests?

I have a strong interest in the politics of knowledge and expertise. In my empirical field, climate politics, scientists and experts have played and continue to play a central role in defining and delineating problems, shaping agendas, and formulating solutions. The interplay between scientists and political decision-makers, processes of data construction and circulation, as well as the role of infrastructures, are fascinating, and Professor Littoz-Monnet’s project goes to the heart of these issues by highlighting the production and stabilization of expert knowledge. In my doctoral research, I pay particular attention to causal claims and narratives, which can in part be unpacked in connection to the production and circulation of expert knowledge. Despite my project not focusing exclusively on experts and expertise, I draw on similar theoretical perspectives on the nature and role of knowledge. In addition, the project employs many of the same methods as I do in my doctoral research, including text analysis and semi-structured interviews.

Astrid Skjold
An important benefit of a research assistantship is that one learns about the everyday workings of academia together with seasoned researchers. Second, and just as important, is the social aspect of collaborative research.
Astrid Skjold

Prior to being hired for this SNSF project, you worked as a research assistant for Cédric Dupont on self-management practices and organizational reform within the UN system. How do you balance the demands of a project with your own doctoral research?

I enjoy working on different projects at once, as it introduces a greater variety of tasks to the working day. Sometimes there are synergies between the projects, and I read literature in one that can be useful for the other. But sometimes there are not, and that is also nice. It means that I can focus on different things and get some distance from and perspective on both the project and my own work. With that said, all projects have their faster- and slower-paced periods, and I think the key to balancing demands is to ensure as far as possible that the busy periods do not overlap.


What are some of the things you enjoy about collaborative research, in comparison to solo research?

There are both intellectual and social benefits to collaborative research. First, I get to learn from and with others. I have been lucky to work with incredibly sharp people, from whom I have learned about the larger question of how to analytically cut into issues of international politics, as well as the nuts and bolts of writing project proposals and publishing. An important benefit of a research assistantship is that one learns about the everyday workings of academia together with seasoned researchers. Second, and just as important, is the social aspect of collaborative research. Doctoral research can be a lonely affair. It is great to be invested in a project together with others.  


What do you expect to learn in the years ahead, both in terms of substance and research practice?

In terms of substance, hopefully I will arrive at answers to my doctoral research questions. I hope to learn as much as possible about the political dynamics of the unfolding of climate change, and how they play out in different contexts. The same goes for Littoz-Monnet’s project. I am excited about gaining a better understanding of the role of expert knowledge in different governance fields, and especially new and changing forms of expert knowledge. In addition, I am looking forward to continuing to take advantage of the wide range of activities organized by the Global Governance Centre. The Centre’s events are a great place for meeting people and hearing about developments in research and policy. I also think being placed at the Centre is great for the development of my research skills, broadly conceived. With so much knowledge and experience concentrated in one place, we often have engaging conversations about scholarly writing, how to reach interviewees, planning field work, as well as balancing the demands of academic work.


What is everyday work life like at the Global Governance Centre?

The Global Governance Centre is a wonderfully diverse space, which is reflected in everyday work life. The researchers located at or affiliated with the Centre come from the Institute’s different disciplines, and the Centre’s many events offer legal, political, historical, economic, and sociological perspectives on a wide range of issues. This leads to new insights and interesting discussions. But life at the Centre does not only happen at the more formal events. The work environment is great. Between colleagues, we share coffee, lunch, and tips about conferences or calls for papers. With a mix of senior, junior, in-house, and visiting researchers, there is a lot to learn from each other.