Peace-building, mediation and justice issues have always been on the agenda. But the researcher path was not the obvious choice for Karin Aggestam, who has now been appointed to the prestigious Pufendorf chair. She is both the first woman and the first political scientist to obtain it – and she hopes to pave the way for an international Master’s programme in diplomacy.
LUM meets her in the heart of Lund student life, Café Athen. Students are sitting around, reading and working in groups.
“The chair is a pure research position but I have made sure to hang on to a little teaching. The interaction with the students is so rewarding”, says Karin Aggestam.
The statutes for the Pufendorf chair state that the holder “is to work in the spirit of Pufendorf and strive for peaceful order”. As a political scientist specialising in peace and conflict research, this has been a natural goal all the way through Karin Aggestam’s working life.
With a special interest in the Middle East, she has spent several long periods in the region. The first time was when the intifada broke out in 1987.
“It made a strong impression on me and I also wrote about it in my first academic papers at the University”.
However, it was not until a few years later that Karin Aggestam began to take a serious interest in research. At the start of the 1990s, she was awarded a scholarship to study for a year at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. While she was there, the first Gulf War broke out and international students were advised to travel home. Karin Aggestam was among the few who decided to stay; together with only a handful of other international students, she completed her degree programme.
“That meant hard work with a lot of reading and writing but also constructive feedback, and that was when I decided to apply to the PhD programme in Lund.”
After successfully defending her doctoral thesis, it was time for another year in the Middle East. On this occasion, in 2000, as an employee of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency SIDA and head of analysis for the international observation force on the West Bank.
“Many people took it for granted that I would leave the University for good when I accepted the job, but I had already applied for and obtained a postdoc position with the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences. Otherwise I think it would have been difficult for me to come back. Unfortunately, academia does not reward those who want to combine theory and practice.”
The job on the West Bank gave Karin Aggestam practical experience of mediating between Israelis and Palestinians, which has greatly benefited her subsequent research and her continuous dialogue with practitioners.
On her return to academia, she spent parts of her postdoc period at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford, which has a very strong research environment specialising in international relations and the Middle East.
Since then, Karin Aggestam has alternated years in Lund with several long research stays at other universities around the world. She has led several major research projects and been a member of important research councils in Denmark, Norway and the European Commission, among others. Meanwhile, she spent several years building up the interdisciplinary degree programme in peace and conflict studies in Lund.
In other words, there has been a great deal of travelling, and during the same period she became a mother of two boys who are now 12 and 14 years old. To the question of what it’s like to manage the balance between a demanding research career and family life, she replies that gender equality is everything.
“Without a good partnership with Magnus, who works as a computer engineer at Ericsson, I would have been forced to prioritise differently, as we do not have any relatives who live close by and could step in to help. For me, it feels safe and good that my children are with their dad when I am abroad.”
When Karin Aggestam was appointed to the Pufendorf chair, she had begun preparing to take over as director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, a position she had been looking forward to.
“But it was impossible to refuse the Pufendorf chair. It gives me a fantastic opportunity to build up an interdisciplinary research group on justice diplomacy specialising in international relations and international law”, she says. “Hopefully, in the long run, the research will result in an international Master’s programme in diplomacy. Such a programme could well become extremely attractive as there are not many degree programmes with that profile in Europe.”
Karin Aggestam will be installed as Pufendorf Professor in January 2017.
Text: Ulrika Oredsson
Photo: Kennet Ruona
Karin Aggestam on …
… having a twin sister who is also a political science researcher, although in Gothenburg
It is wonderful to be twins in research as well; we are currently planning to write a book on diplomacy together. But it has also given rise to much confusion. We are active in the same field, and are almost identical in appearance.
… academic careers:
Fantastic, what a privilege to spend your entire working life within a field you are passionate about. But I have also been lucky to get good positions with good conditions for research. Academia is a competitive field which entails some elements of uncertainty when it comes to employment. I believe the mentoring system is of great significance and could be expanded.
… peace in the Middle East:
If I knew the answer to that I wouldn’t be here right now … Unfortunately it is difficult to see any hope of improvement while the destructive war in Syria rages on and the Arab spring has turned into an ice-cold winter. However, all wars come to an end and, as Samuel Pufendorf stated already in his own time, the natural human condition is peace, not war. But to achieve it requires the tools of diplomacy and the guidance of international law.
FACTS on the Pufendorf chair
The Torsten and Ragnar Söderberg Foundation established a chair in memory of Samuel Pufendorf in 2002. Samuel Pufendorf was a German legal scholar and theologian who was directly appointed to a professorship when the University was founded in 1666. He was a pioneer of modern humanism and international law and the chair is to promote research primarily within law, economics and political philosophy. Previous holders: Aleksander Peczenik, Kjell Åke Modéer, Håkan Hydén, Gregor Noll.