Jon Pierre became a political scientist by chance
He has been a researcher for more than thirty-five years and has written numerous books. Now that Jon Pierre is retiring, he intends to continue writing, but probably about something other than political science.
Political scientist Professor Jon Pierre has an impressive list of publications to his name. Over the years, he has written or edited more than 40 books and more than 80 journal articles. He says that he likes to write and that what he actually wanted to be was a journalist. Just like his parents.
“The idea was that I would first take a Bachelor’s degree at Lund University and study sociology, but I went into the wrong lecture hall on the first day. After a while I realised that I had ended up in the introduction to political science lecture, and it sounded much more exciting than sociology, so there I stayed.”
In 1979, he began his doctoral studies in political science at Lund University. Another student in the programme was political scientist Bo Rothstein, who came to be a close friend over time. Both defended their doctoral theses in 1986 just two weeks apart, Jon Pierre with a thesis on political parties and Bo Rothstein on a subject that would later become Jon Pierre’s own research focus – administrative reform.
It was actually a big deal for his family that Jon defended his thesis in the subject area of political science. At the time, his father was the chief political editor at Arbetet and a staunch Social Democrat, and a hallmark of Jon’s childhood had been many discussions about politics.
“When I started my thesis, Dad wanted me to write something about the Social Democrats, which I did. I argued a case that went against the party line, but Dad accepted it, and our relationship actually changed and deepened for the better thanks to my thesis work.”
Culture clash in Gothenburg
Jon Pierre smiles when he reminisces about his time in Lund. Now in hindsight, he finds it quite amusing that he received invitations to parties which specified whether his attire should be worn with or without one’s medals of honour.
“I thought the environment was quite bourgeois and hierarchical and that I did not fit in. Just when I was starting to wish I could leave Lund, a vacancy came up as an administrative reform researcher at the University of Gothenburg, which I was encouraged to apply for and got.”
He has now been a researcher and teacher at the University of Gothenburg for over 35 years. When he started in the mid-1980s, he came to an environment he was unfamiliar with, where it was natural for researchers to question and criticise each other’s work. He has never forgotten his first seminar in Gothenburg when two of the political scientists attending disagreed strongly.
“It was when Gunnar Falkemark presented a critical text on excessive ‘variable thinking’ that got Sören Holmberg very upset. The discussion got quite rancorous, and it was very exciting! I thought, what’s going on here? But after the seminar, Holmberg went up to Falkemark, put his arm around him and said, ‘now let’s all of us go down to Liseberg together’. And we did.”
A broad church
Jon Pierre thinks the University of Gothenburg has always been a broad church, with room for many views, but is aware that not everyone would agree with him about that. For him, the University of Gothenburg is where you can find what he considers to be the positive sides of academia.
“There’s a research environment here that is very robust and productive. But it's also pragmatic, which means that we academics don’t have a monopoly on being important. You also feel the presence of the huge corporate sector in the city, and this means that you get a bit of distance to yourself as an academic.”
As an administrative reform researcher, he has studied public administration in Sweden and abroad. Much of his inspiration has come from Bo Rothstein, whose idea is that the public sector is a fundamental part of a functioning democracy.
“If we don’t have a competent, non-political, expert-based public sector, democracy doesn’t work. In the worst case, we can then get an administration that is more interested in doing what it thinks is important than what the citizens and politicians think is important. This was the topic explored in Bo’s thesis work, and the democratic perspective on public administration in particular has also been a feature of my administrative reform research here at the University of Gothenburg.”
A pioneer in studying governance
Another area of research that Jon Pierre has devoted a large part of his career to is governance. Governance is about the control and coordination of society, how this is done and which models different countries or policy areas use to coordinate themselves. State-society relationships changed dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s but political science lacked a framework or theory to describe and explain those developments.
He explains that the models used to control and coordinate a country have both advantages and disadvantages. If, for example, informal networks rule, and attract people to them who just want to have a big say in how things are run, then you will get a self-appointed clique that makes all the big decisions.
“For me as a political scientist, it’s important to find out how such a system becomes democratically sustainable. This can result in the creation of a centralised, hierarchical system that can be democratic but not well anchored in the community, which can be problematic.”
He has written many articles and books about governance since the 1990s with American political scientist Guy Peters, and has become a well-known name in international research.
“We were pioneers in studying this, Guy Peters and I. Our book Governance, Policy and the State, published in 2000, has been cited more than 5,000 times and really ‘cemented’ the concept within the scholarly community.”
Seeing young researchers grow
When he looks back on his long career, the years when he was a part-time professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia lie close to his heart. There he was involved in the establishment of the Melbourne School of Government and its Master’s programme in public administration. He mentions several times how much fun it is to teach.
“The best thing about my job has been to see young, talented students get through Master’s level and into doctoral education. It’s been a great pleasure to follow their development and the new perspectives they have contributed as researchers.”
Are you going to fully retire now?
“Yes, sort of. I will be working 30 per cent of full-time until next summer. If you’ve been a researcher for thirty years, it becomes part of who you are. For better or worse. The worst thing is that research prevents you from doing a lot of other things you might have liked to do. I enjoy writing as a craft and could imagine writing about completely different things than political science in the future. But it probably won’t be an archipelago murder mystery with a title like “Murder on Björkö” where I live. I guess we’ll see.”
Job: Professor of Political Science, who is retiring.
Family: Married to Monika, with children Jonathan and Miranda and Filippa from a previous marriage.
Lives in: Björkö.
Comes from: Born in Malmö, grew up in Landskrona and Lund.
Favourite leisure activity: “My boat is a huge interest. It’s always equally wonderful to launch it in the spring and depressing every time I have to bring it ashore for the winter. I try to read a lot, especially books that are not about political science, Graham Greene's books, for example.”
About his career: “Do things ever really turn out the way you imagined? I don’t think so. On the other hand, they can turn out much better than you imagined.”