More about the project

Authoritarianism - more than just a relict?

Many of today’s big and lasting autocracies, among them China, Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia show astonishing degrees of institutionalization and resilience. In addition, observers recently came to speak of an overall global “authoritarian upsurge”. And even old democracies in Europe and North America are shaken by new and increasingly successful populist “movements”.

These are just a few examples indicating that authoritarianism, as a regime type and mode of politics, is quite alive and kicking and does not seem to just vanish in the course of some kind of linear political evolution of world society. But do we possess sufficient theoretical and analytical tools capable of describing and analyzing modern authoritarianism as a regime type sui generis, and in all its forms, facets and dynamics?

More importantly, how do we grasp political phenomena observable ‘below’ the level of the authoritarian nation state as the analytical unit? For example, the existence and expansion of self-governance and direct elections at the local level, more accessible public administrations, extension of those represented and those affected by welfare politics, or the entry of more effective public agenda setting and feedback opportunities offered not only by new media?

Theoretical background

Aiming to grasp the complexity of modern authoritarianism, this projects takes an approach that differs from classic regime studies in political science in that it transgresses the usual focus on formal political institutions at the nation state level.

Based on sociological and political systems theory and conceptualizations of inclusion (as formulated by D. Easton, N. Luhmann, T.H. Marshall, T. Parsons, R. Stichweh), I first of all suggest a simple definitional bifurcation of democratic and authoritarian modes of politics, dependent on contingent or non-contingent value patterns involved in and shaping the political decision-making process.

Furthermore, I hypothesize that authoritarian regimes are usually characterized by non-contingent values (such as religion, ideology, tradition, etc.) that hinder full and equal inclusion of members of society into inputs and outputs as well as in attendant roles of the political system. But we can increasingly observe transformations of the relevant formulas used. Exclusion increasingly needs to be justified.

This does not necessarily apply to the definition of the collectivity (esp. the nation, nationality) in authoritarianism, and its entailed closeness as displayed in – often inexistent or rudimentary – rules for naturalization or immigration, for example. But it involves that for those who are already members of this collectivity, forms of political inclusion today increasingly tend to expand and equalize, even under authoritarian regimes.

I assume that this is an expression of the imperative of political inclusion characteristic of modernity in today’s world society. But how does it manifest itself concretely and how exactly do authoritarian regimes deal with this apparent imperative?

Methodology and empirical endeavors 

Analytically, this projects studies forms of political inclusion (and exclusion) as observable

  • in the constitution of elementary membership roles (e.g. citizens, residents, subjects, recipients of welfare benefits) and the constitution of political collectivities (e.g. the people, the nation);
  • in the constitution of elite and administrative roles which govern and steer the political system (i.e. leadership positions, party and government personnel, specific functionaries, members of parliaments, public actors and organizations, etc.)
  • and ‘observer’ roles (i.e. addressees of policies (outcomes), voters, the represented, the bearers of public opinion, etc.),


  • in different horizontal subsystems of the political system (e.g. parties, (mass) organizations, public administrations/bureaucracy),

and vertically

  • at different levels of the political system (e.g. grassroots/community, regional, national, supranational [if applicable]).

Starting with the case of the People’s Republic of China, as arguably one of the most paradigmatic autocracies in today’s world and my main field of expertise, I am currently working on the following first sub-studies:

  • Definitions and practices of political citizenship in China in historical and contemporary perspective
  • Individual vs. collective notions and practices of participation in China’s grassroots self-government
  • ‘Shifting roles?’ Accessibility of positions and services in China’s (local) public administration

Methods include historical semantics, qualitative interviews and field observations, data and textual analysis (including primary and secondary data).

Published Mar. 30, 2017 8:40 AM - Last modified Oct. 19, 2017 9:57 PM