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ACES-ACELG visiting fellow Antoine Vauchez (Université Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne) speaks to us about the influence of the Italian mafia on his early research career, the beauty of his progression as a researcher almost without noticing it and on the fault lines of his interdisciplinary research.

Going with opportunities

It is hard to identify ‘natural developments’, not to mention ‘turning points’ in a research trajectory - even in hindsight... Choices are certainly always very contextual and connected to opportunities and encounters; but then it’s true that something (a specific approach, a research angle, etc.) progressively coagulates over time, and that’s the beauty of research to see that happening somehow without even noticing... I did fall early on into law-and-politics and socio-legal studies – as a sort of follow-up to my dual training in public law and political science. But what really brought me into the field was the interest for the large-scale anti-mafia and anti-corruption inquiries launched in Milan and Palermo in the mid-1990s – a set of inquiries that completely transformed the Italian governing elite in just a few months. This gave me I think the impulse for a PhD project at the European University Institute that inquired into this spectacular transformation of the Italian judiciary from the bureaucratic body of the 1950s to a profession which prided itself of being the guardian of the integrity of the Italian Republic against the political body itself. The historical détour to the 1960s proved particularly heuristic to understand how a new professional ethos had emerged and consolidated.

As I was moving into post-doctoral research, a second contextual opportunity appeared with the European constitutional momentum of the early 2000s, another fascinating form of connection between law and politics. Together with a group of friends and colleagues with similar training (Julie Bailleux, Antonin Cohen, Mikael Madsen, Guillaume Sacriste), we started a broad research programme on the historical and sociological trajectory of European constitutionalism from the 1920s to the constitutional treaty. This is how I progressively came to explore the European Union which at the time looked as a “lawyer’s paradise” and a great legal laboratory of post-national forms of government. What I tried to do was to provide a sociological and historical explanation to the definitional power that Euro-lawyers and EU law had progressively acquired at the core of the European project. And that eventually became a book Brokering Europe. Euro-lawyers and the Making of a Transnational Polity.

Portrait of the EU political regime

As I was finishing my habilitation and pointing at the defining role of Euro-lawyers and their reference institution, the Court of Justice of European Union, I got struck by the parallel rise of economists in the context of the euro crisis. A similar symbiotic relationship seemed to be emerging between the European Central Bank and a transnational community of economists. Together with an American colleague, Stephanie Mudge, we inquired into the role of economic expertise, research and econometric modelling at the ECB. The parallel between the Court and the Bank provided the ground for a renewed portrayal of the EU political regime as a whole: one that pointed at the triptych of independent institutions (the Court, the Bank, the Commission) and the privileged position they have acquired over time when it comes to define Europe’s general interest. The euro crisis gave a new meaning to this portrait of the EU as the latter took on a more centralised and coercive turn with shock therapies that heavily impacted upon national social and fiscal pacts of countries “under programme” (Greece, Portugal, etc.) and beyond. In this context, I published an essay entitled Democratizing Europe, which questioned the relevance of decades of democratization strategies that have attempted to mimic national democracies in a context where it is the “independent branch”, the ECB in particular, which plays the central leading role in defining the long term interests of the “European project.”

Pierre Bourdieu’s powerful presence in the intellectual field

I was trained in law and political sociology in the late 1990s in France and it was hard at the time not to feel attracted by Pierre Bourdieu’s powerful presence in the intellectual field, and his broad set of interests moving from studies of Heidegger’s life to lectures on Manet or inquiries into French housing policy. What I have attempted to do alongside with colleagues of mine was to bring and adapt his conceptual toolbox to the study of transnational and European centers of power, something Bourdieu had not developed. In a context in which European studies was  still very focused on inter-institutional battles (with different inter-governmentalists, neo-functionalists, constructivists’ takes on these), the structural, relational and practice-oriented approach of Bourdieu was opening a new perspective – I would say a sort of third way if “third ways” had not proved so wrong over the course of history...

Seismograph of profound contemporary changes in politics and government

Yes, I do try to stand on the fault lines between law, history and political sociology – even if the latter is probably where I have most of my intellectual roots. This interstitial positional certainly has some drawbacks. And for a long time, I have thought that I would eventually have to choose. It’s actually the contrary that has happened. I have become more and more convinced that, for all its shakiness, this is a privileged point of observation and seismograph that keeps particularly alert to the profound contemporary changes in the forms of politics and government.