Opinion-Policy Nexus

Dr. Thomas Hueglin is Professor of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University.  In 2009-2010, he was WLU University Research Professor, a significant honour that recognized his status as "one of the world’s top scholars on Johannes Althusius, a 16th/17th century philosopher who was concerned with alternative models of governance. Hueglin is also a well-published scholar in the related field of federalism; his research output incorporates four single-authored books, two co-authored books, three dozen book chapters, over two dozen journal articles and more than 80 conference papers or research talks delivered in 14 countries."

Thomas was an early mentor for me at Laurier, providing me with advice about the university, the department, and publishing. As well, he has been a constant supporter of my crazy research and administrative/departmental ideas since I've been at Laurier. I am grateful to him for making me feel welcome at Laurier.


I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career

I had very good advice, actually, and no regrets. When I did not receive a postdoctoral scholarship, my PhD adviser Alois Riklin in St. Gallen, Switzerland, told me never to throw in the towel too quickly – I then got a different and much better scholarship that took me to the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, for three fabulous years. Once in Canada, I learned collegiality from Richard Simeon, Donald Smiley told me that I could not understand the country without traveling across the Prairies, and Ed Black gave me money to do so. I was in excellent hands.

The individual I admire the most academically

There are so many. One of them is the German political scientist Beate Kohler-Koch, who invited me to spend a sabbatical year at the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research in 1997-98. Like no other academic I know personally, she combines profound theoretical understanding with hardcore empirical research. As one of the first and few senior female political science professors in Germany, she had to develop a very thick skin in a male-dominated environment. When I once dared to complain about her sometimes gruff attitude, she replied: I am sorry that my Prussian school teacher charm offended you.

My best research project during my career

Doubtlessly that was working for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. It was not only the unique environment, with “Indians” in senior positions and “white folks” making photocopies and fetching coffee. I also learned so much about a world I knew nothing about, and it has influenced all I do and think about ever since.

My worst research project during my career

I once wanted to do a comparative study on concepts of, and attitudes towards treaty federalism in the European Union based on a totally delusional plan of empirical investigation. With Alan Fenna, I wrote the Comparative Federalism book instead.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research

Such experiences always happened when I discovered open-mindedness in personal conversations with people in the “mentor and giant” category into which I would hardly place myself. My PhD adviser Alois Riklin taught me how to think. A conservative and a Catholic, he accepted my eclectic leftish views as long as they were backed up by solid work. Similarly, Daniel Elazar took me under his wings even though his worldview was very different from mine.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance

Every story has a chance to be told. When my father died, I decided to write down all the family anecdotes, which I feared would be lost otherwise. To my surprise, what began merely as a collection of stories for my children ended up as a book publication, We All Giggled: A Bourgeois Family Memoir, published in the Life Writing Series of Wilfrid Laurier University Press. A local reporter asked me what I thought the appeal of the book might be to readers other than my own family. I replied that my hope was that it would encourage others to think of and write down the kind of stories that exist in all families. I do not think that it is much different in the academic world. Interesting research will inspire other interesting research.

A research project I wish I had done

For many years I have wanted to come up with a theory of federalism that is general enough to encompass the infinite variety of federal practice yet sufficiently concise to provide students of federalism with a more common language. In fact I am on it as we speak. Hope it does not turn out to be one of my delusional projects (see above).

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be

I never consciously decided to become a political scientist. I drifted from economics to political ideas and federalism because I could not handle numbers, and I mainly moved from degree to degree because I could never think of anything else. And since I hung around long enough, someone finally hired me for good. In a different life, I might have wanted to become a music manager, maybe in charge of cultural life in a large city. But that would have required organizational and schmoozing talents I do not possess.

The biggest challenge in Canadian politics in the next 10 years will be

I say idle no more. The fact that apparently more children are now taken away from Aboriginal families and put into foster care than at the height of the residential school system speaks for itself but is moreover symptomatic for the way Canada has been drifting away from respectability on many fronts: environmental protection, social inequality, urban sprawl and congestion, international reputation as a mediator and peace keeper…

The biggest challenge in Canadian political science in the next 10 years will be

Political science qua science is always in danger of disconnecting from the real problems and issues of real people. At a time when universities are in grave danger of being downgraded to the status of corporate service providers, political science like other academic disciplines needs to find a voice that maintains and reaffirms academic freedom and autonomy yet convincingly demonstrates that it can make practical contributions.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is

Looking for my first major postdoctoral research project, I almost accidentally stumbled across the early modern political theory of Althusius. I never really got away from Althusius. I tell my students with academic ambitions to choose their first major research topic carefully: it may haunt them for the rest of their careers.


Wednesday, April 10, 2013 - 11:02