As­so­ci­ate Pro­fessor Jo­hanna Rainio-Niemi studies power concentrated in the state

INEQ Associate Professor of Contemporary History Dr. Johanna Rainio-Niemi researches power of the public authority from a historical perspective

What are your research topics?

I'm interested in power concentrated in the state and what is known as public authority. From a comparative perspective, you can examine the frameworks within which the state has wielded power in different countries, in different political sectors and in different periods of time. How far has public authority extended? Who have taken part in wielding public authority? How has the use of public authority been supervised and regulated? To what extent has the state had independent agency and to what extent has this agency become intertwined with other influential parties active in society?

Today, the concept of state appears self-evident and predetermined, but it is neither. In terms of its resources of authority, its rights and justifications, the state is in many ways a peerless operator but still only one among several influential social operators. Governmental power is being challenged and there are takers for its authority. The state has to justify its actions and assume its place not only in relation to parties within society, but also to parties outside the state boundaries and those that traverse these boundaries. How is this notion of state defined?

What is particularly inspiring in your field right now?

As a research subject, the state is fascinating and important due to the fact that its nature fundamentally transforms the space left for other social operators and citizens. Through the state, you can do a lot of good and a lot of harm. The state can be strong in widely differing ways. History and the present day provide an endless array of variations on the same theme.

In Finland, the state has held a strong position from a Nordic, European and global perspective. As an administrative state, Finland is historically speaking an aberration. Probably in no other country have so many histories of government ministries and various public agencies been written. The administrative state of Finland is also older than the Finnish nation state, or the democratic republic of Finland. When the constitution of independent Finland turned 40 in 1959, the Finnish government celebrated its 150th anniversary.

Under the INEQ research initiative, such questions concerning the state become questions about when and in what kinds of conditions state and public authority have been directed to systematically reduce inequality or, in other words, increase equality in society and even on the global scale – in terms of society, the economy and education.

Where and how does the topic of your research have an impact?

As a form of government, the welfare state is young. It is a considerably radical project, even revolutionary according to certain scholars, albeit in a peaceful and democratic way. Researchers focusing on inequality and equality assert that inequality has typically evened out in societies as a result of wars, natural disasters and epidemics. In this regard, the modern welfare state is a special phenomenon: an attempt at governing inequality and creating relative equality without being drawn into collective, uncontrollable disasters, from which recovery requires multiple generations. The welfare revolution has been pioneered by the Nordic countries with their models. A question of global importance is what kinds of structures, policies, situations and power relations have supported and ‘rewarded’ such activity or, respectively, curbed and sanctioned opposite actions. History cannot be repeated, but its examination illuminates trends and relations between various factors that still have significance to this day.

The history of the welfare state also demonstrates that the concept was not born out of any benevolent goodwill. It is a hard socio-political and also a significant economic choice. The welfare state has required constant give and take among its key operators. As a whole, the end result has probably never been what any single active group wished for. It has consumed time and money.

For a long time, there has been talk of states weakening due to globalisation and integration. From the perspective of history, the state has never been the all-powerful monolith occasionally suggested in modern discourse. The state has never been a tidy entity or a predetermined self-evident fact. Even less so is the welfare state whose realisation requires exceptionally broad societal support, which also makes it particularly fragile.