Department of Comparative Politics

With democracy in danger, can activists fight back? Scholar studies civil society, regional resistance in Africa

SAMPOL’s newest graduate researcher is intrigued by “the many-headed creature that is civil society.”

Phd candidate
Sampol's new PhD Candidate will research how civil society groups operate in illiberal regimes.
Mariana Q. Rød

Main content

“We place a lot of value and faith, not to say resources, in the ‘civil society’ component of politics,” says Lisa-Marie Selvik.

“However, we don’t know enough about it. I want to shed more light on how national activist groups maneuver in the different venues they have for impacting national politics, in particular when national governments are trying to lessen their impact and space at home.”

Selvik is particularly curious how African civil-society groups, squeezed by illiberal regimes, are mustering resistance by organizing at the regional level.

In this manner, wonders Selvik, can activists “counter-mobilize against government clampdowns on what are understood as core democratic freedoms, such as freedom of association and assembly, the right to vote and run for office, the right to information and expression, and so on?”

Selvik’s Ph.D. is part of the project “Understanding the backlash against democracy,” also known as the “Breaking BAD” project. That project is led by SAMPOL professor Lise Ranker, who, along with Kendra Dupuy of the Christian Michelsen Institute, is Selvik’s supervisor.     

Selvik is no newcomer to the study of activism in the developing world. For the past year and a half she was a researcher at CMI, where, among other things, she did fieldwork on truth commissions in Haiti and examined abortion- and bodily-integrity rights in Tunisia.

Before that, Selvik completed her M.A. thesis on Tunisia’s struggle to craft a constitution in the wake of Arab Spring. The  process was ultimately successful, she says, having been facilitated by Tunisian civil-society organizations. These groups won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts – which, says Selvik, “made it very easy to get interviews for a Norwegian student, as it happened during the month I was in Tunisia to do fieldwork.”

Selvik is originally from Oslo but spent much of her childhood in the small eastern Norway city of Hamar – “so I like to claim both an Oslo and ‘Hamarsing’ identity.” She earned both her B.A. and M.A. at the University of Oslo, with stints at Sciences Po in Paris and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.

The decision to come to SAMPOL was easy. “I applied mainly because of the research environment, but also because I wanted to be part of an education institution,” she says.

“There are several ties between CMI and SAMPOL – ‘Breaking BAD’ is a good example – and I knew I’d be working with a lot of great people. In addition, I knew I’d get to be a part of a very good educational institution, which I’m very excited about. I think it’s very valuable for both the students and the researchers to stay connected; the students can see the real-life implications of political science, and researchers have to explain things in an understandable way, which is a good exercise for everyone, at all stages of their career.”

In her free time, Selvik volunteers at Bergen’s Centre for Law and Social Transformation, where she is the pilot for two units, Democracy & Law and Transitional Justice & Legal Empowerment. 

She also enjoys camping, diving and kayaking. “I think it’s good to find a balance between one’s job and private life, so I’m looking to my hobbies to keep me sane for these four years,” says Selvik. “It’s surprisingly calming to either float on top of the water, or to be 18 meters under the surface.”