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Professor Srivastava: Faculty Spotlight

black and white photo of professor srivastavaFaculty Spotlight: Professor Swati Srivastava

Assistant Professor Swati Srivastava specializes in International Relations and researches global governance, especially how private actors like corporations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) interact with governments. Her research program asks three interrelated questions: (1) How is private power expressed in global politics? (2) How does global private power interact with public power? (3) How can global private power be held accountable? These questions form the basis of understanding a world where private actors organize violence, regulate markets, and influence rights alongside states.

As a co-founder of the Department of Political Science’s new Undergraduate Research Collaboratory—a program that taps undergraduate students to serve as research assistants on ongoing faculty and graduate student projects—Srivastava enjoys including undergraduates in the research experience. She notes, "I involve undergraduates in my latest research on ‘Big Tech and Political Responsibility.’ My research group of 15 undergraduates have helped construct an original database of 4,000 Facebook incidents from news data (2004-2021) and tracked over 900 Facebook-related global regulatory scrutiny and lawsuits.”

Whether teaching in the Department of Political Science or in the Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts program, Srivastava says many of the themes from her research are also central to her teaching and classroom discussions. Whatever the class, Srivastava says she challenges her students to think about “big ideas” like freedom, individuality and how systems like AI and actors like Big Tech affect their day-to-day lives.

Srivastava has published in leading International Relations journals and is working on multiple book projects. Recently, her research program has taken major strides with the publication of her article “Algorithmic Governance and the International Politics of Big Tech,” in a flagship journal Perspectives on Politics, and she further explores many of the same themes in her forthcoming book Hybrid Sovereignty in World Politics, due out with Cambridge University Press in their Cambridge Studies in International Relations series.

This new book, Srivastava explains, has to do with notions of public and private in the domain of global power. More specifically, she examines how sovereign power is constructed through hybrid public-private relations.

While words like power, authority, sovereignty, and government abound today in political discussions, these concepts have long histories of contestation and change. Often, modern political commentators since at least the 17th century have talked about state sovereignty as unquestioned and unchallenged, but this is not the whole story, says Srivastava.

In her new book, Srivastava argues that governments rule—and have ruled—in an unsteady relationship with adjuncts like lobbying firms, contracting firms, and big companies (recently big technology companies). This more complicated reality of sovereignty leads to her understanding of a tripartite “typology of hybrid relations: contractual, institutional, shadow.”

The most concerning of these in the popular imagination are the “shadow relationships.” Srivastava writes that relationships between governments and actors like Big Tech companies and NGOs can take the form of “shadow relations” because they are often informal and non-public. This demonstrates what for many is a worrying trend: the increasingly hidden role of private actors in world politics. While noting the potentially concerning implications of this phenomenon, Srivastava notes this this is not a new phenomenon and doesn’t necessarily result in a loss in traditional state power. Rather, these shadow relations challenge our traditional view of sovereign authority, revealing it to be inadequate to encompass and accurately explain the relations of governance.

The reality of hybrid sovereignty exposes a tension within the ideal of democracy as common, equal, and public rule by all. As well, it poses further challenges to other central notions of legitimacy, on both a domestic and an international scale, as, in Srivastava’s view, it influences government outcomes toward favoring a particular set of interests. As she notes in “Algorithmic Governance,” the influence of these various actors on governance and political outcomes, as well as the resulting reality of hybrid sovereignty, present “timely objects of research” and ought to receive greater focus by International Relations scholars.

Srivastava pathbreaking research brings these and other exciting issues into the classroom and research spaces.