Research Workshop 2021

December 9-10, 2021 | University of Zurich, Switzerland
Co-hosted by the Doctoral Programme Democracy Studies and DemocracyNet
Organized by Olivier Ruchet (University of Zurich, Department of Political Science) and Odile Ammann (University of Lausanne, Faculty of Law, Criminal Justice, and Public Administration)

“Vested Interests and Democracy”

with a keynote lecture by Prof. Emanuela Ceva
(University of Geneva)

The institutions and mechanisms of democratic politics make it possible for a variety of interests to be included in decision-making and law-making processes. This can happen through formal processes like public consultations and formal hearings, but also through informal contacts between interest holders/interest representatives and political decision-makers. Yet, in the past decades, the regular occurrence of corruption scandals and lobbying affairs (such as, most recently, the COVID-19 mask affair in the German Bundestag) have fueled public distrust in democratic politics. Skeptical voices have argued that contemporary democracies are broken or corrupt because politicians are subservient to a narrow circle of societal actors instead of serving the public interest. Although the complexity of modern democratic politics may justify that politicians seek input from interest groups, the potentially excessive influence of such groups raises concerns about the integrity of politics and political decision-makers. The blurred line between legitimate interests that are a necessary component of democratic politics and illegitimate (“vested”) interests that corrupt democracy and the political discourses and practices surrounding it will be at the center of this workshop.


The aim of this workshop is to explore the role of (“vested”) interests in a democracy and to highlight the manifold theoretical and empirical issues that this topic raises from the perspective of democracy studies broadly defined, such as:

  • What does an “interest” mean conceptually? To what extent does it differ from related concepts, such as “opinions” and “perspectives”? Is there such a thing as a “public interest”, the “common good” and, finally, “vested interests”? How are these various concepts defined philosophically, legally, etc.?
  • Can qualitative and quantitative empirical approaches help us operationalize and measure the aforementioned concepts? What can these approaches tell us about political decision-makers’ (“vested”) interests?
  • Who are the actors who hold and who represent interests in a democracy? How can these interests be identified? Are the interests of ordinary citizens, civil society organizations, corporate actors, trade unions, political parties, public officials, non-citizens, foreign actors, and non-human entities (e.g., animals and the environment) equally important from the perspective of democratic decision-making, or should they be weighed differently?
  • What does the critique of vested interests (e.g. corruption, lobbying, and state capture) tell us about democratic politics? What are the normative criteria that make it possible to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate interests/interest representation in democratic politics? At what stage do interests corrupt democracy?
  • What influences the success or failure of specific interest holders/interest representatives in democratic politics, e.g. in terms of agenda-setting, articulating and defending viewpoints, and gaining the support of political decision-makers? What legal and institutional mechanisms enable the inclusion or exclusion of specific interests? How does interest representation differ in democratic and non-democratic contexts?
  • What institutional arrangements can help to prevent the emergence of vested interests and to include other relevant interests in democratic politics?

This workshop aims at bringing together researchers from various disciplines (including, but not limited to, political science and political theory, law, philosophy, history, and sociology) in academic discussions about the topic of the workshop. The aim of the workshop is for early career researchers (including PhD candidates and postdoctoral researchers) to present their working papers or project proposals and to gain feedback from all participants as well as from senior scholars. Last but not least, we are delighted to announce that the workshop will also include a public keynote lecture by Prof. Emanuela Ceva (University of Geneva).


Researchers interested in participating as presenters can apply by sending an abstract of up to 500 words and a short CV to by Friday, September 10.

Researchers interested in attending the workshop without presenting can apply by sending an email to by Friday, October 1. As the number of spots is limited, the selection will be on a first come, first served basis.

Costs and Grants

The workshop is free of charge. As a matter of principle, travel and accommodation are at the expense of participants. We will do our best to cover the travel and accommodation costs of a small number of participants who cannot get funding via their institution. Please contact us as soon as possible if you would require such funding.