Stockholm university

Sara EkströmResearcher

About me

PhD in History of Ideas.


I defended my dissertation Governing Through Emotions. Art of Government in three Gustavian Projects at Stockholm University 26 May 2023. The doctoral thesis deals with ideas about political government and human nature that were actualised in the late 18th century. Three projects launched by King Gustav III are examined: the Order of Vasa (1772), the National Dress (1778) and the Swedish Academy (1786). Ideas and discussions on technologies of government and subject formation - which can be called art of government - are studied. The analysis is inspired by Michel Foucault's concept of governmentality and by the research fields of History of Emotion and National Identity. The thesis addresses how emotions and desires were problematised. Which human driving forces should be encouraged? Which should be discouraged? And why? How? Thus, it examines how a sovereign in the late 18th century could pick up elements that can be characterised as liberal in the art of government. But it is also possible to see how other, older, ideas about how human nature functioned and should best be governed existed in parallel.


Areas of interest

The Gustavian era, Governmentality, History of Emotions, National Identiry


A selection from Stockholm University publication database

  • Att styra genom känslor: Regeringskonst i tre gustavianska projekt

    2023. Sara Ekström.

    Thesis (Doc)

    The eighteenth century is sometimes referred to as the Age of Sentiment. Emotions were attributed great importance, both as driving forces for human behaviour, and as a moral compass. They were also important in political rule. This also pertains to Sweden and the reign of Gustav III. Gustav (1746–1792) became king in 1771. One year later, in 1772, he staged a coup d’état, reintroducing a strong royal power after almost half a century of parliamentary rule. Two decades later he was assassinated by political opponents. 

    This dissertation analyses ideas of government and human nature that were actualized in this late eighteenth-century context. More specifically, it examines discussions about technologies of government and subject formation in relation to three royal projects, launched in different periods of the reign of Gustav III: the Order of Vasa (1772), the National Dress (1778), and the Swedish Academy (1786). In the analysis, I am inspired by Michel Foucault's concept of governmentality. I particularly draw on Foucault’s description of a historically specific breakthrough – starting in the mid-eighteenth century ­– for a type of exercise of power that can be called liberal. I also draw on the research fields of History of Emotions and National Identity. 

    In the discussions surrounding the three projects, one can see expressions of a type of logic of government that I, based on Foucauldian theory, call liberal. By this I mean that the population was regarded as constituted by subjects whose self-interested driving forces in the form of emotions and desires could be put into play – activated and channelled by the state in order to achieve various objectives. As long as these goals were perceived as beneficial for the society, the inherent morality of people’s desires was considered of less importance. However, other and older ideas of the best way of governing self-interested emotions and desires, such as what I call virtue-oriented politics of emotion, were also at play, interfering with the new, “liberal” ideas in various ways. 

    In claiming that Gustav III’s politics of emotions can to some extent be characterized as liberal, I do not imply that the king had a liberal worldview or that he believed that society should be structured in an egalitarian manner. However, this dissertation argues that Gustav III and some of the people surrounding him experimented with government according to a liberal logic. I claim that the king made use of enlightenment ideas not only as inspiration for reforms or as means of branding himself as an enlightened monarch, but also as tools for theorizing about effective governance of the population. This shift in focus complicates the picture of the emergence of liberal government in Sweden. My examples show that liberal government may sometimes be preferred purely on the basis of the idea that it is effective, and on that basis even an eighteenth-century sovereign could experiment with it. This dissertation thus contributes to a more complex picture of the rule of Gustav III, as well as to a refined understanding of the history of liberal government.

    Read more about Att styra genom känslor
  • Att styra som en filosof: Gustav III:s känslopolitik genom Gustav Vasa-skulpturens invigning

    2022. Sara Ekström. Lychnos, 175-191


    In the eighteenth century, notions of emotions played an important role in philosophy, politics and social life. This article examines the usage of emotions in politics by analysing king Gustav III's (1771–1792) plan for the inauguration of the sculpture of king Gustav Vasa outside of the House of Nobility in Stockholm. The plan was inspired by a letter from the French physiocrat Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours to Gustav III's friend and old chief tutor Carl Fredrik Scheffer, transmitted to the king by Scheffer. By employing theories from the field of history of emotions, especially Ute Frevert's Gefühlspolitik (2012), the article sheds light on aspects of Gustav III's government. When describing the effects of imagination and emotional movement among the participants of the inauguration, Gustav III compared humans to machines, probably inspired by the French materialists. The king aimed to enhance the emotions of the participants of the celebration through music, singing, dancing and eloquence. The object was to inspire love for the fatherland and hatred for the "foreign yoke", represented by Gustav Vasa's fight against the Danish king 200 years earlier. This planned and calculated usage of emotions like sympathy and enthusiasm indicate inspiration from enlightenment philosophy to use and canalize aspects of human nature to lead towards the designated objects of government.

    Read more about Att styra som en filosof

Show all publications by Sara Ekström at Stockholm University