On the campaign trail with political studies

April 9, 1999

As students turn away from political studies, Huw Richards reports on a subject's attempts to respond to a generation disillusioned with politicians

What's in a title? On the other side of the Atlantic, academic practitioners of politics belong to the American Political Science Association. On this side they join the Political Studies Association.

So when Matthew Holden, president of the APSA, was issued on his visit this month to the PSA conference in Nottingham with a badge associating him with the American Political Studies Association, his reaction was a simple one. The offending badge received a firm handwritten correction.

The difference is more than mere semantics. It reflects differences in outlook and aspiration. Holden was happy to justify the science element to The THES: "Just as much as a natural scientist, our aim is to find the means of establishing explanations that hold constant. You expect circumstances to change, but not explanations. The science is a serious concept, although we're far from attaining it."

The US, he says, is stronger on empirical than theoretical political research, with practitioners "more self-conscious methodologically" than their British counterparts.

Even so, politics as a degree subject appears to be out of fashion at undergraduate level on both sides of the Atlantic. Holden told the conference that the downturn in US applications reflects "a generation that evaluates the world in a more personal way".

And John Gibbins of Teesside University, who delivered a paper on the future of political studies in the UK, pointed to falling demand for single-honours politics in this country too, although he found compensations elsewhere: "Where politics is offered as a major or a minor component alongside another discipline, it is still very buoyant."

Arguing from a postmodernist perspective, Gibbins - who in 1980 helped found the journal Theory, Culture and Society - told the conference that the subject's priority should be to address a fragmented society. "Structures, the economy, professions and politics are fragmenting. New allegiances and alliances are being formed. We have to ask ourselves what impact that has on political studies, and how we should organise ourselves to deal with it."

Far from seeking universal answers, political studies should emphasise diversity: "We need to support a liberal, democratic culture, and I wonder if we do this as well as we should. If our society recognises diversity, plurality and difference, we can't hold on to a homogeneous liberal culture."

Politics departments should be looking to deprofessionalise, to broaden their agendas beyond MPs and study of the Houses of Parliament to bring in excluded groups. Departments should develop networks on a local basis - tapping into campaigns such as the group campaigning against electricity pylons on Teesside - and internationally, he said.

Holden, who was in the audience, was not convinced that politics could hold its own against other disciplines, particularly in competition for research grants, on this basis. He said: "I find it hard to imagine a structure in which completely new groups could learn how to operate within political science with competence and credibility. He may be right and I might be wrong, and there's certainly nothing wrong with having the debate."

Nevertheless, Holden enjoyed the comparatively modest size of the British conference, finding 500 academics "a more human scale" than the thousands who crowd the corridors of Hilton and Marriott hotels when the APSA has its annual September bash.

The PSA paraded a new journal, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, a new honorary vice-president, Mo Mowlam (a former politics lecturer), and a new peer who is also a working professor, Philip Norton of Hull University.

The new journal, says PSA chairman Ian Forbes, will reflect the current strength of British political science. "We set it up because the editor of (the existing journal) Political Studies said he was getting twice as many first-class submissions as he could use. It will be less mathematical than the American Political Science Review and will reflect the particular strength of British research, which is both theoretically confident and relevant to policy."

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