Standing room only at 60th anniversary conference

Since its inception in 1950, the Political Studies Association has seen a surge in interest in the discipline, says treasurer John Benyon

March 29, 2010

The Political Studies Association has come a long way since its first conference in March 1950, when around 50 academics from 12 universities met at the London School of Economics.

Back then, the subject was small, with teaching and research focusing on the traditional areas of political theory and philosophy, British and foreign politics, public administration and international relations.

But the PSA’s 60th annual conference, which starts today (29 March), is the largest ever, with 250 panels and 800 papers. It boasts 1,080 participants from 51 different countries, ranging from Argentina and Australia to India, Japan and Ukraine.

In the association’s early days it must have seemed unlikely that political studies would develop in the way that it has. Today, there are at least 1,900 staff in more than 90 departments and the membership of the Political Studies Association has increased eighteen-fold over its 60 years. In the early 1950s there were about 100 members. This rose to 600 in 1975 and to 930 in 1999. The current membership is 1,780, including graduate students.

Undergraduate numbers have also increased considerably, particularly in the past 10 years. Figures from Ucas show that there were 14,946 applications to study politics in 2000 and this had nearly doubled to 29,258 by 2009. In 2000 there were 2,741 acceptances and by 2009 that had risen by 90 per cent to 5,210. Postgraduate numbers have also risen apace.

Among the reasons put forward to explain the increasing popularity of political studies are the impact of the events of 11 September 2001, terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, globalisation, democratisation, environmentalism, devolution, growing inequality and injustice. Many politics departments are able to offer optional courses on an array of fascinating subject areas, attracting good students who want to specialise.

Another factor may be the good employability record of politics graduates reported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Many employers value the skills acquired by politics students, such as the collection and analysis of data, critical evaluation of information and arguments and effective communication.

Research in political studies is also flourishing. In 2007 the Economic and Social Research Council’s international benchmarking review of UK politics and international studies produced a highly positive report. Drawing attention to the discipline’s diversity in approaches and methods, the review found great strengths in sub-disciplines including political theory, electoral studies, international studies, European Union studies, political economy, public policy and administration and comparative and certain area studies. The review found there was an under-representation of women and ethnic minorities in the discipline but overall it was in “robust good health”.

The growth and strength of the discipline is reflected in the fortunes of the PSA itself. Its income in 2009 was nearly £850,000 and its reserves are approaching £1 million. Membership and activities have increased greatly and it has just launched Political Insight – its fifth journal.

The association’s annual awards ceremony is a major event, we run an annual lecture organised jointly with the Hansard Society, and the PSA makes frequent representations to national bodies and plays a key advocacy role on behalf of the discipline.

Reflecting the diversity of research interests, the association has more than 40 specialist research groups. These cover a wide variety of topics such as anarchism, art and politics, British idealism, sport and politics, security and intelligence and state theory. There are specialist groups on the politics of various other countries and regions and political leadership, marketing and representation on women and politics and elections, public opinion and parties. The association is also developing reciprocal relationships with kindred bodies elsewhere, including Brazil, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.

As it celebrates its diamond jubilee, the Political Studies Association finds itself in a virtuous circle of higher income, growing activities, additional publications, increased professionalism, better international links, a heightened reputation and profile and a rising membership.

Like the PSA, the study of politics is also in rude health in the United Kingdom. Applications to study for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees are rising each year and the excellence of UK politics research, and its relevance and impact, are widely acknowledged in the UK and around the world. It is difficult to disagree with the 2007 view of the ESRC’s international panel that political studies “has a very bright future indeed in the UK”.

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