Why we ... need to promote the understanding of politics

November 17, 2000

Political studies have come a long way in the past 50 years. When the Political Studies Association was founded, then chairman Norman Chester, circulated a letter that was a masterpiece of limited horizons, promising "not to embark immediately on any ambitious functions or projects".

But it was a timely birth, coinciding with increasing interest in the study of politics and prompted by an array of questions about the cold war, renewing democratic institutions, labour relations, regulation of personal morality and the future of Europe. Gradually new chairs, departments and courses in political studies were established across higher education.

The subject of political studies, as well as PSA membership, has broadened over the years to include different institutions and actors, political ideas and philosophies, constitutions and processes, public policy, international relations, the environment and political behaviour, including the study of elections - much in the news this week - and why people vote as they do.

As part of the PSA's golden jubilee celebrations, special awards are being presented next week to outstanding academics, politicians and opinion formers. A book, British Political Science: Fifty Years of Political Studies, has also been published by the PSA and Blackwell Publishers.

But why is there a need for a body to promote politics? Political studies has been defined as "a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles". Disentangling interests from principles in the study of politics demands skills much in demand by employers. It also sharpens students' critical thinking and gives them the tools to make decisions on the basis of conflicting viewpoints - the skills needed for effective management.

Political studies is also an essential element in debates about the relationship between citizens and the state. Citizenship education in schools will bring the teaching of politics more into the mainstream of the UK education process than it has ever been.

At the same time, the demands for, and impact of, research by politics academics have grown greatly. In 1975, Norman Chester grumbled that "our professional services are not greatly in demand". They are now. Demand by government for research into the effects of policy changes has grown since the 1980s. As a result, new ideas and perspectives have been opened up, for example, in areas such as constitutional reform, where political scientists are both contributing to policy and evaluating its effect.

The excellence of politics teaching and research in the UK is widely recognised overseas and this deserves to be acknowledged. We hope the PSA's ceremony of awards or "Laskis", which commemorate the work of Harold Laski, a pioneer "citizenship educator", will contribute to that recognition.

John Benyon Profesor of political studies at the University of Leicester and treasurer of the Political Studies Association

Charles Jeffery Professor of German politics at the University of Birmingham and secretary of the PSA 50th anniversary awards jury

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