On Corbyn, Book-Eating and the Future of UK Political Science

Jonathan Dean, University of Leeds, reflects on the state of the discipline of political science in the wake of the surprising results of the 2017 General Election.

The story is one we have heard before. An election is looming. Pundits, commentators and academics offer their predictions and hot-takes, only to be left with egg-ridden faces when the election result defies their predictions. Curtice is, literally, the last man standing. Meanwhile, tweets are unpinned, post-hoc rationalisations are offered, and debates about data collection and polling techniques ensue.

After this most recent election, however, the situation feels a little different. Following a result unanticipated by most (except YouGov: credit where it is due), the mea culpas from commentators and British politics scholars have been coming thick and fast, reaching their improbable apotheosis when one of our number saw fit to “eat” his most recent book live on TV, a display of almost Old Testament-style contrition reconfigured for the social media age.

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In an earlier blogpost, I suggested that the UK political science community has a Corbyn problem. I stand by that view. However, the problem we face is, I would suggest, more fundamental than that a few of us (myself included) made some dodgy predictions underestimating how Corbyn’s Labour Party would fare at the ballot box. More significant, I would suggest, is the fact that few in our profession were even interested in Corbynism. Corbynism was, for many, so self-evidently misguided that it barely merited any scholarly attention or analysis. A similar fate befell other recent upswings of grassroots politicisation, such as the 2010 student movement or the movements surrounding the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. This, I argue, is symptomatic of a deeper malaise in our discipline which we urgently need to tackle if we are to avoid further reputational damage.

There are a number of complex issues at play here, but I want to highlight three in particular. The first concerns the scope of UK political science. Numerous people have pointed out that UK political science in general – and British politics scholarship in particular – remains dominated by the “Westminster model”, with its attendant assumptions about power, parties, voting behaviour etc. This in turn has implications for the composition of the discipline in terms of diversity of people and perspectives: our discipline plays host to much the same forms of white male dominance that one finds in the corridors of Westminster, while gender and race are all too often seen as outside the scope of proper political research.

But had we moved our gaze beyond Westminster-centred electoral politics to encompass, for instance, work by cultural studies scholars on the connections between youth culture and ideology, black feminists on race, gender and political solidarity, or literature on social movements and activism, we might have been better able to properly make sense of Corbynism (as well as other recent instances of grassroots politics). Our aversion to scholarly pluralism and interdisciplinarity is, I would suggest, not serving us well.

This in turn feeds into the perennial question of how and why political scientists undertake public engagement. The key problem here, much commented on and beautifully spoofed by the anonymous @ProfBritPol twitter account, is the emergence of short term punditry as a benchmark of one’s status within the profession. It seems as if a Paul the Octopus style capacity for short-term prediction is increasingly replacing deep, thoughtful scholarship as the key indicator of scholarly esteem. This only serves to sustain the incipient “laddishness” of our discipline: not only are almost all the high profile pundits men, but political science public engagement risks degenerating into a spectacle worthy of football pundits’ trying to outdo each other with their pre-match predictions.

But this turn to punditry should, perhaps, not surprise us: as sociologist Mark Carrigan has pointed out, the neoliberalisation of academia – in conjunction with the impact agenda – generates an “accelerated” culture of short-termism, in which the continuous production of short, fleeting, superficial interventions [yes, dear reader, arguably including this blogpost] takes precedence over deep, reflective and, above all, slow academic analysis.

Finally, there is the problem of objectivity. We are, I would suggest, still driven by the fantasy of the objective political scientist, unencumbered by ideological partisanship. A cursory engagement with, say, feminist or Foucault-inspired work on the complex dynamics of power, selfhood and agency should disabuse the expectant political scientist of this fantasy.

But the myth of neutrality persists: rather than have an honest discussion about how our political analyses are shaped by our ideological commitments we just pretend, in public at least, that we don’t have any. And at times we have cynically hid behind the veneer of scholarly objectivity to actively pursue an anti-Corbyn agenda, enthusiastically confirming rather than interrogating kneejerk dismissals of Corbynism in print and broadcast media. If we were more honest with ourselves, we might concede that a lot of us think that the royal road to good, robust, ideologically neutral political science scholarship passes somewhere to the left of Tony Blair and to the right of Angela Eagle.

But, as someone once asked, what is to be done? My first, admittedly only half serious suggestion, is that we collectively agree to just stop. The neoliberal imperative to be constantly “on call” with our tweets, hot takes, analyses and predictions, is not good for us. Perhaps we should agree to a one-month post-election cooling off period where we reflect, take stock, catch up on sleep, and just slow down a little.

My second suggestion is more serious. We need to broaden our horizons. We spend too much time citing work by people in our ever-narrowing subfields (who also often happen to be our drinking buddies). At a minimum, let’s all agree to read something a little outside our usual comfort zone over the summer (and, no, Ken Clarke’s new memoir doesn’t count). We also need to talk. Political science is in urgent need of a broader conversation about the nature, scope and purpose of scholarly analyses of politics. So let’s collectively try to be a bit more open with one another online, in offices, in corridors and in conferences about what we think the purpose of our “vocation” is, and how we can negotiate the difficult terrain of academic public engagement.

I know these claims are sweeping, some might say disingenuous. But after June 8th, we’ve got some serious ground to make up. If we don’t, shreds of paper in our digestive tracts are going to be the least of our problems.

Jonathan Dean is Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds. He tweets @Jonathan_M_Dean.

About psawomenpolitics

The UK Political Studies Association Women and Politics Specialist Group. Resource for researchers working on women and/or gender and for women in the PSA. The 2014 Specialist Group of the Year.
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