Popular (political) science

secondhand-politics-booksAs many of you are probably aware by now, I’m in the middle of doing an MA course in Politics at the University of Essex‘s Department of Government. One of the reasons I wanted to do the course is that after years of being involved in practical politics, I wanted to go back and look at the academic side of it once more, not least because there’ve been some dramatic changes in it since I finished my first degree twenty years ago.

One thing that I have discovered since returning to studying is that there’s a huge difference in the way people talk and think about politics inside and outside academia. There’s a huge amount of information, concepts and theories being propagated and discussed within academic politics that barely permeates the world of conventional politics.

To be clear, I’m not saying that anyone involved in politics needs to be forced into a lecture theatre to have the full intricacies of it explained to them in gory detail, just in case someone on the doorstep wants to engage them in a debate about the differences between Burke and Mill. However, I do feel that there are plenty of people out there who like to discuss politics in more depth – whether they’re actively involved in it or not – but are missing out because there are interesting concepts within the field that aren’t widely known outside academia.

(I have a feeling that this may be something unique to politics as a field because there’s so little overlap between academics and media ‘experts’ in the field, though I could be wrong on that. This cartoon, however, is relevant to that debate.)

Of course, some of this is because a lot of the interesting academic work is locked away behind very expensive doors. For instance, in a post last week I talked about Katz and Mair’s theory of cartel parties, and if you want to read the paper that comes from you’ll have to subscribe to Party Politics. Or, I think discussions about voting in Britain would be much more informative if people had read books like Denver, Carman and Johns Elections and Voters in Britain but it’s £24 a copy and not commonly found in non-academic libraries. However, this same barrier applies in other fields too, but the information still gets out there because there are people who will report it, summarize it and popularize it.

Unfortunately in politics – and particularly British politics – that rarely happens. Occasionally a commentator will mention academic studies, but usually in the context of a quantitative study providing support for whatever their argument is that week but there’s rarely any deeper analysis going on. (Even if I don’t always agree with his conclusions, Peter Oborne is a rare exception) Our political commentary is rarely about deeper issues or helping people understand what’s going on and why, but more about short-term Westminster village gossip.

For instance, much political commentary is based on ideas from Downs’ Economic Theory Of Democracy (particularly that the only dimension of any importance is the left-right one) without acknowledging any of the debate, critiques, revisions and additions that theory has gone through over the years. There’s a whole field of ideas out there that’s not being included in the way politics is reported and talked about, which is perhaps another symptom of why it’s becoming closed off and of rapidly lessening interest to many people.

So, what I’m wondering is, in an attempt to counter this drought of information, would people be interested in an occasional (possibly very occasional, depending on the time it takes) series of posts on different areas of academic political studies and political science? I think it’d be interesting to bring some of these ideas out to try and broaden the political debate beyond who’s in and who’s out in any particular week, and it might inspire some interesting debate. If you would be interested, let me know, and also if there are any areas you want to know more about.

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