Ode to PSI

Ode to PSI

In the brave new world—excuse the pun—of the School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies (PPL) it can be easy sometimes to lose a sense of what Politics at UEA is all about and the great academic traditions of Political, Social and International Studies (PSI).

In this posting I want to flag up to the current politics community here at UEA the great intellectual past and present we have to be proud of and build on.

Among the great PSI traditions are world leading scholarship—a phrase thrown around a lot by universities but profoundly deserved in this case—on media and politics. This is encapsulated in the work of John Street and his collaboration with many colleagues, current and departed (institutionally speaking), over decades. Go ahead and ask John about the links between music and politics, and about celebrity politicians (Trump the rock star).

Another is superb work on public policy. Think of the inimitable John Greenaway’s obsession with alcohol… policy (sorry John!). This torch has been passed on to yet another of PSI’s Johns… Turnpenny. Every day JT tries to save the planet not merely by cycling to work but also by attempting to better understand effective climate change narratives and policy. No doubt PSI’s resident philosopher, Michael Frazer, will happily point out that these are not mutual exclusive activities, albeit most safely carried out sequentially rather than simultaneously.

Another is work in political theory and the history of political thought. Work in this area at UEA can be traced back through our former colleagues and some of the giants of their profession, such as Albert Weale, David Miller, Richard Bellamy and of course the irreplaceable Barbara Goodwin. Her work on the idea that justice can be constituted by the use of lotteries remains one of the most important recent contributions to our understanding of what justice is. Students interesting in knowing more can take a module on distributive justice in their third year.

Yet another tradition is changing the world: this sounds grand but what it actually means can be best illustrated by the work of Toby James. His scholarship on electoral reform is impacting actual electoral reform both in the UK and in Africa as we speak. Students who want to make a splash (figuratively) in parliament can take a module that enables them to do just that, organised by Eitan Tzelgov. So much for ivory towers!

I also wanted to take the opportunity to point to a third great PSI tradition. It is multidisciplinary work in international relations.

Surely the outstanding example here is Martin Hollis and Steve Smith’s book, Explaining and Understanding International Relations. It tells us that understanding the meanings of political events and international relations is every bit as important as explaining what caused them.

It is a reminder not merely of the great traditions of PSI but also the power of interdisciplinarity. It was a product of the days when politics at UEA was part of a School called SOC, which included social scientists of various stripes. Then staff offices in the Arts faculty were jumbled together like a pack of very brainy Skittles (I’m told sugar is good for thinking!).


Then there is Lee Marsden and Heather Savigny’s book, Doing Political Science and International Relations. There is no better roadmap for our current Politics and IR students on how to do justice to both disciplines at once.

Finally, let me point to a new example in this tradition (what use is a blog without at least some self-advertising!) It is a book published this month by colleagues—and don’t tell anyone this but also husband and wife team—Alexander Brown and Adriana Sinclair, with the snappy title, The Politics of Hate Speech Laws.

The book examines the complex relationship between politics, hate speech and hate speech regulation, domestic and international. How do political contexts shape understandings of what hate speech is and how to deal with it? Why does Donald Trump use hate speech and should we care? Should the use of hate speech by political figures be protected by parliamentary privilege? Why do international hate speech laws emerge and do they matter? What makes countries like Japan finally fall into line with the rest of the world and ban hate speech? How do you solve a problem like America?

These are just some of the questions raised in the book. And who knows you might even bump into the authors in the PSI corridor one day and ask them if they actually managed to answer any of them. They will probably try to tell you that they did, but that they couldn’t have done it without the help of scores of colleagues and students in PSI over the past few years. Don’t forget that when you take a module like International Relations Theory (UG) or Free Speech (PG) you are not merely being taught subjects; you are participating in research collaboration with your lecturer. And that’s a tradition we can all be immensely proud of in PSI.

So what’s next?

Dr. Alex Brown is Reader in Political and Legal Theory at the University of East Anglia, and author of A Theory of Legitimate Expectations for Public Administration, a new release from Oxford University Press.

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