Reflections on ‘The next ten years – and beyond’: Convergence or divergence in the study of politics, international relations and international development?

Blog post by Dr. Lata Narayanaswamy, POLIS

How do social scientists involved in multifarious research agendas negotiate disciplinary boundaries? How might we enable more effective collaboration between diverse and multi-level discourses and practice? How do we achieve shared aims of elevating social science understanding and engagement whilst simultaneously responding to the objectives set out in the Higher Education Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise?

These were some of the concerns that animated a recent event hosted by The School of Politics and International Studies (POLIS) at the University of Leeds to celebrate the re-opening of the Social Sciences Building after an extensive refurbishment. The heads of the Development Studies Association (DSA), the Political Studies Association (PSA) and the British International Studies Association (BISA) were all invited to share their reflections and insights on the possibilities and challenges their disciplines would confront over the next 10 years. It is the first time that the heads of these three associations have shared a platform, offering a unique opportunity to establish the basis for a productive, interdisciplinary dialogue.

In reflecting on the insights shared by each speaker, what is clear is that the answers to the questions set out above represent both opportunities and challenges. Perhaps most strikingly, what became clear by the end of all of the talks is that these disciplines have (and should!) be more critically engaged in recognizing and exploiting our commonalities rather than reinforcing our differences.

Professor Matt Flinders, Chair of the PSA, Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, suggested that, as social scientists, we need to get better at articulating why the study of Politics is important, alongside being more proactive in getting the message out. He suggested greater engagement with policymakers and the media, alongside more involvement with what he called ‘the educational pipeline’. This, he argued, meant engaging with young people about the relevance of Politics to everyday life, or might consist of providing input into how Politics is taught at GCSE or ‘A’ Level. The unique forum provided by the event, he suggested, established an opportunity for us to think more carefully and critically about interdisciplinary engagement, and how we might come together collectively to tackle the challenges he set out.

Professor Nicola Phillips, Chair of BISA and Head of the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield, chose to use her platform to critically assess the meaning of ‘International Relations’ (IR), suggesting that perhaps the use of the term ‘international’ was in itself a misnomer, insofar as the critical focus tends towards Western and/or advanced capitalist states. Somewhere along the line, she argued, the study of the rest of the world was left to the discipline of Development Studies. She too was hopeful for the prospects of collaboration, but suggested that siloed ways of thinking within the discipline itself needed to be tackled head on with a collective shift in thinking. In my view she shared the anecdote of the day, crystalising the disincentives for undertaking interdisciplinary work. Having submitted an article that used Brazil as a case study to a well-recognised, albeit unnamed, IR journal, she said she had received the shortest feedback from a blind peer-reviewer in the history of her career. The reviewer, she said, had suggested that as the country focus was Brazil, the article was perhaps better-suited to a development studies journal!

In the final talk of the afternoon, Professor David Hulme, President of the DSA and CEO of the Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre (ESID) at the University of Manchester, suggested that one of the key cleavages between the disciplines is evidenced in the relative weight given to discourse versus practice. Development studies, he argued, has always been engaged with generating understanding for the purposes of directly influencing and indeed shaping practice and outcomes. The challenges that the world faces, including climate change, tackling inequality, urbanization and governance, would be more effectively addressed through greater collaboration between the disciplines in terms of theorizing about the deeper processes that underpin global, national and local level challenges.

In laying out what all the speakers identified as key disciplinary challenges of the next ten years, there was overwhelming agreement about the obstacles posed by narrow REF criteria and a target-driven culture in HE in the UK at the moment that prevented ‘thinking outside the box’, ‘broadening the discipline’ or ‘interdisciplinary theorizing about global challenges’. We urgently need a common language in which to express the challenges that these disciplines face, which might begin by working together beyond the narrow prescriptions of REF criteria alongside nurturing what Professor Flinders called ‘the creative rebels’ in each discipline, thereby ensuring the continued relevance of social science to the wider world.