Agenda 2015

by Marc Geddes

In February, my PhD thesis was accepted by the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield which has served as a catalyst for me to think about the broader themes of my research interests. Is there a connection between my undergraduate dissertation I wrote two years ago on historiography with my MA dissertation and PhD project on parliamentary oversight of public appointments? There is a splinter of thought within me that asks: what is the aim of all this? So, over the past three months, I have kept with me an electronic list – at all times – in which I jot down any question or thought that may come into my head regarding politics, philosophy or even culture more broadly. The list of questions now spans two sides of A4. They encompass everything from ‘what makes effective government?’ to ‘what is the relationship between power and knowledge?’. I have recently looked over the list in an attempt to come up with some kind of ‘grand theme’. What is the ultimate question that I want to answer? Where is my research taking me? Obviously there wasn’t a single, overarching key word or question that came out of any of this. However, I do believe that I have, in a way, managed to thematise certain issues, concepts and ideas:

  • The Political. What makes some things political? Why do we uproar about certain subjects yet acquiescent about others? What makes something contested? What is politics? What is the role of ideas, philosophy, economics and other topics in politics? What is the aim of politics?
  • Making the State. What is the role of the state? What makes governance effective and legitimate? Does delegation to public bodies help or hinder government? What is governance’s relationship to issues of democracy and representation? What is it’s relationship to nationalism, identity, citizenship and sovereignty?
  • Discipline, Power and Control. Why do people follow rules, submit to them, and accept authority? Why do we comply to society? What disciplines us? Are there such things as human rights, and are these universal? Who holds power, and what is its relationship to knowledge?
  • The Public. What is the role of theory, scholars and academics in the public sphere? Should academics become intellectuals? Does the ivory tower exist? What makes research relevant, and to whom? Who is the public and the public interest? Does the public even exist?
  • The Self. Do we just exist? Why do we identify with a slab of land called ‘Britain’ or ‘America’ or ‘Russia’? What is the purpose of the ‘self’? Are we autonomous agents or the product of history? How are we ‘produced’? Do we have free will? Rights? Responsibilities? Who distinguishes between them?

Quite clearly there are some linkages between these themes – particularly the political and the self. All are inter-related in the sense that answers to each question will have consequences for the other themes. However, is there anything that unites these themes, a question that possibly pervades them? It is difficult to put into words, but I somehow strongly believe that there is something which unites this – the study of the conduct of conduct; the will to control.

I have recently stumbled across the word ‘statecraft’ in relation to an article about the nature of the British state in the twenty-first century – but it turns out that this word is strongly associated with power in international relations. [1] I’ve moved on, and even more recently read up on the term ‘governmentality’. [2] This word is a concept developed by Michel Foucault by way of describing the ‘art of government’. Government, by the way, is used by Foucault in its fullest possible way, i.e., government signified problems of self-control, guidance for the family and for children, management of the household, directing the soul, and so on. Government is the conduct of conduct. [3] I believe that this is the broadest conceivable way in which I can define my own research. Axiomatically, I have a lot more research to do to fully understand this concept – or that of statecraft as an alternative – but this forms the crux of my research agenda.

So, by way of a summary – where is my research going? My undergraduate degree looked at the way in which knowledge was used, to explore the structure-agency paradigm by including the idea of truth. At Masters level, my research took on a fundamentally different approach – focusing squarely (almost exclusively) on the idea of governance that came about in the 1980s onwards, and particularly associated with delegation and public bodies; the hollowing out of the state. My MA dissertation will continue to focus on this by looking at the ways in which democracy, accountability and power issues intersect with parliamentary oversight of public appointments. My PhD will build on this, but – I hope – will also make broader inferences about the nature of the political and the idea of ‘making the state’. Understanding the modern state, understanding governance, and understanding the public’s role with it – that seems to be the purpose of my PhD. From then? Who knows.

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[1] This has perplexed me, because I had come to believe that the word originates from: state (organised political community) + craft (skilled work or profession). In other words, statecraft was the idea of managing the political community, of creating – of crafting – the state.

[2] M. Foucault (1991) ‘Governmentality’ (trans. R. Braidotti) in C. Gordon, G. Burchell and P. Miller (eds.) The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp.87-104.

[3] M. Foucault (2010) The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France 1982-1983, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

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