Event: Social Science and the #DigitalWorld (May 21st)

King’s Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Centre (KISS-DTC) Regulation Cluster
‘Social Science and the #DigitalWorld’
  • Thursday 21 May 2015, 13.00 – 15.30
  • Anatomy Museum, King’s College London, Strand Campus, London WC2R 2LS
Social Science and the #Digital World
Has the #DigitalWorld killed the academic expert? If academics don’t engage with the #DigitalWorld as celebrities do, have they diminished their role in political and policy debates? Are these questions even important?



Ewan Ferlie, Professor of Public Services Management, Department of Management, King’s College London. Author of Making Wicked Problems Governable? Hater of social media.

Mike Hulme, Professor of Climate and Culture, Department of Geography, King’s College London. Author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change. Curious about social media.

Cassie Werber, Reporter for Quartz and formerly for The Wall Street Journal. Co-organiser: Hacks Hackers London. Digital journalist.

FORMAT: 20 minute talks by each speaker, then 30 minute drinks/nibbles, then 60 minute discussion.

Please RSVP at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/social-science-and-the-digitalworld-tickets-16895062587.

My review of Arthur Melzer’s new Straussian book on esotericism

Here is a pre-publication version of my review of Arthur Melzer’s Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (Chicago, 2014).

MelzerBookMelzer’s book is the best defence of Straussian esoteric interpretation yet written. It’s more plausible than anything Strauss wrote, in my view. But Melzer overinterprets or overlooks evidence, and does not provide support for some of Strauss’s most questionable esoteric techniques. He only addresses weak criticisms of Strauss, ignoring writers like John Pocock and George Klosko (and me), and he sometimes contrasts Straussian interpretations with caricatures of other approaches.

So, Straussians should not think that this book proves Strauss was right. Nor should critics of Strauss claim that no one wrote esoterically. In short, everyone interested in esoteric writing should read this book. Melzer’s online appendix is also a wonderful resource, collating comments about esoteric writing throughout history.

N.B. The final version of my review – with tiny corrections to be made – will appear in Perspectives on Political Science later this year. Melzer will respond in the same issue, or another issue.

My review of Sharon Lloyd, ed., ‘Hobbes Today’

The journal History of Political Thought has published my pretty critical review of Sharon Lloyd’s edited book Hobbes Today (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

HobbesTodayReviewing this book led me to write a paper on how (not) to use history of political thought for contemporary purposes (see here). While reading the book, I felt that some chapters used Hobbes well, some needed to make changes, and some did not convince at all. More generally, many authors seemed too keen to claim that Hobbes is still relevant. Instead of trying to show that Hobbes is relevant today, authors needed to test this claim – to ask how relevant he is. That would have allowed a more nuanced analysis of Hobbes’s contemporary relevance. The current book simply fails to convince – or so I argue in my review.

Why hung parliaments are now much likelier than before

This will be my only blog post on the forthcoming UK election.votelogo2

Although most people now know me as a political theorist, specialising on the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, I started my career as a quantitative political scientist, studying the decline of the British electoral system and how votes are turned into seats. Why did the Conservatives only have a 21-seat Commons majority in 1992 when they led Labour by 8 percentage points in votes, while Labour’s 9-point lead in 2001 gave them a 167-seat majority?

Unravelling the different factors here is incredibly complicated – far more so than you might think. I produced the only method which estimated these different components at the actual election result; everyone else computed them under hypothetical conditions, sometimes implausible ones. For more details, see my 2004 article in the journal Electoral Studies, or for a simpler version, pp. 234-7 of my 2008 chapter in Robert Hazell, ed., Constitutional Futures Revisited (Palgrave Macmillan).

One key contribution was to show, for the first time, that the key influence on hung parliaments was the number of minor-party seats. This might seem obvious, but at the time, the dominant explanation was the decline of the so-called ‘cube law': first-past-the-post should magnify a small lead in votes into a larger lead in seats, but the amount of magnification had shrunk over time. I showed, however, that this effect was trivial compared to the impact of minor-party seats. My equation was:


which has an intuitive explanation: if minor parties win no seats, a fairly small lead in votes will be magnified into a secure majority, but the more seats minor parties win, the larger a party’s lead must be to get a secure majority, which thus becomes harder and harder. I needed to make a lot of simplifying assumptions to get this far, but the very rough estimate was that there is approximately a one-in-four chance of a hung parliament, and a one-in-three chance of a government with a majority of under 25 seats.

Again, I was the first person to make this calculation directly rather than (for example) making inferences about what past results might hold for the future. One journalist recently Tweeted about the unlikelihood of hung parliaments, based on election results since 1945. But in the early post-war period, minor parties won almost no seats. It’s a different world now.

OK, enough of modernity: back to Hobbes.




Empowering students to be critical

Students often struggle to criticise what they read: many feel that they are not qualified to do so, or not knowledgeable enough.

I try to empower my students to be more critical. Yesterday, I sought to plant this intuition by using the analogy of Hobbes’s state of nature, where the weakest can kill the strongest while they sleep. So too with essays: even students with little experience or knowledge can criticise what they read, because even the cleverest writers leave gaps in their defences.

Killed in his shleep

Killed in his shleep

Hobbes himself recognises this: most ordinary people can spot some errors of reasoning (Elements of Law chapter 5), and even ‘the ablest’ can draw ‘false conclusions’ (Leviathan chapter 5). Hobbes, indeed, is one of the ablest at producing false conclusions!

Now obviously, it doesn’t go far enough simply to give students this intuition – that brilliant scholarship can be criticised, just as strong people can be killed in their sleep. We should also show students how to do this, and give examples of good and bad practice. But hopefully the above analogy will help to give some students more confidence to be critical.


How (Not) To Draw Contemporary Insights From The History of Political Thought

I’m giving a talk this Wednesday (25 February, 5.15 – 6.45 pm) at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU (Large Conference Room, Senate House, north block).


How (Not) To Draw Contemporary Insights From The History of Political Thought

Abstract: We lack methodological principles for how to draw contemporary insights from historical texts. As a result, many efforts to do so have failed – more than most people realise. One key principle is of course to get historical authors right. We can distinguish here between reading them accurately, and improving their ideas. Doing this can help debunk parochial contemporary explanations, it can help us ask new questions, and can even suggest new answers. The second main principle is to get contemporary authors and issues right. This is where scholars err most. Some scholars fail to demonstrate a gap in the literature, construct sweeping simplifications of the contemporary picture, misread contemporary authors, or base their critiques on outmoded ideas. A particular concern is a historical version of the naturalistic fallacy, where instead of moving from is to ought, scholars move from was to ought. Overall, I suggest, some of the boldest claims for the contemporary value of history of political thought come from scholars whose own contemporary insights are far less convincing than they think. A less disdainful approach to contemporary political theory and philosophy is vital.


Rawls without glasses

Rawls without glassesI just found this unusual picture of John Rawls, without the glasses he typically wore.

The photo, provided by Mardy Rawls, his wife, is from the book Justice, Political Liberalism, and Utilitarianism: Themes from Harsanyi and Rawls, edited by Marc Fleurbaey, Maurice Salles, and John Weymark (Cambridge University Press, 2008, ix).

P.S. Can anyone point me to a video or audio recording of Rawls speaking? I realise I’ve never seen/heard him in action.


Rawls (from van Parijs) smallUPDATE (same day): I just found another picture of Rawls without glasses (c. 1969), courtesy of his wife and his son, this time on the front cover of Philippe Van Parijs, Just Democracy: The Rawls-Machiavelli Programme (ECPR Press, 2011).



How the King’s College London rebrand could have succeeded

King’s College London has accepted defeat over the botched effort to rebrand it as “King’s London”. But the plan needn’t have failed. Here’s how the rebranding company could have sold it.

(1) Establish the idea of change, by pointing out how amateurish the current logo looks. It looks like it was designed in Microsoft Word, and was: I made logos like that in my student journalist days.

KCL logo

The current logo

(2) Establish the idea that we are behind the times, by pointing out that every other big London university institution has rebranded in the near or distant past, or is not called by its legal title:

the LSE (not the London School of Economics and Political Science);

UCL (only rarely called University College London);

SOAS (not the School of Oriental and African Studies);

Birkbeck (not Birkbeck College);

Imperial (legally The Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine);

Queen Mary (no longer Queen Mary College);

Royal Holloway (no longer Royal Holloway and Bedford New College); and

Goldsmiths (which dropped “College” in 2006).

(3) Provide evidence that “college” is confusing. For example, in North America a “college” is usually known as a trade/vocational training centre and is a “lesser” institution than a university. (I’m still unconvinced that “college” is so confusing, but I’d have listened to evidence if the rebranding company had offered it.)

(4) Give actual quotations from the focus groups showing how confusing people some find “college”. Most of us laughed when told that people couldn’t understand “college”; concrete examples might have changed our minds.

(5) Give survey evidence that the LSE and UCL have better name recognition than King’s College London (if it’s true).

(6) Make a logo that looks good. This is the sine qua non, which is Latin for “do this or we want our money back”.

The proposed logo

The proposed logo: ahahahah

(7) Since lots of people are conservative, point out that most of us initially sneered at the London Olympics logo but liked it in the end.

(8) Get the KCL Student Union on side. (This was done, but when student outrage became apparent, the Student Union did a great impression of an embarrassing backtrack.)

(9) Coordinate the announcement so that the rebrand doesn’t leak early.

(10) Imply that this is a bargain: e.g. if it cost £300,000, this is equivalent to about 20 new overseas MA students who wouldn’t have come under the old name. (OK, the calculation’s not that simple, but suggest that by spending some money we’ll get far more back.)

I’m not saying that this would have worked, but it would have had a chance.

Secret violin concertos

Every classical music fan knows the great violin concertos – Mendelssohn, Bruch, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Brahms, and so on. But here are ten lesser-known concertos (or individual movements) which deserve more attention.



Kabalevsky, second movement of Violin Concerto in C major, op. 48 (1948).

Achingly beautiful. I could die to this music. And I do, a little bit, whenever I hear it.


SS HoelschSaint-Saens, Violin Concerto no. 1 in A major, op. 20 (1859).

Astonishingly condensed, utterly lovely. One of my favourite pieces of music.




Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto in D minor (1822).

Not the famous Mendelssohn concerto: this is the first one he wrote, aged 13. Yes, 13. (When I was 13, I could just about pronounce my own name; Mendelssohn could write this.)


ValE415Valentini, Concerto for Four Violins in A minor, op. 7 no. 11 (1710).

Lush baroque gorgeousness. A four-violin, seven-movement spectacular – the seventh movement is particularly spectacular.


Rodrigo, first movement of Concierto de Estio for violin (1944).RodOvru

Wow. Just … wow.


ShawThomas Shaw, second movement of Violin Concerto in G major (c. 1785).

I hate listening to this by myself: it’s the kind of thing I want to share with someone special.


Korngold, last movement of Violin Concerto in D, op. 35 (1945).KornEHnes

A romp.


ReiVCReinecke, last movement of Violin Concerto in G minor, op. 141 (1876).

How this isn’t a classic I do not know.


Khatch Kuchar 2


Khachaturian, last movement of Violin Concerto in D minor (1940).



GlaFisch2Glazunov, Violin Concerto in A minor op. 82 (1904).

The epitome of the Romantic violin concerto.

An open letter to the Principal of King’s College London, about the proposed rebranding

Here is the text of an open letter which I have just sent to the Principal of King’s College London, about the proposed rebranding by which we would be known as King’s London.


Dear Principal,

A College has a collegiate ethos, but many of us feel that this has been overlooked by the rebranding company in their incomplete consultation process.

​Their proposed rebrand has caused dismay. No one seems convinced by their reasoning about dropping ‘College’ from our name. The letter K in the alleged new logo looks broken and weak, as if we are trying to sneak our foot into London.

broken K logo

The changes are disliked not only by current staff and students but also by alumni. Yes, we must look to the future, but we cannot ignore our past.

I hope this email is not impertinent. But I have been moved to send it because of my pride in this university, on a day when our outstanding results in the 2014 REF show what we can achieve — with our present name!

Your sincerely,

Adrian Blau



Dr Adrian Blau
Senior Lecturer in Politics
Department of Political Economy
King’s College London
London WC2R 2LS

‘Big Thinkers’ event at KCL tomorrow (13 November 2014)

There’s still a few spaces left for an event tomorrow on ‘big thinkers’ (Marx, Derrida, Hayek) and how they can be applied in empirical research.

The main speakers are Alex Callinicos, Vivienne Jabri and Mark Pennington.

I’ll also be talking on the use and abuse of these thinkers in empirical research, including misreadings and arms-length usage of Habermas and Foucault.

The talk is run by the KCL social-science Doctoral Training Centre. The talk is mainly aimed at PhD students but all are welcome.

To register please click here.

Big Thinkers: Exploring Important Theorists of Social Issues

Karl Marx, Jacques Derrida & Friedrich Hayek

13 November 2014, 2:00 – 6:00 pm

Franklin Wilkins Building 1.71, Waterloo Campus

This afternoon event will involve three 30 minute presentations in which KCL academics will present key conceptual ideas from a major social theorist of specific value to their work. A question and answer session will follow each talk and there will be refreshments and a talk to provide ideas and advice on using big thinkers in your own research.

The schedule is as follows:

2:00 – 2:15 – Introduction (Gerhard Schnyder, Management, KCL)

2:15 – 3:00 – Marx (Alex Callinicos, European & International Studies, KCL)

3:00 – 3:45 – Derrida  (Vivienne Jabri, War Studies, KCL)

3:45 – 4:15 – tea/coffee

4:15 – 5:00 – Hayek  (Mark Pennington, Department of Political Economy, KCL)

5:00 – 5:30 – How (Not) To Use Big Thinkers (Adrian Blau, Department of Political Economy, KCL)

5:30 – 6:00 – Roundtable

6:00 onwards – drinks/refreshments

Family Guy and American Dad: equal opportunities offenders?

Family Guy and American Dad are well-known US sitcoms that arouse controversy for their stereotypes of Asians, blacks, gays, Italians, Jews, Mexicans, Muslims, and so on.

The creator, Seth MacFarlane, defends this as equal opportunities offending: any group can be laughed at.

Asian_MathThere is some truth here but it misses the key problem: these sitcoms are not equal opportunities stereotypers. Asians, blacks, gays and so on usually get depicted in the same, stereotyped ways. By contrast, White Americans get depicted in great variety – unless they’re gay, Jewish or Italian-American, in which case the predictable stereotypes usually surface.

That’s a problem.

For example, each character in the main American Dad family has a separate, clear personality. But the two gay men over the road, Greg and Terry, are virtually identical: they are both newsreaders, they are both exceptionally camp, and … that’s about it. There is not much more to their personality than this. It’s as if the scriptwriters don’t know enough about gay people to portray them in any other way. And the same applies to almost every gay male who appears, even fleetingly, in American Dad and Family Guy.

Francine, Greg and Terry ... or is it Francine, Terry and Greg?

Francine, Greg and Terry … or is it Francine, Terry and Greg?

(This is also true of Little Britain, where one of the main writers is actually gay. That doesn’t excuse lazy stereotyping! The saving grace of Little Britain is that Daffyd Thomas, ‘the only gay in the village’, turns out not to have had any gay experiences and might even be disgusted by homosexuality. To me, that’s comedy genius, like the final episode of South Park series 1, where Cartman is so full of bile that when he’s playing with his teddy bears and doing their voices, one of them even insults him, which angers him.)

There are some exceptions to American Dad and Family Guy stereotyping. For example, in American Dad, Principal Lewis and Snot have far more personality than most of the two shows’ other black and Jewish characters, respectively. But these are the exceptions.

Such stereotyping isn’t necessarily a problem. Consider the cyclist who keeps answering questions by saying that what he’s doing is ‘a great way to stay in shape’ (in ‘Peter’s Daughter’, Family Guy season 6 episode 7). This is a nice parody which doesn’t do any harm.

Also unproblematic are stereotypes of British people. As on The Simpsons, Brits are usually portrayed as having bad teeth and weird accents. I’m a Brit with decent teeth and a nice accent, but I have no problem with the above stereotype, which can be extremely funny (as in Chap of the Manor, the spoof British version of Family Guy in ‘Viewer Mail 2’, series 10 episode 22).

But I do have a problem with virtually every Muslim-American or Arab being portrayed as a terrorist (e.g. in ‘Turban Cowboy’, series 11 episode 15). Still, even that is not my main gripe, and it’s been dealt with by others (e.g. about racial stereotypes and disabled stereotypes).

I also want to leave aside the question of whether these stereotypes are actually poking fun at white Americans who don’t fit into the above categories. That is sometimes the case, as with the caption ‘White guys: scared of every race’ (in ‘Save the Clam’, Family Guy series 11 episode 19). But even if this is always the case – which I doubt – then it again implies that the writers are writing for and about white Americans.

And that is a problem. I suspect that most writers on Family Guy and American Dad are sub-consciously thinking ‘what can we write that will make white Americans laugh?’ And sometimes the answer is ‘let’s show that Mexicans are lazy.’ Perhaps many white Americans know so little about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans that such jokes get a quick and easy laugh. But compare the way that Arrested Development deals with Mexicans and Mexican-Americans: not exactly perfect, but much richer and more diverse in the characters and personalities. Or consider Key and Peele on white-sounding black men, which has a subtlety to it that usually eludes American Dad and Family Guy, where almost every Italian-American man is the same, almost every black woman is the same, almost every gay man is the same, and so on.

I still enjoy American Dad and Family Guy hugely, and I laugh at some of the jokes based on stereotypes: hell, I’m a bad man. And hell is where I’m heading, into the special section for self-righteous hypocrites.

But my point remains: we can’t keep defending these shows by describing them as equal opportunity offenders. We also need to see that they are unequal opportunity stereotypers.


Gadamer’s God-awful account of science

I’ve just finished my chapter for the book of the Reading Between The Lines conferenceGadamer Truth MethodMy chapter included a critique of Gadamer’s account of science, in his book Truth and Method and elsewhere.

I argue that Gadamer makes deeply misleading claims about what science involves, and does not reference any practising natural or social scientist; as far as I can tell, Gadamer’s most recent reference to an actual scientist was from someone writing 98 years before the publication of Truth and Method. Oh, and Gadamer misquotes this scientist and treats him as far more naive than he was.

But many commentators simply repeat Gadamer’s caricatures or pass over them in silence. This might actually be more troubling than Gadamer’s naughty scholarship.

My question is: can anyone point me to a good critique of Gadamer’s account of science? So far, I’ve only found five people who criticise any aspect of his account of science:

  • pp. 226 and 236 of Dieter Misgeld’s article in the journal Philosophy of Social Science, from 1979;
  • pp. 168-9 of Richard Bernstein’s Beyond Objectivism and Relativism (1983);
  • the opening chapter of Joel Weinsheimer’s Gadamer’s Hermeneutics (1985) – this is the most powerful critique but still leaves Gadamer largely unscathed;
  • p. 4 of Georgia Warnke’s Gadamer: Hermeneutics, Tradition and Reason (1987); and
  • p. 158 of Robert D’Amico’s book Contemporary Continental Philosophy (1999).

If you can point me to any other references – preferably in English! – I’d be most grateful. Thanks!

The impact of impact

There are still a few places available for tonight’s event on ‘The Impact of Impact’, run by the King’s Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Centre (KISS-DTC), Monday 16 June 5.30 to 7.00 pm at King’s College London, Strand Campus, room K2.31:



  • Dame Janet Finch, Chair of the Social Sciences panel in the Research Excellence Framework
  • Aileen Murphie, National Audit Office Director DCLG & Local Government Value for Money
  • Anthony Tomei, former director of Nuffield Foundation
  • Dr Duncan Green, Senior Strategic Advisor, Oxfam GB & author of From Poverty to Power
  • Moderator: Mark Easton, Home Editor, BBC News

For a number of years, social scientists have been subject to increasing scrutiny of the contribution of their research to the economy and society in general. Impact outside academia and the ‘usefulness’ of research have gained additional salience in the current context of budgetary constraints and austerity. In this context, selling one’s ideas to practitioners has become a requirement for many social scientists. Academics are expected to frame their work to match the expectations of consumers outside of the university sector (private companies, foundations, etc.).

But what are the implications for the development of knowledge in general? Does the focus on the impact of social science distort research? Or are these changes an opportunity for social science to contribute more directly to society and stimulate social engagement?

Our illustrious panel represents academic, practitioner and funder perspectives and will debate how the shift in social science research funding influences – consciously or unconsciously, positively or negatively – the content and nature of academic knowledge, and thus shapes the field.


The curse of quotation marks on the BBC website

Headlines on the BBC website are littered with annoying and often unnecessary quotation marks. They are used inconsistently and sometimes misleadingly.

Here are some of the funniest examples:

  1. BBC ‘to launch’ personalised iPlayerquotation marks
  2. Many Britons ‘fear mortgage arrears’
  3. Webber ‘proud’ of achievements in Formula 1
  4. Sochi 2014: British curlers ‘capable’ of medals

Here are six different ways in which the BBC website misuses quotation marks.  Read the full post »

‘History Research': scam/vanity publishing?

This morning I got an email from someone at David Publishing who wrote:

We have learnt your paper “Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Quentin Skinner’s Real Method in the Association for Political Theory 11th Annual Conference.

I’m glad they “learnt” my paper, not least because I never gave it – the paper was too tricky and I gave a different one instead.

But what raised my eyebrows was this:

If the paper is accepted by our journal,you need to pay some fees for publishing. $50/page and if the paper is over 15 page or with high quality we will give you a discount about 30%-50%.

This journal, History Research, published 36 articles last year. If we assume 10 pages an article at the quoted figure of $50 a page, that’s an income of $18,000 for this one journal alone. Given the poor quality of English in the email they sent me, I’m guessing they don’t spend much money on proofing.

A quick Google search reveals lots of academics worrying about this publisher: see here (Scholarly Open Access’s watch list) and here (Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog).

History ResearchOne of these worries – that it’s all a scam – is clearly outdated: David Publishing are now explicit, up-front, that authors must pay to publish. So, this isn’t a scam. Indeed, a quick Google search shows that most of the people publishing in recent issues of this particular journal have posts in established academic institutions.

My worry is that many academics, especially young ones, are easily enticed by such emails from publishers; see here for several academics who took David Publishing’s emails seriously. And I remember being very flattered when I was told that my first ever conference paper had been accepted for the conference proceedings. The conference proceedings were fairly prestigious in the sub-field, but in retrospect I should have thought seriously about declining, and submitting the paper elsewhere. I certainly doubt that History Research would carry any serious weight at any serious academic institution. Indeed, having such a journal on your CV could count against you, not in your favour.

So, my very obvious advice to readers of this blog – especially MA and PhD students, and early career researchers – is to be very careful about such emails, and to chat with more senior colleagues about where to publish your work.

10 tips for chairs of seminar/conference papers

A chair tip

A chair tip

1. Don’t read out the speaker’s past history from a printout of their webpage: look as if you know something about them. And for multi-paper panels, all you may need is ‘next up is Jo Public from Edinburgh’.

2. Don’t read out the speaker’s original title, which may have changed since submission. Check the title in advance, or just introduce the speaker not the title. You may also want to check how to pronounce the speaker’s name/university.

3. If possible, tell speakers well in advance how long they have. The organiser may already have done this, of course.

4. If possible, warn speakers well in advance that you will be controlling time carefully. Graduate students and junior faculty may worry about saying this to senior faculty; but if a speaker overruns in a multi-paper panel, it’s discourteous and unfair to other speakers, and if a speaker overruns when she is the only speaker, it’s discourteous and unfair to the audience.

5. Keep speakers to time. Don’t congratulate them on the timing: it’s their job to finish on time, not something which merits praise. If you comment on the timing of the papers, it makes the session about you not them.

6. Before the session starts, tell speakers at what times you will warn them at (e.g. 5 minutes, 2 minutes, time up). Think too about how to warn speakers about timing; it’s not always physically easy (e.g. when someone uses a lectern). A hastily scribbled piece of paper can be hard for speakers to see: if you can, pre-print sheets or use a board-marker pen.

7. Keep questions and answers short, especially when several questions remain near the end of a session. Be firm, be fair. If you’ve asked for short questions and someone starts a four-parter, it’s your job to politely interrupt them. Don’t feel embarrassed: it is they who are being insensitive, not you.  

8. Try not to ask your own questions unless needs be. (Needs sometimes be.)

9. Never collate questions: it’s spectacularly pointless. Be flexible about question order: if someone has already asked a question, she’s less important than someone who hasn’t.

10. Don’t overrun. Don’t overrun. Don’t overrun. Not everyone will want the session to keep going: some people will be bored, others will want a pee, a cigarette or some coffee. When time is up, time is up. In exceptional circumstances, break briefly to let some people escape before you continue.


The underlying principles are as follows:

(a) Speakers are more important than the chair.

(b) The audience is more important than the speakers.

(c) Timing matters.

(d) Think ahead.

(e) Be firm.

(f) Be fair.

Robert Dahl (1915-2014)

Robert Dahl has passed away, aged 98.


Here are five things that stand out for me in Dahl’s work.

  1. We don’t have democracy, we have polyarchy (see Polyarchy, 1971).
  2. The parts of the US constitution which are the least democratic are the parts which are the hardest to change (see How Democratic is the American Constitution?, 2002 pp. 154-5).
  3. ‘In a rough sense, the essence of all competitive politics is bribery of the electorate by politicians’ (A Preface to Democratic Theory, 1956 p. 68).
  4. ‘My commitment has been to democracy, to liberty, and to a kind of equality …. [E]conomic institutions for me … are seen as quite instrumental; it’s like choosing a Ford or a Toyota, where I have about that much emotional investment in one or the other, whereas I have a deep emotional investment in the nature of the political system and the sort of freedoms that exist in it’ (in Ian Shapiro and Grant Reeher, eds., Power, Inequality, and Democratic Politics, 1988 pp. 158-9).
  5. Dahl’s definition of power was more or less right. Steven Lukes’s vastly overrated critique confuses Dahl’s concept of power and how Dahl studied power. There’s no reason to reject the former just because of the significant problems with the latter.

And here are four points about how Dahl studied democracy:

  1. ‘I have always tried to formulate what I’m doing … in the form of a question. Most of my books open with a question in the first paragraph. … This technique so focuses the mind on what’s to follow that I’m astounded when other people don’t use it’ (in Gerardo Munck and Richard Snyder, eds., Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics, 2007 p. 136).
  2. It helps to combine ‘the normative and empirical aspects of democracy … in a single theoretical perspective’ (Democracy and its Critics p. 6).
  3. Dahl’s case for democracy, in Democracy and its Critics, is both negative and positive – negative, because despite democracy’s flaws the alternatives are worse, and positive, because it involves a commitment to moral equality. This is better than the Churchill defence, which is too negative.
  4. Revealingly, Dahl called the book Democracy and its Critics, and tries to make his critics’ case as strong as he can, rather than attacking caricatures or weak versions. Compare Benjamin Barber, who prefers to go for the straw jugular.

In an interview published in 2007, Dahl said:

the writers who had the most impact on my thinking were people with whom I disagreed, but who were more than worthy political opponents. They were giants, and because they were giants they set down a challenge I could struggle with my entire life [e.g. Plato, Marx, Schumpeter]. … I think of it as an imaginary dialogue. The most productive dialogues are not adversarial in the sense of trying to win points, like in a tennis game. I think of it as dialectical in the Platonic and Hegelian sense. I start here, my adversary is over there. I move over a little bit, then they move to a new position, and so forth. Conversations like that are rare. When you have one, you come out of it feeling great (in Gerardo Munck and Richard Snyder, eds., Passion, Craft, and Method in Comparative Politics, 2007 pp. 116-9).

I believe that most of the key developments in democratic theory in the last 30 years have come from philosophers, not political theorists. But political theorists like Robert Dahl, Jane Mansbridge and David Beetham are exceptions.

Journal of Universal Rejection

This spoof journal made me laugh – hard.

Make sure you scroll down to the hilarious table of contents.


Nadia Urbinati and Bryan Garsten ‘Liberalism and Democracy’ conference at QMUL, Jan 10


I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s conference on recent work by Nadia Urbinati (Columbia) and Bryan Garsten (Yale) at Queen Mary, University of London.

Nadia Urbinati

Nadia Urbinati

Bryan Garsten

Bryan Garsten

The conference focuses on Nadia Urbinati’s forthcoming book Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People (Harvard University Press, 2014), and Bryan Garsten’s ongoing work on liberal religion and modern liberty.

The speakers are John Dunn (Cambridge), Mónica Brito Vieira (York), Gareth Stedman Jones (QMUL), and Georgios Varouxakis (QMUL), with responses from Nadia Urbinati and Bryan Garsten at the end.

The programme is here. You can book a place here.


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