What’s the point?

Hirschman is for life, not just organisational theory day

It’s been open day season here: putting on talks and activities to entice students to join our fine institution (helped by the excellent weather).

One of the more intriguing aspects of this is the extent to which we sell the study of Politics as intrinsically valuable, as against as a pathway to other things.

It’s long been a tension that has interested me, as my teaching on negotiation clearly sits across the divide. As I tell our potential applicants, I get lots of feedback from alumni telling me how useful it was to develop their negotiation skills for when they bought a house, set up a business or – in one memorable exchange – had to sack someone.

All important life events, but not Politics in the narrow sense.

And this hangs around all Politics degrees. We know that almost none of our students go on to work directly in Politics, even on a more generous interpretation that includes policy work, so why should we be limited to focusing on that?

Certainly, as a department we’ve always been informed by a breadth of perspective that makes all this easier: we seen the politics in all social interaction and the pervasive effects of political processes, so we like exploring that with our students.

However, more generically, as a discipline Politics suffers from a certain crisis of identity.

On the one hand, there is a category of activity that is narrowly and specifically politically, but it’s narrow and specific.

On the other, it’s possible to apply political models to pretty much everything, but at the risk of a loss of focus and specificity. And that matters not only for our open day presentations, but for our general purpose and work.

As so often, I’ve not got an answer on all of this.

At the same time, it’s important to recognise that there are multiple perspectives on this and that if we are to survive and to thrive then we need to use our political understanding to play up those different views.

Put differently, the intrinsic-extrinsic divide is more of a reinforcement of the value of each side: not ‘either/or’, but ‘and’.

Central to that is developing students’ understanding of how things carry across – in both directions.

To give a recent example, I’ve been reflecting on how my own situation can be best understood by political models: it didn’t give me the answers, but it certainly helped me to frame my questions and reflection.

And that sounds like a pretty good pitch for helping someone make their way through life.