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Political Concepts in the World

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - POLITICO (Political Concepts in the World)

Reporting period: 2018-01-01 to 2019-12-31

The POLITICO PhD programme builds on the success of the interdisciplinary researcher training provided by the University of Aberdeen’s Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and the Rule of Law (CISRUL). The MSCA COFUND grant is enabling the expansion of the programme, improvement in the working conditions of recruited researchers, and the further development of multi-disciplinary and trans-sectoral partnerships, across the EU and beyond.

The POLITICO programme builds on previous CISRUL efforts to understand better the political concepts that inspire and are invoked by political actors in the world today, which demonstrated the need to train a generation of researchers in multi-disciplinary and comparative approaches to the key political concepts through which we understand and act on the world around us. When the Arab Spring protestors called for ‘democracy’, for example, Western policy-makers focused largely on electoral reform, yet CISRUL researchers showed the protestors understood ‘democracy’ to include social justice, which has been largely ignored. Through POLITICO, 2 cohorts of 6 high-quality international Early Stage Researchers (ESRs) have the opportunity to propose and develop their own research projects around the theme of how political concepts are deployed in the world. POLITICO ESRs look to understand how political principles have been fostered historically, debated philosophically and in politics, fought over by social movements, codified in law, transmitted through education and the media, and lived out in everyday life.

For example, competing notions of ‘the people’ were at stake in the referenda on the European constitution, arguably culminating in the Brexit vote, yet media writers, policy makers and scholars alike struggle to articulate what ‘the people’ means in different contexts. This is the focus of 2 of the POLITICO ESRs. Another ESR focuses on what ‘secularism’ means in different times and places, and especially whether secularism has a Christian bias - that is, whether the norms of appearance and behaviour considered secular are harder for non-Christians to meet. Beyond Europe, international development actors frequently call for building ‘civil society’ in authoritarian countries, and one POLITICO ESR is addressing how ‘civil society’ is understood in Vietnam, and with what consequences.

In doing so, the POLITICO ESRs are taking the contextual study of political concepts beyond intellectual history and political theory, as well as beyond Western Europe and North America on which most scholarship focuses. By analysing principles that are cited by political actors and commentators across the world, the ESRs will achieve a better understanding of current political processes. They will also help to refresh the vocabulary of social and political theory, inform media and scholarly debate, and design better policy and movement strategies.
So far we have successfully recruited 12 ESRs, 6 started in October 2018 and a further 6 started in September 2019. ESRs are housed in Politics, Sociology, Theology, Philosophy, Education, Language and Area Studies. In addition, administrative staff were recruited to manage the programme.

The project is managed through a Board structure, the following groups were established and have met regularly to manage the programme:

- Selection, Training and Supervisory Board (STSB): Since the inception of the project and indeed, before its official start date, the STSB has played a crucial role in taking collective responsibility for the pursuits of the POLITICO project. Convening at least every 3 months the board is composed of Dr Trevor Stack (PI), and a further 7 core members of the POLITICO project, including members of the PMO. The STSB’s standing agenda has allowed us to monitor the project effectively through its key milestones and now includes a representative from the ESR cohorts at all meetings for transparency and effective inter-project communications.

- Programme Management Office (PMO): The PMO is the principal link between POLITICO and the European Commission with responsibility for all financial and legal provisions, being in charge of the financial plan and of any financial procedures and payments. In effect, the PMO’s membership of a broad range of colleagues, representing the University of Aberdeen’s professional services has enabled the group to fulfill a much wider expert role within the project, taking forward practical tasks on behalf of the ESRs and ensuring they have a supportive experience at the University of Aberdeen.

- International Expert Advisers (IEA): The IEA was established to review the overall progress of the doctoral programme. The group provides expert advise to the STSB to guide and inform the selection and training procedures implemented by the programme.

- Thesis Monitoring Committee (TMC): The TMC is responsible for reviewing the personal career development plan of each fellow as well as for resetting his/her personal goals. The TMC meets with each ESR on a six monthly basis to discuss progress, advise on work and discuss any issues.

ESR supervision and training: ESRs were assigned 2 or 3 supervisors with at least one supervisor drawn from the STSB to ensure cohesion of the group. They have been meeting regularly with their supervisors. In addition, ESRs have submitted CVs and are completing a comprehensive skills audit that identifies both generic and subject-specific training required to successfully achieve their career goals. Supervisors and the Thesis Monitoring Committee are advising ESRs on opportunities for transferable skills training, both at the University and externally.

Academic and training programme: The programme has been co-designed with the ESRs. Regular seminars have been held, as well as workshops and conferences. Highlights have included 2 workshops on “Approaching Political Concepts” (January 2019 and 2020); a 2-day academic workshop followed by a 2-day PhD summer school on “Conceptualizing Political” (July 2019); and a 2-day academic workshop on “Decolonising Political Concepts” (September 2019).
ESRs take the lead in designing the POLITICO academic programme, proposing topics, readings, speakers and discussion format, ensuring not only that ESRs gain the required skills in research leadership and management, but that the ESRs refresh the terms of scholarly debate in CISRUL, the University and in the wider academy, through designing and hosting international workshops and conferences. The POLITICO programme is also perhaps uniquely inter-disciplinary, ranging across all the humanities and social sciences, yet the focus on political concepts, coupled with the ESRs’ role in designing the programme, ensures that the debates retain overall coherence. The next step is for POLITICO ESRs to bring their research to bear on non-academic debates, in order to achieve wider impact and to give the ESRs experience in applying research, and we propose to hold a series of public forums (including in Brussels) in 2022, co-designed with the ESRs, and to train ESRs in preparation for the forums.