Politics Student Alex Blums Wins Prestigious V-Dem Competition for Best Student Paper

The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute presents the Best Student Paper Award to the “author/authors of a student essay that is outstanding for its theoretical and empirical contributions.” The winner receives $500 USD and is invited to present the paper at the annual V-Dem Conference, with travel and accommodation generously provided.

The 2017 award was won by Alexander Blums, a student in the department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton. The theme for the competition call was “Causes and Effects of Democratization.” Blums won with his paper entitled, “Electoral Democracy and Corruption: A Cross-National Study,” based on his dissertation research at the University of Southampton. The paper was subsequently published as an official Working Paper in the V-Dem Working Paper Series.

We asked Alexander to tell us about how this played out:

I decided to do my dissertation on cross-national predictors of corruption because I thought it was an interesting subject and my dissertation supervisor Raimondas Ibenskas is an expert in comparative politics. My main thesis was that controlling for other variables, the quality of electoral democracy explains corruption in the long and short-term. For data on democracy, I chose to utilise the V-Dem dataset. After submitting my dissertation, Raimondas (my now former supervisor) noticed that V-Dem was running a student paper competition. I made some minor modifications to better fit the requirements of the competition and a few months later received the good news about the prize. My paper was published in the ‘Users Working Paper’ series, I was given a cash prize and invited to take part in an annual conference on Democracy in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Congratulations to Alexander Blums for this much-deserved award. The Department of Politics and International Relations is very proud!

New Book: The Relevance of Political Science

By Gerry Stoker, Professor of Governance at University of Southampton and Fellow and Centenary Professor in the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at University of Canberra (Twitter). You can read more posts by Gerry Stoker here.

There are some who hold the view that the job of political scientists begins and ends with their description and analysis of politics. Many political scientists view the connection between the discipline and the world of politics as appropriately detached: they are neutral, observers of the political world. Yet my position is that a discipline that studied politics but had nothing to say to those involved in politics or who might be involved would be failing. Political science needs to devote more thought and effort to the challenges involved in achieving relevance for its work.

Political science should as part of its vocation seek not to pursue an agenda driven by its own theories or methods as if it was in a separate world , sealed off from the concern of its fellow citizens. Rather the problems of the political world as perceived, or at least as can be understood, by our fellow citizens should set the bulk of our agenda. We should be asking questions to which others outside the profession want to know the answer. And do so with a commitment to rigour in methods of study and analysis. A focus of relevance mean does not demand a downplaying of developing the best means of investigating politics. Indeed methodological innovation is, if anything, likely to be simulated rather than hindered by such dealing with the intractable and complex challenges thrown up by ‘real world’ politics. There is nothing as practical as good theory and theory can find no tougher test than achieving effectiveness in the world of practice.

Too often in the past three or four decades political science has constructed for itself a way of working that appears to give little or no credence to the demands of relevance. If political science is therefore judged irrelevant by others, most of the blame though not all rests with the profession. Political science will need to act differently and so I offer a new manifesto for relevance below.

  1. Have confidence in the value of rigorous scientific analysis and so do not let relevance compromise high quality investigation but embrace it as a critical friend, providing tough and different challenges for your evidence and argument
  2. Develop relevance not as an afterthought in the construction of your research but put it at the heart of what you select to investigate and how you present and share the outputs of your research. Set your agenda in dialogue with others outside the profession and improve your communication skills using traditional and new media
  3. Offer solutions as well as analysis of problems and take on board some of the arguments for a design orientation in your analysis so that evidence and argument can be applied as thoroughly to the construction of potential answers as well as spelling out the challenges facing desired change
  4. Support methodological pluralism in the discipline as that variety of approaches is most likely to deliver a rich array of relevant work that can reach out to a diverse group of potential users
  5. Be committed to work in partnership with other disciplines to improve the relevance of your work. Good and innovative work often is cross-disciplinary. Many issues have a “wicked” or multi-dimensional quality so again working across disciplinary boundaries enhances the chances of relevance
  6. Actively cultivate links with intermediaries as appropriate – think tanks, journalists, special advisors, political parties, citizens’ organisations and social media networks- in order to boost the relevance of your work
  7. Celebrate the role of teaching as a means of delivering relevance by encouraging a cadre of critically aware citizens and policymakers.

These ideas and the complexities and challenges involved in achieving relevance are explored by a stellar group of experienced political scientists from around the world in a recently published book The Relevance of Political Science.

Embracing Impressionism—and Each Other?


By John Boswell and Jack Corbett. John Boswell is Lecturer in Politics at University of Southampton (@Boswell_JC). Jack Corbett is Research Fellow at Griffith University. You can find more posts by John here.

In an essay set to come out in Critical Policy Studies soon (read it here), we argue that the sort of research we practice—commonly dubbed ‘interpretive’ and famously pioneered by, among others, Soton’s own R.A.W. Rhodes—ought to fess up to, and in fact be proud of, its ‘impressionistic’ nature. The point is not to lob bombs at interpretivism from the outside as not matching up to orthodox standards of what constitutes ‘systematic’ research, but to critique it from within. We argue that in their determination to uphold the validity of interpretivism against the established orthodoxy, key pioneers of this approach have gone too far in clinging defiantly to the notion that such work is equally ‘systematic’. In contrast, many of us who practice interpretive research experience the opposite. To us, and many colleagues we’ve spoken with, doing interpretive research feels more like struggling to arrange a jumble of impressions than it resembles any systematic accretion of insights. As such, we reclaim the label ‘impressionistic’ not as something pejorative but as a more apt descriptor for doing and communicating interpretation. To do so, somewhat awkwardly for a couple of uncouth Antipodeans, we draw out an analogy to impressionist painters to show the affinities between this artistic movement and the interpretive move in politics and policy research.

So far, many readers of this blog will be thinking, so lunatic fringe – and we recognise that some may simply see this as a case of upstarts trying to outflank their interpretive forebears in terms of touchy-feeliness. But we will try and make a case here that the implications of our argument actually bring us closer to the mainstream of political and policy studies (something we have claimed more explicitly in another recent paper, here).

One – the war is over. While any such epistemological war was, it must be said, mainly in the heads of the minority interpretivists, consciously abandoning claims to ‘systemacity’ would signify an end over the battle for the one true way to gaining political insight. Just like impressionist painting, interpretive research could see itself as another way of doing research on politics—one that its practitioners find most interesting and appealing, and which is well equipped to provide unique insights into some things, but equally one that is poorly equipped to provide insights into other things. Importantly, then, impressionistic interpretive research is something that ought to be read, and done, in conjunction with other forms.

Two – we are (sort of) the same. In reflecting on the features we say make interpretive research ‘impressionistic’, we were struck by how many commonalities there are with colleagues’ experiences of actually compiling and analysing data in their more or less positivist research. A dynamic, fluid or unsettled research design; the search for a supportable claim to something novel or counter-intuitive; the selective accentuation of data which support such claims – these are all things that we have discussed at length with econometricians, political behaviouralists and others besides. More reflexive honesty about the impressionistic nature of our work opens up these unexpected affinities.

Three – we all benefit from sunlight. On the back of this last point, the key difference is that while there are widespread calls for more transparency in positivist research, few such calls are being made in interpretive research. Of course, there are some ethical and pragmatic barriers—not all data is openly available, either because it shouldn’t be or because it can’t be. But much more can often be done to open up interpretive research in this way, and allow the impressions of the researchers involved to be contested—we have one such pilot project in the works which we will later report on. For the moment, though, the point is this: impressionistic interpretivists could learn something from mainstream political scientists about making their work at least opaque, letting more sunlight in.