Matthew Flinders

The 67th Annual International Conference of the Political Studies Association (PSA) kicks off today in Glasgow. We’re expecting over 800 delegates, representing over 75 different countries, to what will be our biggest conference – ever!

The PSA has always emphasised quality over quantity but on this occasion I have no doubt that we are actually achieving a quite rare combination of quality and quantity. This is reflected in the range of panels that have been arranged, the calibre of the keynote speakers, the innovations and additions to the traditional conference programme, the manner in which a commitment to equality and diversity has been utilised in order to create new opportunities that bolster the whole profession, and the way the PSA continues to expand its intellectual community. With this latter point in mind I am particularly pleased to welcome an increased number of practitioners to the conference and also to see that the Undergraduate Conference is now an established part of the annual conference framework. The energy and dynamism that this conference appears to have harnessed reflects the simple fact that politically, economically and socially we are living through particularly interesting times.

The conference theme is designed to allow participants to dissect and unravel exactly what is going on; or, at the very least, to explore frames of reference that might help us understand some of the drivers that are creating such turbulent times. Looking back twelve months to when I reneged upon my promise to swim in the sea at Brighton very few people could have imagined that just a year later we really would be living in such ‘interesting’ times. Post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-fact, post-faith, post-democracy… it is as if even the vocabulary of politics has been left behind and cannot quite capture or describe the changing political landscape.

As my period as Chair of the PSA comes to an end at this conference I cannot thank everyone enough (staff, trustees, everyone who served on the Chair's Commission, members, non-members, etc) for all the support they have given me over the last three years. The PSA+ agenda with its emphasis on professionalism, visilibility and ambition has delivered a great deal but what is more important is the manner in which it was a collective endeavour. I am delighted that Angie Wilson and Feargal Cochrane will now be taking the helm as Chair and Vice Chair (respectively) and that Dr Mark Shephard from the University of Strathclyde has championed the PSA+ agenda as conference convenor by delivering something very special in Glasgow. Mark has worked unbelievably hard with his committed team to make this such a hugely impressive conference. The emphasis on public engagement and outreach events - like the England after Brexit event on Sunday 9 April and the Requiem for the American Dream film screaning on Monday 10 April - demonstrate that the annual conference can and will continue to evolve and innovate.

Conference attendees might just pause for a second and remember that that proverb ‘may you live in interesting times’ was originally as a curse rather than an insightful observation about modern life. Although the origins of this phrase are hotly contested its interpretation as a curse rather than as a blessing does at least highlight the fact that peaceful and uninteresting times are generally most beneficial to wellbeing and social stability. It is therefore a relatively small intellectual hop, skip or jump from thinking of ‘interesting times’ as ‘dangerous times’. The work of Professor Zygmunt Bauman suddenly springs to mind; his emphasis on liquid modernity, his interrogation of the decline of social anchorage points, his interpretation of the rise of national populism and the refugee issue as nothing less than a ‘crisis in humanity’…. For Bauman ‘interesting times’ were definitely ‘dangerous times’.

Zygmunt Bauman died earlier this year but his intellectual legacy will undoubtedly live on for some time as social and political scientists attempt to understand the apparently turbulent times in which we live. This brings me to a concluding focus not on warnings of crises or disaster but to a thought about the promise of the social and political sciences. There can arguably never have been a time when the potential for political studies to play a positive role in society has been greater. The ‘interesting times’ that this conference seeks to explore demand new intellectual cartographers with the capacity to combine both ‘politics as theory’ and ‘politics as practice’. This is a time when C Wright Mills’ arguments concerning The Sociological Imagination – or what he admitted could just have easily been termed The Political Imagination  - have been thrown into stark relief. There is no question in my mind that what Mills’ defined as ‘the trap’ (i.e. a growing sense of anomie and alienation amongst large sections of the public) has occurred and can be seen in a range of contemporary political phenomena. But the more important question for us as a community of professional students of politics is whether we can realise what Mills defined as ‘the promise’ of the social and political sciences. That is, to undertake research which could be used to help those who feel trapped, ‘left-behind’ or alienated to understand their position in an increasingly fluid Bauman-esque world and, from this, to seize an element of control. I urge you to reflect upon both ‘the trap’ and ‘the promise’ over the next few days and what promises to be an absolutely wonderful conference.

 

Matthew Flinders has served as Chair of the Political Studies Association from 2014 - 2017. He is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield.