Adele Momoko Fraser speaks to Lecturer in Political Theory, Dr Jonathan Floyd on the point of politics degrees.
This is the first instalment in a series exploring the benefits of studying arts, social sciences and humanities subjects. In this interview, we spoke to SPAIS lecturer in political theory, Dr. Jonathan Floyd. He teaches three units, ‘Political Concepts,’ ‘The History of Western Political Thought’ and ‘How to win a political argument’. Prior to coming to Bristol, he was a fellow at the University of Oxford, and has won numerous prizes and fellowships for his work. Last year, Dr. Floyd won the most votes out of nine nominees in the ‘Best of Bristol’ lecture competition and gave a fascinating lecture entitled ‘Who gets all the pies? (And jobs, houses etc.) His research focuses mainly on the nature of political theory and other ideas including the relationship between facts and principles. Jonathan Floyd has also written passionate articles concerning the importance of integrating his subject into the national curriculum, to ensure a healthy political society.
What got you into politics and political theory?
As far back as I can remember I have been interested in politics. My family were very political and there were a lot of political discussions as I grew up. My family leant one way politically speaking, where I tended to lean the other way. I remember that when I was younger, it was much more standard for people to put posts with political campaign slogans in their front garden. You don’t’ really get that anymore, but in the same way an estate agent would put up for sale signs, everyone would have a post and it would say ‘Labour’ or ‘Tory’. Our house had a post with a sign on it that you didn’t see normally around there. And that meant talking a lot of politics with friends who leant another way. So that was my initial interest in politics. But, I didn’t know as a school student that you could study politics as a subject. My knowledge of academic subjects at university was limited to most people ideas of what could be a career. I didn’t realise that there are these tens of thousands of careers right, like a brand consultant or what have you. So I thought ‘what can I do at university?’ The first time I applied to university I had an unconditional offer to do computer science and I was going to be a web designer. But then I realised that I don’t really want to be a web designer after all. So I dropped out of my A-levels actually before they were done, and had to retake them. So I didn’t know what I wanted to do, that was part of the story. I then went to university later to be a music producer, but quickly realised that it was quite boring and unedifying and rather intellectually unchallenging…
— Steve Bullock (@bullox) April 12, 2016
And not necessarily lucrative either!
No, and there are so many industries and I thought ‘There’s no money in music anymore!’ You could last make money in music in 1996 and I went to university in 1998 so… I definitely thought ‘don’t pick music.’ I then wanted to change subject at university and a friend of mine suggested politics to me. At the time I’d been reading philosophy. I’d read a lot of history, so I started reading philosophy for myself and I thought about psychology as well. I realised that I was interested in human nature and human behaviour and understanding it. I suppose ultimately I leant towards wanting to prescribe for it, which is where politics and political theory comes in. So I switched to politics and it turned out to be my vocation. I just loved it. After a while I realised that I was more interested in how politics should work, rather than how it works. Political science is about how the world works, how it has worked and why it has worked the way it has. Political philosophy or theory is about how it should work. Of course it matters how things do work, you don’t want to be utopian, but it’s also about the future and that is what interested me. It was also clear to me that being in politics would not satisfy my interest in politics, and political theory. I am too philosophically curious about why certain policies and principles are right. It’s not enough to just shout my values at the world; I want to know why they are the right values.
Are there any highlights from your teaching career so far?
Ultimately it’s about student relationships. It’s nice getting to know students and seeing them develop and that’s the core of it. Things that I’m proud of, both in Bristol and where I used to be in Oxford, is simply really boosting the number of people who are doing political theory. That’s one of the happiest indications for me that no longer 24 people want to study the history of western political thought, 60 or 70 do. Because I think the subject matters, I think the world is a better place when people are able to think in more sophisticated ways about political ideas, about specifically ideas about how the political world should be organised. So I’m proud about that, I’m proud about uptake. It’s the same where I used to work; more people were taking political theory units in second and third year.
Well your third year unit was the most over subscribed on the course…
[Laughs] Yes, it’s quite full isn’t it… Yes it’s lovely to hear.
— PolicyBristol (@PolicyBristol) August 16, 2016
How is the subject of politics important for wider society?
Well, a lot of people in the 19th Century thought that democracy in an uneducated society would lead to the tyranny of the majority. A lot of people who were wary of democracy were wary of ignorance, selfishness, short termism. I think a more literate society produces a better politics, a more educated society produces a better politics. For me, I think if even a small section of society can take the sort of degree which makes you think about politics in a more sophisticated way, it benefits society. You don’t want a world where politicians throw around terms like freedom, democracy, justice, legitimacy, nation and culture and nobody has had the chance to think sustained, critical and reflective thoughts about that. When they have, then they are less the prey of demagoguery. When they have, they are better able to come up with new ideas. When they have, they are better able to have meaningful exchanges, rather than just shouting matches. There are a lot of worries about polarisation in politics and high emotion, I’m not sure teaching political theory or political generally gets rid of that, but I think it helps. It encourages more reasoned argument and we talked about my teaching style, what I like is a reasoned but adversarial exchange.
It’s a good way to mediate between differing views in society as well…
Yes, and I come back to the issue of neutrality. If people feel there’s a strong left wing bias in the room, then they simply will not speak up about the other side of the case, and then it will become a kind of chorus. You want people to feel comfortable but to be polite and think more sophisticated thoughts, having read books, having read articles, having listened to each other in the first year and the second year, and third year. I think generally people should come out of a politics degree and series of courses on political theory, thinking that their thoughts are better. That they are somehow wiser, that they have more insight into politics and how politics ought to be organised.
— Kidsophical (@kidsophical) June 20, 2016
So on a final note for our student readers, why do you think a politics degree is worth doing?
Well, ultimately nothing affects your life more than politics. Nothing makes more of a difference to your life than the kind of political state and policies you live under. It’s the difference between civil war and peace, it’s the difference between prosperity and suffering, it’s the difference between oppression and liberation. So politics matters, nothing matters more than politics. In the long run in politics, you could argue nothing matters more than ideas. In the short term, power matters, personality matters, money matters, but in the long run ideas including ideas for how politics should be organised, matter. They make a difference. So why would you not want to care about the thing that matters most, for the thing that makes the most difference in your life? That’s where political philosophy and the academic study of politics come in. When you study it, you also learn how easy it is for individuals to make a difference. Like what we do in my third year course, you can write manifestos, you can come up with posters, you can start parties, you can launch campaigns, engineer petitions and if you get good at that kind of thing, you might become an MP, or you might be a journalist that actually changes the political landscape. It’s easier than people think to make a difference and there’s nothing more important to make a difference to than politics.
Do you think Politics is an important subject to study? Let us know in the comments or via the social media links below.