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RA5a: Structure,environment and staffing policy

The Unique Context of Research in the Open University

The Open University is a unique institution which is renowned internationally for its record in distance teaching at undergraduate level. It also plays a leading role in conducting research and postgraduate education across a wide range of disciplines, including that of Politics and International Studies. High-quality research is viewed as an indispensable resource underpinning the adventurous, innovative policy for producing the OU’s widely-used pedagogic materials. Further, national and international collaboration to produce OU courses provides members of staff with exceptional opportunities to create and sustain a large number of productive research links.

Recently the University has moved to strengthen its research environment through key innovations, such as: rationalising its management structure; introducing an institutional level research plan; establishing a Research School; and expanding rapidly the library’s online resources. Numerous areas of major research activity and centres of research excellence are maintained by a University culture which is extremely supportive of research. Research activity is concentrated on the central campus, although some regional academics – staff tutors – are also (where circumstances permit) research active and thus entered on RA2. Staff tutors are primarily responsible for delivering teaching materials at local level and maintaining the network of OU associate lecturers. They are not generally required to be active in research.

The unit for Politics and International Studies is located in the Faculty of Social Sciences, whose research support is proactive, generous and practical. Substantial funding is available for active participation in a wide range of national and international conferences, and there are generous provisions for study leave at a level of two months a year for central academics. The Faculty Research Committee and the Sub-Dean for Research help to fund, promote and monitor the research undertaken by members of the Faculty. The research ambitions both of established and younger members of the unit are fostered, the latter’s activities being closely supervised and supported with particular generosity. Internal funding is available for projects that are submitted to the scrutiny of the unit and receive its approval, and over recent years all projects that have been positively appraised have received financial support.

The key to the character of the unit’s research lies in its extensive staff engagement in international research networks (see section on Areas of Current Research). Its research culture is based on reaching beyond its immediate environment to productively contribute to and to feed off external and international links and networks. The extensive academic networks that sustain the high quality of OU teaching materials are often directly linked to more specialized research activity and original collaborative work; this is evident for example in work on globalisation, democratic ideas, comparative and regional politics and environmentalism. The unit’s dual international profile both stimulates and reflects the strongly international and interdisciplinary focus in OU Politics courses – a virtuous circle that is particularly evident in the OU context.

Staff Changes and Staffing Policy

The composition of the unit has changed in a number of important respects since the Research Assessment Exercise was last conducted in 1996. The strategic management of extensive (and since 1999 very rapid) staffing changes means that many new research opportunities stand ready for exploitation.

Of the ten individuals whose work was entered for the 1996 RAE, six have left the unit. Two have retired, two have moved to other areas of the OU, and two have moved to major positions in other universities (one of whose contributions, that of David Held, are entered under the A* category). Those who retired and other colleagues who left the department made distinctive contributions to research in the unit’s established areas of research strength. David Potter (retired in 1997) was highly active in the area of comparative politics and editor of the Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, as well as being a central contributor to the Global Environmental Politics project. Bernard Eccleston (retired in 1998) also played an important part in this area. A major contribution to the book on Global Transformations and the globalization project as a whole was made by Anthony McGrew (now Professor in International Relations at Southampton), as well as by Jonathon Perraton (now lecturing at Sheffield University and the fourth co-author of the volume).

The unit includes fifteen staff in the current Exercise. Eight of the staff entered in this Exercise were appointed since 1999. All members of the central academic staff are now recorded as being research active. These changes have had a major impact on the structure, environment and potentialities of the unit’s research, opening up new perspectives in each of the three core areas of current research set out below.

Crucially, in recent years (and months) the unit succeeded in its strategy of attracting highly qualified, research active staff who could both complement existing research strengths – International Political Economy, Comparative and European Politics and Normative Political Theory – while offering fresh perspectives and linkages. New members of staff have brought their own research agendas, but they also fit very well with established ones. The high quality and volume of research output achieved by the former, smaller group has thus been maintained during a period of transition and extensive change, while the unit now enjoys new research opportunities. The rapid changes have placed considerable emphasis on the unit’s arrangements for supporting and developing the research of newly appointed members of staff, and generous resources (in terms of travel funds and other forms of research support) have been targeted to enable them to develop their capacity through the development of appropriate research links and attendance at major national and international conferences. Members of the unit have access to a range of research funds, and research travel and conference attendance has rarely been denied on the basis of cost. Two newly employed staff tutors are both research active and play a full part in the activities of the research group to which they belong.

Research Achievements

Given the extensive and rapid nature of these staffing changes, discontinuity might be expected. However, while there is some disparity between the research plan recorded in the last RAE and the provisional character of developments with regard to research students (although a fuller policy has now evolved in this area), there has been substantial continuity in overall research activity.

Overall, the Research Plan in the 1996 RAE has been successfully carried out in terms both of collective aims and specific research targets. Continuing projects were brought to a productive conclusion (and in particular cases have been received with substantial international acclaim); ongoing research activities have been consolidated and extended; and new research initiatives brought on to the agenda. A number of major projects were under way at the time of the last RAE, and the intervening period has seen the successful completion of externally funded projects (itemized in RAE 1996, Sections 4.1 and 4.2) and the implementation of research plans drawn up at that time, as well as important developments in a number of related areas.

In the field of Globalization and that of International Political Economy (IPE), an area that was flagged for its distinctive quality in the last RAE, research conducted within the OU has been highly productive and had a wide-ranging international impact. The major project headed by David Held and Anthony McGrew on Globalization and the Advanced Industrial State (funded by an ESRC grant of £165k) resulted in a number of major publications. The primary book that was being worked on in 1996 appeared in 1999 as Global Transformations: Economics, Politics, Culture, co-authored by the four project investigators working at the Open University (see RA2). It rapidly became a central reference point in the extensive public discussion of globalization and related issues, and has played a major role in defining the character and direction of multi-disciplinary debate over globalization. It has set new standards in this area in terms of the breadth and depth of its empirical coverage. Outcomes of the project also included an edited Globalization Reader (Polity Press) as well as a number of articles in scholarly journals. The authors of these publications are now the leading ‘transformationists’ in the globalization debate. Their books and that by Grahame Thompson (written with Paul Hirst) on Globalization in Question have had a major impact on the high-profile contemporary debate about globalization.

Indeed it is fair to say that these leading texts have almost single-handedly defined the terms of the ‘globalization debate’ over the past five years. The book by Held et al has been translated into four languages and that by Thompson and Hirst into eleven languages, a degree of diffusion that provides a clear indicator of their international impact. These two books are now the leading texts for IPE global studies, and their authors are frequent visitors to universities and institutions around the world.

The project on Global Environmental Politics, funded by an ESRC award of £121k, was completed in 2000. The research team was made up of David Potter, Bernard Eccleston and David Humphreys, who now lectures in geography at the OU and is entered on their research submission. During the current RAE period researchers involved in the project have published major works on NGOs and Environmental Policies: Asia and Africa (edited by D. Potter, Cass, 1996) and Forest Politics: the Evolution of International Cooperation (edited by D. Humphreys, 1996), as well as various essays in academic symposia and journal articles. A further book under the joint editorship of D. Humphreys appears in early 2001 as Environmental Policies and NGO Influence: Land Degradation and Sustainable Resource Management in Sub-Saharan Africa (Routledge).

Work on Democracy and Democratization was carried on in several areas. The research project on Regime Change in East-Central Europe (funded by the ESRC until 1995 for £115k with four other universities) was successfully carried forward by Paul Lewis and provided material for a number of works on democratization and party development in east-central Europe (see RA2). His work on Polish politics was particularly commended in the external assessor’s report on the project. A further edited work on Party Development and Democratic Change in Post-Communist Europe – the First Decade will appear from Cass in 2001. Material from the project has appeared in Spanish, Italian and Chinese. David Potter also participated in the project on Security, Development and Political Accommodation in Pacific Asia, which formed part of the ESRC’s Pacific-Asia Research Initiative. It was supported by a grant of £126k and involved a collaboration with twelve other researchers throughout the UK. A contribution from Potter on ‘Political Accommodation and the Working Class in Authoritarian Regimes: China, South Korea, Indonesia’ will appear during 2001 in Security, Development and Political Accommodation in Pacific Asia (ed. J. Manor) from Edward Elgar. A major work linking these aspects of empirical democracy research was the 550-page volume on Democratization (Polity Press, 1997) co-edited by Potter and Lewis, as well as by David Goldblatt within the existing unit. While forming part of the Open University course on Democracy, the volume also represents a work of major empirical and theoretical synthesis and has been widely reviewed as such. The book has also been translated into Chinese.

Areas of Current Research

The primary strategy of the unit is to consolidate existing areas of research strength, and deepen further the international relevance and character of the research itself and the way it is conducted. In this light, the unit’s strategy is to encourage engagement by individual researchers in international networks and to foster achievement at internationally recognised levels, rather than close collaboration with others in the unit or indeed the OU more broadly. There are clear and valuable instances of the latter – notably the current seminar and reading series based on IPE – and they are encouraged, but they are not made a top priority. Within this overall orientation, the current structure of research activity builds on existing areas of research excellence, whilst extending coverage in areas linked with the interests of new members of staff. Main areas of contemporary research interests thus focus on Comparative and European Politics, International Political Economy, and Normative Political Theory, which together provide a robust and dynamic basis for future research achiement within the unit.

All three research areas contain members whose work is recognized as having major national and international significance, their members lecture and conduct seminars at a large number of leading institutions, and they are invited to a wide range of major universities both in the UK and worldwide. The research clusters include all the members of the central academic staff, as well as research active staff tutors.

Comparative and European Politics

Work by the five unit staff in this area has made major contributions to research on Eastern Europe, nationalism and UK constitutional and party politics. All carry out work that is strongly comparative, and more often than not collaborative on a specialist basis with colleagues outside the University. The arrival of new colleagues in the unit has strengthened established national and international collaborative research links.

Two members in this area direct their attention to developments in continental Europe. Montserrat Guibernau has studied Catalan nationalism and processes associated with Spanish democratization. More recently this focus has broadened to the significance of regional nationalism in the European Union, and she has become involved in a wide-ranging systematic research project on nationalism in nations without states. In 1999 Guibernau was co-organizer of a conference on Minority Nationalism and Ethnic Politics in the Changing State Order sponsored by the European Science Foundation (41k Euro grant) and held in Obernai (France). She is now co-director of one of the 25 projects within the ESRC’s major research programme on One Europe or Several?, for which she holds a grant of £125k. The project focuses on Regional Identity and European Citizenship in four regions, and data collection and interpretation are due to continue to June 2001. The preparation of the relevant reports, briefings and publications will also begin in 2001. She is also co-organizing a comparative conference in Quebec on Identity and Citizenship for September/October 2001, In the meantime work continues on the production of a book on National Identity and Its Future for Polity Press which focuses on the impact of devolution processes, the effects of migrant and refugee settlement, and moves towards European integration at the supranational level.

Paul Lewis’s research has made a widely-recognised contribution to our understanding of key aspects of the politics of central and eastern Europe, focusing particularly on developments in Poland and central Europe during both the communist and post-communist periods. It has placed east European party developments in a distinctively comparative perspective, furthered the analysis of post-communist politics within a broader European context, and linked it with theories of democratization and party development in established democracies. Further work in this area is planned for 2001 and will focus on aspects of organizational innovation, and national identity and party politics. In recent years he was closely involved in a major ESRC project on democratization and regime change in east-central Europe. A forthcoming book on Party Development and Democratic Change in Post-Communist Europe is based on contributions to an ECPR workshop Lewis directed in 1999, and the foundations for wide-ranging future collaborative research were laid at the same time with the foundation of a Standing Group on Central and East European Politics of which he is co-convenor. Work on contemporary processes of party development has continued with papers delivered in the UK and eastern Europe during 2000 on party system development and the legacy of communism (Cambridge), party development and democracy in central Europe (Hungary) and party finance in central and eastern Europe (Latvia).

Richard Heffernan and Jeremy Mitchell focus on British politics and conduct work on aspects of constitutional reform, party competition and party change, executive-legislative relations, the role of the media in political communication, and electoral behaviour both in the contemporary context and during the nineteenth century.

Primary areas of research during the recent period for Heffernan have concerned recent processes of Europeanization in the British Labour party, the changing nature of prime ministerial authority, and party realignment in British politics. This work contributes to two key areas of contemporary debate: that of the political and policy record of the Thatcher and Major government, and the politics of New Labour and the Blair government, demonstrating and elucidating in theoretical terms how Labour’s revised ideological outlook was profoundly influenced by the neo-liberal agenda of the former governments. New Labour and Thatcherism: Political Change in Britain was published in 2000, and a revised edition appeared in 2001. Research papers on these topics were presented in 2000 to the annual conference of the American Political Science Association and the joint sessions of the European Consortium for Political Research, while a book-length manuscript on Realignment in British Politics: Ideational Turns and Political Change is due to be delivered to Polity Press in Autumn 2001. He is also contracted to co-edit and contribute to the widely used British Politics volume in the well-known Macmillan Developments in Comparative Politics series, the 7th edition of which is due to appear in 2002.

Jeremy Mitchell’s research has made a broad contribution to the understanding of the conditions under which democracies are formed and survive, as well as to the analysis of specific issues of constitutional reform in the UK and non-secret voting procedures. He spent a substantial portion of study leave in a 1999–2000 on a £24k project funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and concerned with the problem of party funding, as well as the implications of current legislative responses to the report of the Neill Committee. The study is constituted as An Electoral Commission and the Regulation of Political Parties in the United Kingdom, and the final report is due in 2001. Accompanying the British focus is a major comparative element, as the working of electoral commissions in other western democracies is also examined. Work has also continued in formulating the conclusions of the international research group on Democracy in Europe Between the Wars: Conditions of Democracy in Europe, 1919–39, the first volume of which was published in 2000 while the second part is due in 2001. A manuscript on the early phases of democratization in England has also been completed and is due for publication as The Organisation of Opinion: Electoral Behaviour in England 1832–68. David Middleton also works in a broadly defined area of British politics, and has researched aspects of social policy in a local government context.

The specialist and cross-national character of the research undertaken in Comparative and European Politics has encouraged extensive and highly productive cooperative links across the UK and Europe, and in some cases beyond.

International Political Economy

The two texts which largely define conceptual and empirical debates in the national and international arena around globalisation were produced by the unit. Grahame Thompson has continued to work closely with Paul Hirst from Birkbeck College on a number of issues associated with the globalization debate, and they are generally regarded as the leading sceptics in the contemporary discussion. A second, substantially revised and enlarged edition of their influential book Globalization in Question was published in 1999. The new edition expands and extends the first edition, with two new chapters and extensive revision and expansion of the argument in the rest of the book. There have also been a number of important journal articles. Thompson plans to continue and to extend work in this area; he will complete a book on networks, including an assessment of networks in the conduct of international economic relations, for Oxford University Press within two years. Though Held and McGrew have left the OU, David Goldblatt continues to work in this area and will be heavily involved with the production of a second edition of Global Transformations during 2001. He is also developing a research programme on the ‘transformation of sport’, which will deal with the hitherto neglected area of sport governance in a period of globalization and post-colonialism.

Three new staff members have become associated with the IPE strand of research – Hudson, Bromley and Brown. On the basis of the work on globalization the OU funded a Research Lecturer, Alan Hudson, to work on IPE issues. He has recently completed a research project financed jointly by the Department for International Development and the Nuffield Foundation (£13.5k) dealing with the legitimacy and internal organization of NGOs. This research has resulted in a major report to the DFID (Linking the Levels: The Organization of UK Development NGOs Advocacy) and a number of journal articles. His research on sovereignty has contributed in part to a fuller understanding of the role and nature of borders in processes of globalization. More recent work on development NGOs has informed both academic and practitioner audiences about the issues faced by NGOs in conducting advocacy across borders.

Simon Bromley joined the unit in 1999, having researched from 1996–98 on a collaborative Ford Foundation project (funded at £35k) on the political economy of the environment and development in Egypt. He has also worked in the areas of sovereignty and the global system, and that of the IPE of the environment and development. He intends to develop these areas in the future with a book on sovereignty and is seeking, with colleagues from the OU Technology Faculty, external funds to finance a research project on environmental standards, particularly in relationship to the USA and the EU. William Brown joined the unit in early 2000 and works on the IPE of North-South relations. He has completed a detailed analysis of EU aid and development assistance policies, particularly in respect to Africa. His book The European Union and Africa: the Restructuring of North-South Relations will be published by I. B. Tauris in 2001 and Brown intends to pursue broad-ranging research on North-South relations in the context of globalization and post-colonialism.

The goal of those active in the IPE area is to draw on generous OU support to engage fully in international research networks and research debates, and to make a tangible impact on the latter. Members collaborate mostly with scholars outside the OU, and often outside the UK. However, for the past year and a half they have met regularly to discuss their research and topical matters in IPE. This has provided a forum for the exchange of views, ideas and arguments within the group.

Normative Political Theory

Major contributions to pressing international debates have been made by a number of works in contemporary political theory produced by members of the unit. Held’s work on cosmopolitan democracy has, quite simply, set the parameters within which others must (and do) argue – as has been clear in the recent book Democracy’s Edges (Cambridge University Press, 1999) and recent commentaries in The Journal of Political Philosophy. Held’s work has been widely translated, and its author in demand for lectures and other activities throughout the world. His departure for the LSE is one of a range of changes which mean that the research strengths for this group, for this research exercise, are individual – the product of numerous collaborations in external national and international research networks rather than the result of organized collaboration amongst the unit’s members.

The work of Michael Saward over the RAE period has been based in democratic theory, but has branched out to include contributions to green political thought and the ‘hollowing out of the state’ debate – both areas in which his efforts have contributed to a recasting of the scholarly debates. He has given invited papers in Hong Kong and the USA, in addition to participation in ECPR and PSA networks and invited papers at UK institutions, on deliberative and direct models of democracy and related topics. His directorship of an ECPR workshop in Mannheim in 1999, and a subsequent Routledge/ECPR book, Democratic Innovation, has served to consolidate and extend a range of international contacts which will generate a range of future collaborations. Building on this work and The Terms of Democracy (1998), in the coming period Saward will complete a new book on the reconceptualisation of popular power within and across borders, generations, even species.

Raia Prokhovnik has a rapidly developing international reputation in different fields of political theory – feminism and citizenship, history of political thought, and sovereignty – mostly through creative exploration of the parallels between them. She has had numerous invitations to present papers in these areas to national and international audiences, assisting the dissemination of her research. This international collaboration is set to intensify in the coming period – on Spinoza, for example, via a British Academy grant to collaborate with a leading Dutch Spinoza expert [Prof Wiep Van Bunge of Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam]. Two major books are planned, on sovereignty (conceptual, historical, and practical attention to the UK and the debate over 'Europe'), and on social constructionist arguments that underpin feminist critique. The latter builds on the well-received Rational Woman, published in 1999. Dr. Prokhovnik will also be a core member of the editorial team for a new Palgrave (Macmillan) journal, Contemporary Political Theory, first issue to appear in 2002.

Mark Smith’s key research output has been the well-received Rethinking State Theory, which is conceived as the first part of a series of publications and has been hailed by reviewers as breaking genuinely new ground in the understanding of the topic. As with others above, he has collaborated in and contributed substantially to productive international networks of activity: papers on philosophy of the social sciences have been presented at the University of Oslo and Insitut Weiner Kries among others. Smith has also made a major contribution to the field of environmental political theory as the author of Ecologism: Towards Ecological Citizenship. Future research, springing from collaboration with colleagues at a special conference in Witwatersrand in 1999, will centre on ‘normality and pathology’ – a major book on which is planned for the next two years. David Goldblatt has made a major contribution in the RAE period in connection with Global Transformations and the Globalization project, whose details have been presented above. In the context of political theory, his book Social Theory and the Environment has been acknowledged as the leading text of its type by prominent international scholars in the environmental field. Geoff Andrews’ research in the RAE period has centred around the invocation of ‘modernity’ and ‘modernization’ in social movements. This has led to publications on the politics of the New Left, the impact of new managerialism on New Labour, and on the changing relationship of intellectuals and political movements. His plans are to build on this work by publishing his PhD in 2001 and to write a new book on the relationship between British politics and culture in the context of late modernity. As a number of members are new recruits to the unit the potential for a dynamic, innovative and strategically-oriented research grouping here is considerable, though the unit’s strategy is to let such developments take place organically rather than enforce them. Points of synergy include environmental political thought (Smith and Goldblatt, but also Saward), theories of the state and sovereignty (Saward, Prokhovnik, Smith,), and modernity/postmodernity transitions and tensions (Prokhovnik, Smith, Andrews). Research on particular themes also crosses the informal boundaries of the groupings and both Bromley and Prokhovnik, for example, work on issues of sovereignty in theory and practice.


Users of this website should note that the information is not intended to be a complete record of all research centres in the UK

Copyright 2002 - HEFCE, SHEFC, ELWa, DEL

Last updated 17 October 2003

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