Social Deference and British Political Thought in the Twentieth Century

13 November 2017, 12:30 - 14:00

CRASSH Meeting Room, Alison Richard Building

Part of the CRASSH Fellows Work in Progress Seminar Series.  All welcome but please email Michelle Maciejewska to book your place and to request readings.  A sandwich lunch and refreshments are provided.

Dr Samuel James

Building on some of the issues raised in my first book, my research at CRASSH will ask how changing patterns of and attitudes towards social and political hierarchy in the twentieth century have created new challenges, and particularly a problem of audience, for academic political theory. At the centre of my research will be the processes whereby a late Victorian style of “political science”, consciously intended to provide an appropriate form of acculturation for an imperial governing class, gave way by the late twentieth century to a more analytical and abstract “political philosophy” as the dominant form of explicitly political thought carried on in British universities.

Over the course of the twentieth century, I want to suggest, it increasingly became a problem for the academic study of politics that it lacked a clear sense of who its products were written for. By the later decades of the twentieth century, the idea of a natural governing class making the decisions for society and enforcing them through the state had become ideologically disreputable, and to some degree sociologically implausible. This cut the connection which scholars were once able to assume joined their scholarly activities to practical politics. The loss of this link has left British political intellectuals more likely than many others to perceive something to be missing in a purely academic style of either empirical political science or normative political theory.

My project aims to draw together the actual social and cultural history of attitudes to social hierarchy in Britain since the late nineteenth century, the history of British political discourse and practices as seen through that lens, and a story about the predicament of political theory and political science as academic practices in democratic societies (where what has counted as "democracy" at different times is of course part of the story). I hope to be able to show that the development of the academic disciplines of political philosophy, political theory, and political science in Britain should be seen as aspects of a single, much broader story about the dilemmas of a “democratic” society in the context of a modern state.

Dr Samuel James is a CRASSH Early Career Fellow 2017-18 and is at CRASSH in Michaelmas 2017.


Dr James is the J H Plumb College Lecturer at  Christ's College and an affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of History. His main research interests are in the history of twentieth-century political thought and intellectual culture, and particularly in intellectual responses to economic, social, and political change in Britain in that period. He has  also worked on the intellectual history of the academic humanities, especially debates over their conceptual character and cultural purpose. Presently, He is completing a book on the so-called "Cambridge School" in the practice of the history of political thought between the Second World War and the late 1970s. His publications include “Louis Mink, ‘Postmodernism’, and the Vocation of Historiography”, Modern Intellectual History 7 (April 2010): 151-84 and "Time and Misrule: Edward II and the Historical Imagination", in National Theatre production programme for Edward II, August to October 2013.