PIR 4th Year UG Dissertation Retreat

Written by Betzy Hänninen and Abrahim Assaily (4th Year UG Students).

During the festival of creative learning, twenty students and six faculty staff set of to the Wiston Lodge in Biggar, to attend this year’s dissertation retreat for the fourth year students. We were all excited as we entered the bus, and curious about what the following two days would bring us. We expected it to be a useful few days, but we had no idea how much fun it would be as well. It was a great opportunity to meet other students that we never previously had the chance to get to know, and it was a great chance to interact with faculty staff too.


The main attraction of the retreat was of course the dissertation workshops with the professors, who deserve praise for their time and patience helping 20 stressed and neurotic students. There were three and a half workshops offered, each of these would have two professors sit with a group of 6-8 students and help them through different steps of the dissertation process. The first of these was a ‘research question help’ session, the two very patient professors went meticulously through each student’s question, pushing each to better their questions. The second workshop was a ‘research methods and theory’ session, in this the two hard working professors would help to shine a light on the often ignored and disliked, yet key, sections of the dissertation. The final proper session was possibly the most important, in this session the professors helped students with tips on how to deal with stress, time management and how to ‘make it through the dissertation’. In addition to the proper workshops, ‘open surgery sessions’ were offered, where professors worked one on one with students to better their dissertations.

At the retreat we were also offered opportunities to work independently of the academic staff. This peer-to-peer work would see students discuss their research questions and their dissertation plans. Although the aforementioned workshops with the professors were very help, it was in the more relaxed and open environment of the peer-to-peer work that much of the work took place. Many students re-worked, or even formulated, their research questions with the help of their peers. It was during this time that I changed my topic from a more specific study to one that is more general, after the recommendation of a fellow student.


After a long day with filled with workshops, we had the evening off and could enjoy a wide range of activities. Some of us joined a exciting round of the board game Cranium, and research questions, literature reviews and theoretical framework were traded for drawings, miming and trivia. The night ended with the students playing mafia/werewolf into the early hours.

On the second day we were given the opportunity to go on a hike. We were about ten students and two of the faculty staff who decided to attempt to climb the Tinto Hill. After about 45 min we reached the top of the Crag, and despite a lot of fog we managed to get a beautiful view of the area. The other group of student stayed at the estate, and went for a leisurely walk in the local forest.


Overall, it was a very successful treat, and we are sure we speak for most of the students there when we say that it was very helpful to get such close follow up from the faculty staff, and have discussions with fellow students.

To all our fellow final year students; we wish you the best with your dissertations and good luck with whatever you are doing next year and thank you for four great years at University of Edinburgh.


Betzy Hänninen and Abrahim Assaily

NEW BOOK — Rethinking Political Judgement: Arendt and Existentialism


Maša Mrovlje

How can we reinvigorate the human capacity for political judgement as a practical activity capable of addressing the uncertainties of our post-foundational world?

In the face of pervasive injustice and suffering that continuously confound our moral expectations, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and seek solace in despair. More often than not, our judgements and actions seem obliterated under the weight of larger forces and processes, to the point of making the most steadfast pursuit of moral ideals end in disaster. These quandaries foreground political judgement as a topic of fundamental existential import, pertaining to the meaning of our lives and our relationship to the world and others. While political judgement has of late assumed increasing prominence in political theory, the questions of its concrete, human reality and significance remain obscured under the preoccupation with proper standards or grounds. It is now more than fifty years since another generation of thinkers has awarded these questions the status of utmost philosophical relevance. Responding to their own horizon of betrayed hopes for universal human emancipation, twentieth-century philosophies of existence approached the dilemmas of political judgement as they are lived, in the ambiguity of a particular historical situation that cannot be congealed in an abstract system of rules. In our present era of uncertainty and disillusion, this book seeks to reclaim their voice, focusing in particular on the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Hannah Arendt. In their perspective it discerns a valuable prism through which to take up the contemporary impasse of political judgement devoid of metaphysical guarantees.

The book has just been published by Edinburgh University Press. You can encourage your university library to order a copy by forwarding your subject librarian a copy of this flyer: https://edinburghuniversitypress.com/book-rethinking-political-judgement-hb.html.

The Importance of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus and Arendt

The book delves into the four thinkers’ awareness of the moral and political crisis in modernity and their vigilant assumption of the situated, worldly condition of political judgement and action. Highly attentive to the complexity of political affairs, the four thinkers shy away from the quest for a new set of valid yardsticks and rules. Instead, they delve into the experiential reality of political judgement, seeking to rethink it on the model of aesthetic or narrative sensibility. The existential aesthetic sensibility foregrounds political judgement as a reflective practice that must confront the particularity and plurality of the world without prefabricated standards of thought. The purpose of the book is to explore how the existential narrative-inspired attentiveness to illuminating worldly reality can strengthen our capacity to engage the untameable world in political action. Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s aesthetic accounts of judgement are distinct for confronting individuals with their responsibility for the world and the difficult moral dilemmas involved in engaging the oppressive structures in political action. Camus’s and Arendt’s narrative sensibilities, in turn, offer worthy attempts to creatively face up to these difficulties and point to the possibilities of fighting for greater freedom within, rather than outside or above, the bounds of our plural political existence. The book illustrates the prescient political significance of existentialists’ narrative imagination on two contemporary perplexities of political judgement: the problem of dirty hands and the challenge of transitional justice. This engagement reveals the critical, resistant potential of worldly judgement in its ability to stimulate our capacities of coming to terms with and creatively confronting the tragedies of political action, rather than simply yielding to them as a necessary course of political life.

 Approach of the book:

  • The book does not seek to construct a new theory of political judgement that could determine the “right” answers and deliver us from the ambiguity of political affairs, but focuses on the activity of judging as a paramount political
  • It builds on recent insights into the ethical and political relevance of narrative form and opens new vistas of inquiry in the fields of ethics of narrative and politics of recognition.
  • It illustrates the political significance of the existential narrative imagination on concrete examples that challenge and perplex our capacity to judge politically.
  • It combines textual and conceptual analysis with a narrative approach, drawing on literary sensibility to enrich the flow of theoretical argumentation.

PIR learning and teaching

The book will be of interest to research students and academics working within the disciplinary fields of political theory, philosophy, international politics, and intellectual history. It will be also be of interest in several PIR courses, including Political Thinkers, Critical Theory and Cinema, War and Justice, Democracy & its Discontents, and Film and Existentialism.


About the author — Maša Mrovlje completed her PhD at the University of St Andrews and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow working on the ERC-funded project, entitled “Illuminating the ‘Grey Zone’: Addressing Complex Complicity in Human Rights Violations.” Her research interests are oriented by the rubric of international political theory and the history of political thought, with a specific focus on twentieth-century philosophies of existence, poststructuralist and critical theories, and their significance to issues of political judgement, responsibility, violence, and resistance.


Why facilitators are necessary to ensure high-quality public deliberation in citizens’ assemblies

This post originally appeared Democratic Audit UK, on 10th May, 2018.

Democratic Audit has recently published several articles on the potential for citizens’ assemblies to resolve entrenched political problems, in particular for  power-sharing in Northern Ireland, but what is required to make such initiatives work? Keisha Gani argues that facilitators are vital to encourage deliberation and inclusion, which are both necessary for well-designed participatory democracy.

Keisha Blog

Image: geralt/Pixabay

Facilitators: a crucial part of the deliberative process?

In citizens’ assemblies – where a group of lay citizens are selected at random to come together to deliberate on questions of public policy – facilitators often play a vital role. They can build bridges between ‘experts’ who are called to give evidence and citizens to create an environment in which compromise can be reached. By keeping everyone on task, being impartial and managing differences to ensure the discussion is constructive, facilitators place the views of the electorate above the elected.

The role of a facilitator is typically taken on by public officials and civil servants, who are seen to possess authority thanks to their existing involvement in the political arena. Although the emerging industry of participation has produced consultants that act as facilitators, they are not necessarily better at assisting deliberative forums. Iris Marion Young argues that encouraging citizens to be facilitators can result in dialogue that promotes greater accountability and equal opportunity to influence deliberative outputs.

Graham Smith underscores that four key democratic goods can be realised through deliberation, namely: inclusion, popular control, considered judgement and transparency. He also outlines two institutional goods of efficiency and transferability, which evaluate the feasibility and operation of democratic innovations at a larger scale. As facilitators are a crucial part of the deliberative process, they are the key to realising many of Smith’s ideals, particularly inclusion and considered judgement.

Inclusion: creating spaces

Facilitators can enable wider participation by giving individual citizens the space to contribute, by ‘holding’ the problem and creating structured engagement. By synthesising the views of others, facilitators can deal with complexity and simplify discussion. Anyone can be a facilitator, but what sets these individuals apart is their ability to mediate between the public and the political, enabling others to conduct high-quality deliberation.

An important aspect of inclusion is ensuring active deliberation by all participants, rather than just passive observation by some. For example, in the case of the mini publics created for the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on electoral reform, the facilitators evaluated all viewpoints, and attempted to ensure that marginalised groups were not further excluded. However, they found that men often spoke more than women, highlighting the need to improve selection criteria to support facilitation. As deliberation can be conflictual in nature, facilitators must motivate citizen participation and foster interdependence, by decreasing tension and disagreement. Facilitators must ensure that the myriad voices involved in any deliberative forum are included.

Considered judgement: encouraging reflexivity

Considered judgement focuses on the process of participants learning from each other as they are involved in the process. Facilitators take the  abstract positions held and create a ‘critical consciousness’  to motivate individuals to consider other perspectives, in a process that develops collective decision-making. Responding to the informational asymmetries helps facilitators guide individuals from their positions, interests and values towards other perspectives. The ability of facilitators to promote collaboration and help participants develop a shared understanding of the issues at stake can be seen in democratic innovations such as Porto Alegre’s Participatory Budgeting project.

Reflexivity is a key component of empowerment, where facilitators can help citizens become more aware of how their thoughts and actions develop. Deliberation treats citizen preferences as fluid, emphasising the ability of individuals to reflect and collaborate if they are well-informed. It is important not just to look at what individuals are thinking about, but also to address how and why they view things a certain way. As such, facilitators play a crucial role in nurturing deliberative dynamics to empower the public.

Archon Fung believes that trust is also an important component of the perceived legitimacy of facilitators. The importance of this was highlighted in the case of the Sacramento Water Forum, where the participants chose a facilitator they felt comfortable with. Facilitators generate trust by encouraging dialogue to reach reflexivity, rather than merely being there to transmit information. This ensures authentic dialogue by allowing multiple voices and perspectives to be explored, as the focus is on building relationships rather than just producing results. It is particularly important for facilitators to be aware of top-down representative dynamics and be careful not to reinforce this.

Deliberation without facilitation – is it possible?

Deliberative processes without facilitators are not unheard of, in particular in the use of E-democracy, such as the electronic participatory budgeting initiative in Iceland that followed the economic crisis. Here there is no face-to-face exchange that requires mediation. However, these processes are not without their issues, as even – or perhaps especially – with online participation, the tendency is to have more disagreement than deliberation. Without facilitators, there may be more monologues and pre-packaged arguments that shut down or restrict inclusion and considered judgement.

As the goal is to reach agreement or a deeper understanding of the issue being discussed, the facilitator’s presence is pivotal in creating an environment that fosters deliberative dynamics. Graham Smith’s democratic goods of popular control and transparency may be realised without facilitators, but their assistance plays a vital role in the realisation of considered judgement and is at the heart of inclusiveness, making deliberation more efficient and transferable to a variety of situations. Even if diversity is ensured, facilitators must be present to foster interdependence and authentic dialogue, by giving all participants equal opportunity to contribute. Giving citizens the space to collaborate and engage in reflexivity is an essential part of facilitation, and should remain a key priority of deliberative democracy.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Democratic Audit. The author would like acknowledge Dr Oliver Escobar and his course “Public Participation in Democracy and Governance” (University of Edinburgh). 

About the author

Keisha Gani

Keisha Gani is currently undertaking an MSc in Health Policy at the University of Edinburgh.


This post originally appeared johnpeterson51 on 27th April, 2018.

Living in the UK, one would think that Brexit must be taking up all the ‘political oxygen’ in this city.  But it isn’t.  Most of the exit negotiations have been delegated to a (small) task force of the EU Commission with Michel Barnier (former French Foreign Minister) as its head.  That way, the UK has been unable to ‘pick off’ sympathetic member states, or those with particularly strong links to the UK, from collective EU positions.  Virtually everyone who I have spoken to here thinks that Barnier and his team – led by the formidable Commission official Sabine Weyand (who studied at Cambridge) – has performed remarkably well in difficult circumstances.

Things have changed a bit since the negotiations moved to a ‘2nd phase’ (start of 2018).  The first phase focused on the UK’s budget contribution, rights of EU citizens, and Irish/UK border – in other words, the terms of ‘divorce’ – on which agreement was reached in December (although Irish border question was fudged).  That was the easy part.

Now we’re into talks on future EU-UK relations, which are much more complicated and contentious.  Theresa May is walking a tightrope leading a very divided cabinet that includes strident pro-Leavers such as Boris Johnson as well as Remain backers like Philip Hammond.  The EU 27 will have far more difficulty staying united in phase 2 and member states are already deviating from the company line in subtle or not so subtle ways on, say, the City of London, air transport – the company that owns British Airways is registered in Spain – or future trade relations (Ireland obviously wants as little change from status quo as possible).

I met with a senior EU official working on Brexit this morning.  The last thing he told me was of Theresa May telling Barnier last year ‘I hope we can count on you to make these negotiations successful’.  Barnier apparently responded:  ‘we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that’.  In other words, the EU can’t offer the UK too good a deal for the simple reason that it wants to do nothing that might tempt other member states to leave.

But the main story here is that Brexit isn’t that big a story.  The EU is just getting on with other things on biz as usual basis.  They include closer defence cooperation, agreeing a budget for 2021-7 (tough as UK was net contributor), new free trade agreements with Japan and Vietnam (and an upgraded, modernised one with Mexico), cyber-security, a ‘war on plastic’, and so on.  Not only do the worker bees just keep working.  Brexit – combined with the renewed confidence that comes with economic growth – seems to have energised the EU.

One myth that I’ve exploded during my time here this year is that most EU types are glad that the UK is leaving since it won’t be around to block things as it did in the past (on, say, EU defence).  But that’s entirely wrong.  Most people here feel sad and even depressed about Brexit.  Most British EU officials are – in my experience – very able.  Whitehall remains much admired across Europe.  And Brexit is a collective EU problem, especially for the more liberal EU states that trade most with the UK.

A lot of people here have asked me:  Maybe the UK could change its mind?  Could there be a 2nd referendum?  Possibly if the current government falls?  I tend to agree with my friend Richard Corbett MEP that there are about 10 different scenarios for the UK that all have about a 10% chance of occurring.

But I also think Brexit is a political fact and that reversing it would take a miracle.  Dommage.

Letter to my younger self – The final semester (dissertation, graduation, what’s next, ahhhh!)

A series written for students by students in collaboration with PIR and the Edinburgh Political Union

Dear 4th year Maryam,

You’re at a crossroad. Actually, it’s more like a hectic roundabout with about twenty exits. Part of you is pushing yourself to work the hardest you’ve ever worked before. You want to make use of the last semester you have to boost your grade and end with a bang, to be proud of the four years of work and sweat and make it really meaningful.


Another part of you is exhausted. You’ve been working hard for ages now and you feel like it’s your time to enjoy your last semester; You want to be surrounded by the people you love and be out and about doing the things you love.

A small part of your brain is thinking about after graduation. What now? Job? Masters? Move home for a while and save some money? Travel? You feel privileged to have so many options but you’re confused and you keep going round and round and round.

You’re hearing a lot of clichés from your friends and family. This will climax in the quintessential graduation moment. Now, clichés are a necessary evil, they exist for a reason, but are extremely frustrating to hear. I’m sorry to say, “the world is not your oyster”. If anything you will definitely not even be able to afford oysters for the next few years.

On the other hand, these are some few pieces of advice in the form of clichés that I did find useful and wish I had taken more seriously at the time…

Have each other’s backs:  Support your friends and let yourself be supported. Everyone is going through this stressful time and it’s easy to get into a hole where all you can think about is your own plans and start panicking. Tell your friends. Let them help you. And in turn, listen to their anxieties. Saying them out loud sometimes makes it less scary and you’ll come to realize that everyone is in the same boat (wow another cliché!)

Believe in yourself:  Everyone is talking about plans after graduating. The same people have asked a few times because they’ve asked so many people they’ve forgotten already. Don’t get confused, stick to your general and pretty ambiguous plan. You don’t have to know exactly what you want to do right now.

pic 2

See the bigger picture:  Your dissertation will come together. You can’t see it right now because you are so focused on one section, you’ve even changed the question a few times and you’re panicking about how you’ll even make it to 10,000 words. Deep breathe. Those 10,000 words will look a lot shorter in a few months, even annoyingly limiting. Remember that this is your chance to write about exactly what you wanted, whatever grade it gets, be proud of just that.

Work hard, play hard:  Keep working your a** off. Keep putting in the hours in the library. Don’t rush this process, set a few targets to do every day. Also, remember to reward yourself and the work you’ve done by going clubbing, cooking dinner for some pals and having a pint or two. Basically cut up your working time and don’t burn out.

Oh, one more thing. This doesn’t fit into a cliché but it’s important. CUT DOWN ON THE COFFEE. Four cups a day is draining your bank account and is making you look a bit manic.


Maryam Saade


Cross-national partisan effects on agenda stability

This post originally appeared on JEPP Online, The Official Blog of the Journal of European Public Policy)

Shaun Bevan

National and international attention devoted to the German coalition talks earlier this year offers anecdotal evidence of the importance political parties and electorates place on governments’ legislative agendas. But once in office, can political parties actually exert control over legislative agendas in a fast-paced political and economic environment?

In their article “Cross-national partisan effects on agenda stability” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Shaun Bevan and Zachary Greene investigate parties’ effects on agenda stability in six industrialised democracies over time. Shaun and Zachary argue that the stability of legislative agendas is subject to the state of the economy, transitions in government as well as the number of parties in a coalition government and the share of seats it controls in parliament. Their results suggest that parties tend to have strong effects on the stability of legislative agendas, yet constraints and incentives linked to the state of the economy, seat shares and number of coalition parties are particularly prevalent in the aftermath of partisan transitions in government. In light of their findings, Shaun and Zachary argue that even if voters are “unaware of parties’ detailed policy goals, using simple heuristics such as party labels and economic conditions, [their] perspective suggests that citizens can form relatively sound expectations on parties’ behaviors in office.”


How a prime minister’s leadership style affects their parliament’s role in security decisions

by Professor Julie Kaarbo

(This post originally appeared on London School of Economics and Political Science)

Julie Kaarbo

Parliaments sometimes get to influence security policy, but not always. Juliet Kaarbo draws on Leadership Trait Analysis to argue that prime ministerial leadership style is a critical factor in determining the role of parliaments in foreign affairs. She demonstrates the plausibility of this argument by comparing how Turkish and UK prime ministers’ orientations towards parliament influenced key security policies.

The long-held view that parliaments are insignificant players in security policy is coming under considerable challenge by recent research demonstrating that parliaments can and have played a critical role in key security decisions. Parliaments, of course, are not always influential or even involved in security policy and contemporary scholarship identifies a number of factors that affect parliamentary influence, including the particular powers held by parliaments, intraparty divisions, and the context of the security mission. Missing from this laundry list is the prime minister, the most important political agent in parliamentary systems. In my research, I explore how differences in PMs’ leadership styles enhance or minimize parliamentary influence in security policy.

PMs’ orientations to parliaments’ role are important because parliamentary authority in security matters is often constitutionally and politically ambiguous. Even in the American system, in which the legislative role is constitutionally prescribed and further codified in the War Powers Resolution, presidents sometimes seek Congressional approval for troop deployment; at other times they do not.

The ambiguity of a legislative role in security is also present in many parliamentary systems and even when parliamentary approval is legally required, there is often disagreement about when and how parliamentary involvement is to be triggered. When there is no constitutional basis for such involvement, as in the UK tradition of the Royal Prerogative, there is considerable scope for PMs to decide if and when to involve parliament.

Parliamentary involvement in UK security policy may have become political convention, as James Strong and others have argued, but this convention is a product of successive decisions by PMs to allow the House of Commons to have a say. When parliaments are asked to (or themselves initiate) a debate and vote on a matter of foreign affairs, PMs also vary in the way they manage the parliamentary process. PMs, for example, may play a lead in disciplining their party, delegate discipline to others, or choose to remain above the political fray.

Prime ministers’ orientations to parliaments are undoubtedly influenced by many factors, including their personal leadership style. PMs, for example, may differ in their overall involvement with parliament and they may differ in how they react to intraparty politics. They may also vary in the extent to which they engage in denial of opposition or wishful thinking that the vote will be in their favour. These differences are affected by basic personality traits.

I argue that the seven personality traits captured in Margaret Hermann’s Leadership Trait Analysis framework – belief in ability to control events; conceptual complexity; need for power; distrust of others; in-group bias; self-confidence; and task orientation – affect PMs’ leadership styles and how they deal with parliament. Research has demonstrated that these seven traits systematically link to leaders’ propensity to challenge or respect constraints, their openness to information and advice, the structure of their advisory systems, the quality of decision-making processes, and the policies leaders choose for their country or organization. From this research, I derive expectations about PM orientations toward parliamentary influence in security policies.

These involve three questions. First, which PMs are most likely to fight against parliamentary involvement? I argue that PMs who have a high need for power, and high levels of distrust, are likely to challenge or circumscribe any parliamentary role.  Second, which PMs will actively engage in the management of the parliamentary process? Research suggests that PMs who have a strong belief in their ability to control events and high conceptual complexity will be more involved. Third, how effective are PMs in the management of that process? From work on leaders and policy mistakes, we would expect leaders who are low in complexity and high in self-confidence to blunder the process through mismanagement and underestimate the degree of opposition in parliament. This type of PM ineffectively opens the door for greater parliamentary influence.

Turkish politics provides one example of how different PM leadership styles influence PMs’ orientations to parliaments and their role in foreign and security policy. In my study with Çuhadar, Kesgin, and Özkeçeci-Taner, we argue that the surprise Turkish parliament vote in 2003 to decline the American request to use Turkey as a base for operations in the Iraq War was a result of the PM’s bungling the management of the vote. In stark contrast was the Turkish parliament’s approval of the deployment of troops in the 1991 Gulf War, which, we argue, came about from a very forceful leadership dictating its terms to parliament. The key differences in the personality traits for the leaders in these cases were their self-confidence and complexity.

Another example comes from the UK. In my article with Daniel Kenealy, we note that in the highly unusual House of Commons defeat of David Cameron’s preference to attack Syria in 2013, the PM was criticised for recalling Parliament in a haphazard manner, not doing enough to secure support from wavering backbenchers, being overconfident, and underestimating the opposition. Cameron’s call for parliamentary support can be contrasted with Blair’s reluctance to go to the House of Commons in the 2003 Iraq war; and Cameron’s mismanagement of the process can be contrasted with Blair effectively turning the Iraq vote into a confidence motion and passionately delivering an impressive rhetorical case.

Can the differences between these two PMs’ orientations toward parliament’s role in security policy be captured by Leadership Trait Analysis? Blair’s higher belief in his ability to control events and his higher need for power may explain his lower openness to parliamentary involvement and his higher level of active involvement. Cameron’s comparatively higher complexity may explain his greater openness to parliamentary involvement and his higher self-confidence may explain his ineffective management.

The examples of Turkish and UK security policy demonstrate plausibility for my argument that PMs’ orientations are part of the picture in parliamentary involvement in security affairs. If the role of parliaments in security policy is increasing in significance, and if the relationship between executives and legislatures is being recalibrated in modern parliamentary democracies, the executive, led by the PM, has considerable authority to interpret, manage, and even manipulate this relationship.

Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in The British Journal of Politics and International Relations.