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.


2018 PIR Dissertation Retreat

by Elizabeth Bomberg (Head of PIR)

During the Festival of Creative Learning (Feb 2018) several dozen PIR dissertation students*, accompanied by seven staff headed to Perthshire for an overnight Dissertation Retreat.  Arriving at the sunny (really!) Comrie Croft, we settled in, enjoyed our packed lunches outside before getting down to work.  Following introductions we began three parallel workshops on topics nominated by students and staff (research question and structure; argument and analysis; writing survival strategies). The workshops – each of which featured a small group of students and two academics –  were highly interactive and gave us a chance to learn about all the fascinating topics PIR students are exploring. Staff ran their sessions several times so that students could visit all three (or go back to the same one if they were keen).  Between workshops we had wonderful tea breaks and ‘open surgeries’ so students could ask staff individual questions and – crucially- share their ideas with other students.


We formed task groups to set up rooms (students converted a cow shed into a dissertation workshop lab!) or prepare meals. Our awe inspiring cooking team did a fantastic job preparing curries to suit all tastes. The Croft offered a perfect dining space with common dining area, as well as niches for quiet study or smaller discussion groups. After tidying up (yes everyone pitched in – impressive) students and staff relaxed, took part in a multinational marshmallow roast, or competed in an improvised Articulate board game (which demonstrated again that students know more interesting stuff than do staff).

file4Day 2 started with fresh air and gorgeous hikes. Marc, Johanna, Josefine and others headed out for a run at an ungodly hour; Andy Thompson led troopers to climb the Deil’s Cauldron while others strolled to a nearby waterfall, led by student Fidra who knows the Croft extremely well and provided tons of local knowledge.  Suitably refreshed we headed  back  for a final workshop and highly successful peer-to-peer session in which students shared with each other their questions, methods, and challenges. Staff were amazed by the insights and support students provided for each other. Then time to tidy, lunch, and a wrap up session so students could share what they got out of the Retreat (‘I’m feeling much more upbeat.’ ‘I’ve nailed my research question’; ‘I loved getting to know students and staff’) and staff could share their top tips (e.g. set aside dedicated writing time; don’t neglect the conclusion; write with the reader in mind).

Upon our return to Edinburgh Elizabeth will hold a session for all PIR Dissertation students, drawing out some of the key tips and themes from the Retreat. We’re definitely looking forward to running similar retreats in subsequent years.  Students in Years 1-3: you’ve got a (re)treat in store!


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*The students who made this an amazing experience were:  Addi Bowden-Doyle, Alex Mcateer, Alice Grierson, Alicia Clark,  Amy Younger,  Andrew Bailie,  Bloom Segun-Toluhi,  Catriona Millar,  Edie Marriner,  Emma Grace,  Fidra Sym, Jo Dodd, Johanna Tiippana, Josefine Lynggaard, Lily Settari, Molly Griffiths, Phoebe Hanson-Lowe, Rebecca Drummond, Sam Taylor and Sarah Dunn.  Staff offering sessions, advice  and support were:  Elizabeth Bomberg, Julia Calvert, Marc Geddes, Stephen Hill, Cora Lacatus, Sophie Sheerin and Andy Thompson

We are grateful to the University’s Festival of Creative Learning for helping us fund this event.

Letter to my younger self – How to survive and thrive in MA dissertation

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

Dear 4th year Liam,

It’s January. It’s dark outside, and cold. You’re probably tucked away in the basement of the CMB, pondering the meaning of life, wondering if you should get another meal deal or a Nile valley wrap right about now… I am writing to you to let you know I’m in a better place now, I’ve completed 4th year. You don’t need to worry about me, everything turned out great. There’s no need to panic, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel (although it probably seems quite far away for you at the moment).


I’ve reflected on my final year dissertation at Edinburgh University and I’m here to give you a couple of pieces of advice for the coming months. Listen up:

  • Okay, fun time is over. You should probably start working on your dissertation (seriously). It’s time to embark on this new journey of yours. As long as you just take a deep breath and start, everything is going to be fine. From experience, slow and steady wins the race and hands it in on time… The second semester flies by, so if you make steady progress of your work, everything will be fine.
  • Don’t worry about where others are at, there’s no point. Concentrate on nothing but your work. Don’t compare your progress to that of your peers. Every dissertation is unique and the same is true for people’s working habits. Although, some of your friends may work 16 hours a day, that doesn’t mean it has to be the norm. Comparing yourself to others will only stress you out and there’s no point in stressing out. Stress won’t write your dissertation for you! Stress is a waste of time. As I’ve said at the start, everything is going to be okay.
  • That said, get through it together. No one likes to suffer alone. Writing a dissertation is a long process so find yourself some friends or classmates or even strangers who are going through the same process. You’ll find it to be much more manageable on a daily basis and it’ll give you someone to take lunch/coffee breaks with, which is always nice J.
  • Also, be compassionate with your friends. This may seem mundane, and I know I just said everything will be fine—but that doesn’t mean you won’t need to lean on each other along the way. Hear them out, re-assure them. Having them explain things to you works wonders. It allows for them to clarify a lot of things. Plus, if you’re there for them, they’ll be there for you if you come across emotional hiccups along the way. Yay friendship! :3


  • Back your work and your data up! You don’t want to be that person sobbing in the corner alone. Do yourself a favour, download google drive or dropbox right now and set it up so that your ‘Dissertation’ folder is continuously backed up online. Losing work you did for your dissertation is everyone’s nightmare. Don’t let it happen to you.
  • Do something else. Enjoy your final months at Edinburgh Uni. Life goes on after the dissertation. Make the most of your time in Edinburgh. Do some sports, grab a pint with friends, go out clubbing! It’s sad to say, but it might be the last moments you get with all your friends in the same place, so enjoy it. Plus, it’ll give your friends and you something to talk about. The ‘’how’s the dissertation?’’ chat gets old very quickly. You’ll see what I’m talking about in a few weeks’ time…
  • Make use of your dissertation supervisor. They’re there to assist you. They know what they’re expecting from you, it’s up to you to figure it out and deliver the goods. If you need to meet them go ahead, do it—especially if you use their office hours! They’re there to help and guide you through the process and they want you to succeed.
  • The outline is key. I would almost start with this. Having a clear outline will help you define what needs to be written, where and how. Elaborate your ideas and explore various frameworks. The more detailed it is, the easier it’ll be down the line.
  • Split up the work into easily defined parts. If you’ve done the outline (see #8) properly, it’ll be much easier for you see how your workload will be split up into clearly defined tasks with specific word counts. If you think of it, the all-mighty dissertation really boils down to just a few thousand-word essays. No sweat, you’ve done that plenty over the past four years. You’ll quickly come to realise 10,000 words isn’t really enough for everything you’d like to say. For a comparable piece of writing from your coursework, think of the journal articles you read (these come in around 8-11,000 words), NOT whole books, massive textbook chapters, or commissioned reports.
  • Enjoy it. This is your project, have fun with it. Write about what passions you. Learn something new. Be creative. This may all sound cheesy, but it’s true.

As a final note, don’t let your friend(s) try to convince you graduation is a waste of time. Although admittedly the gown is expensive to rent, it’s truly a special event you won’t want to miss.


Liam Stock-Rabbat






Does Catalonia Have a Right to Secede?

SBA71Photo: SBA73

by Kieran Oberman, Lecturer | PIR

(This post originally appeared on openDemocracy)

Catalonia’s October 1st referendum produced some shocking images: polling stations stormed, elderly voters with bloodied faces, fire fighters (of all people) beaten by police. Coverage in the press and widespread sharing on social media ensured a PR disaster for Spain. Catalonia’s separatists, for a moment at least, have gained the world’s attention and a share of its sympathy. But how far should that sympathy extend?

One can condemn the violence and leave it there (as, for instance, Belgium did). But the more fundamental question is whether Catalonia has a right to secession. That is not just a question about the recent poll. Even if one rejects the legitimacy of that poll, one still faces the question of whether another should be held. There is no reason why Catalonia could not hold an orderly referendum of the Quebec and Scotland kind. What has been stopping it so far is Spanish opposition. So, must Spain give way?

That is not an easy question to answer because it is far from clear what would give any region a right to secede. The public debate – in Catalonia, Spain and elsewhere – is not much help. People tend to decide these issues on grounds of loyalty and emotion. There is a lot flag waving; much less reasoned argument.

For my own part, I have wrestled with the question of secession for many years. I have taught the topic at universities around the world: in the US, Bangladesh, Ireland and Scotland. Secession has played a critical role in the history of all those countries and students have had valuable points to make. But even after my debates with students, I have struggled to resolve matters in my own mind.

It is not that I don’t have an intuitive judgement about the issue. As I indicated in a piece I wrote during the Scottish referendum, I do think regions like Scotland and Catalonia should be allowed to secede. What I have struggled with is locating an adequate justification for that position. In the literature in political philosophy (my field) there are some fascinating books and articles, but few arguments I find convincing. It is only now, in reaction to Catalonia, that I finally have a better sense of what is grounding my pro-secessionist stance. I return to that grounding below, but first let me review what I regard as some common false starts.

First, democracy. This is the ‘go to’ argument of many Catalan secessionists. According to Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, a vote on independence is simply an “expression of a free democracy”. On this view, Catalans have a right to decide whether Catalonia is independent just as they have a right to decide on any other issue affecting them. The problem with this argument is that it assumes what is precisely at issue: that Catalonia represents the appropriate constituency to make this decision. Another plausible constituency would be Spain itself. For it is not just Catalonia that is affected by the issue of independence. Catalan independence would have significant repercussions for Spain’s economy and identity. It would also have ripple effects on other regions, including the Basque country which has only recently escaped the violence of its own secessionist conflict.

In short, the democracy argument fails to overcome what we might term the ‘symmetry problem’. Democracy can be advanced both as an argument for secession and an argument against it. To justify secession, we need to justify ‘asymmetry’: to explain why it is Catalonia, not Spain as a whole, that has a right to decide.

Democracy is not the only argument that suffers from the symmetry problem. Another is national self-determination. The idea that a nation has a right to determine its own future is fine as far as it goes. The problem arises when there is more than one nation in play. Catalan national self-determination butts up against Spanish national self-determination. One cannot give full expression to the one without limiting the other. Some will stamp their feet at this and proclaim that “Catalonia is not Spain”. If there were two discreet nations then Spain would be other-determining not self-determining when it takes part in Catalan affairs. But the very fact people proclaim this slogan demonstrates how controversial it is. National identity is not physics. Nations exist, split or overlap depending on inter-subjective beliefs. As long as there are people inside Catalonia and the rest of Spain who believe in an over-arching Spanish nation, the concept of national self-determination can be invoked by both sides. It offers no firm ground for secession.


Photo: Generalitat de Catalunya

Are there no arguments that avoid the symmetry problem? Yes, at least two. One is self-defence: the idea that group of people can have a right to secede when threatened by some profound injustice. Such an argument can prove compelling. Having recently survived Saddam and ISIS, and with the future still so uncertain, Kurdish Iraq can plausibly make an argument of this sort. Catalonia, however, is different. It did experience severe repression under Franco but modern Spain, whatever its faults, is a peaceful liberal democracy. In terms of wealth, security and freedom, it is among the most successful countries on Earth. Catalan secessionists complain that, as a richer region, they pay more into central government than they get out. But this complaint should not arouse much sympathy. Indeed, for those on the left, with their concern for equality and redistribution, it should be treated with particular disgust. There might be more nuanced complaints to be made against Spain’s fiscal arrangement, but even if we accept them, they do not amount to profound injustices of the ISIS or Franco kind. Admittedly, things could get worse. If the state violence we witnessed on Sunday were to become routine, then a self-defence argument would become more convincing. Let us hope, for everyone’s sake, that that is not where we are heading.

The other argument that avoids the symmetry argument is freedom of association. This the kind of argument that it takes a philosopher to come up with. The argument likens states to clubs. Just as you and your friends don’t need anyone’s approval to set up a new club or split from an old one, so regions don’t need their state’s approval to secede. The problem with the argument is quite simple: the analogy fails. States are not like clubs. People do not voluntarily join states for the sake of their hobby or passion; they are forced into states for the sake of justice and peace. States set the background rules; clubs and other associations offer peoplegood the opportunity to pursue particular interests. If Catalans want to form associations, they can do so. Catalonia already has all kinds of clubs and associations, including many operating across the region (the Catalan Football Federation, the Catalan Association for Science Communication and so on and so forth). They don’t need a state to be their club, nor should they want it to be. A state that tries to be a club is like a parent who tries to be a friend. We need states. We need parents. But if we are to maintain our individual autonomy, these unchosen authorities in our lives must assume their proper roles and not pretend to be something they are not.

Those are the arguments that I find unconvincing. So why do I favour independence referendums? For a while I thought the best argument was merely pragmatic; the ‘let-insiders-vote rule’ is, among the alternatives, the best means to minimise conflict. But now I think there is more to be said. It is important that we, as citizens, feel some kind of connection to our state; that we see it as legitimate or at least not as wholly illegitimate. This is not because states are like clubs, but precisely because they are so different. States coerce us. They tell us to do certain things and punish us if we disobey. Such coercion can be justified. Everyone except anarchists accepts that. But it is important that when they coerce us, we have some sense that they are not merely coercing us. We need to be able to look at the state and think that, in some sense, it is our own. The state institutions we interact with and the laws we live under should feel familiar and benign; like they are there for us and our society, not some outside power. When instead the state seems foreign or hostile, it is hard to feel at home in the world.

Teresa Grau Ross

Photo: Teresa Grau Ross

As events have proceeded, I think more and more Catalans are experiencing a sense of alienation from the Spanish state. The spectacle of Spanish police being shipped in (quite literally) from other areas of Spain, has not helped matters, evoking, as it does, parallels with foreign occupation. Of course, not everyone in Catalonia feels alienated. The thousands who protested in Barcelona’s unity rally on Sunday clearly believe in the legitimacy of Spain. That is why it is crucial that the matter is settled by a free and fair referendum in which everyone in Catalonia is given a say.

Does this ‘alienation argument’ escape the symmetry problem? I believe so. If Catalonia were to secede, the Spanish economy would suffer and many Spanish people would be profoundly upset, but they would continue to live under a Spanish state that most recognise as their own. The same is not true of Catalans who are denied a referendum.

I realise the argument raises many questions. How many people need to feel alienated to demand a referendum? How alienated must they feel? What about the possible costs of secession, for those inside and outside the seceding region? There cannot be an absolute right to secede no matter how high the costs – that would be absurd. But how high must the costs before the right is defeated?

Perhaps the most difficult question is that of minorities within minorities. Consider, the case of the Val d’Aran, an area of Catalonia with its own fierce sense of independence. If Catalonia secedes, must the Val d’Aran be granted its own referendum? And if Val d’Aran, what about other unionist pockets within Catalonia, whether at the level towns, villages or even neighbourhoods? The alienation argument, as presented above, would seem to invite repeated secession, but many, including many Catalan separatists, would demur at this prospect. I cannot hope to settle these questions here. My thoughts are too tentative; these matters too complicated.

This brings me to a final point. Because secession is such a morally complicated issue, it is crucial that both sides show greater respect for each other. There is no black/white here. We are all in the grey zone of reasonable disagreement. Contrary to statements by leading politicians, the  Spanish government is not Franco and the Catalan government is not Hitler. The parties to the conflict need to stop waving flags and start making arguments. This point is perhaps particularly important for Spain since it is the Spanish government that has the tanks and riot squads at its disposal. With such power, it is much too tempting to use it. The recurrent theme of the Spanish government – and most recently, the king – is that the Catalonian crisis is first and foremost a criminal justice issue. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the referendum broke Spanish law, but it is perfectly evident by now, from the civil rights and other great movements of the past, that reasonable people sometimes do break laws for good reasons. They should not be dismissed as ordinary criminals. Indeed, when millions of your citizens engage in a referendum you have ruled illegal, it is a sure sign that you have a political, not a legal, problem on your hands.


A few notes by way of bibliography:

This article draws on a philosophical literature on secession that is by now quite extensive. Rather than attempt to provide a full list of sources, let me refer to a few works that might prove particularly helpful.

For an excellent introduction to the philosophy of secession see Allen Buchanan’s article in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

The problem I raise with the democracy argument relates to a much-discussed problem in democratic theory called the ‘boundary problem’. For a description of the problem, and one of many attempts to solve it, see David Miller’s article, “Democracy’s Domain”.

The freedom of association argument I referred to has been presented by a number of philosophers, including in Christopher Wellman in A Theory of Secession: The Case for Political Self-Determination.

The alienage argument I defended has some affinities to Annie Stilz’s “Decolonization and Self-Determination”.