Thursday, 25 May 2017

Professor Beverley Clack on the philosophy of religion

I’m a Philosopher of Religion. I’ve always been interested in how people make or find meaning in life, and one of the most significant ways in which people make meaningful lives is through adopting forms of religious belief or practice.

That is not to say that religion is always a Good Thing: the final chapter of the book I wrote with my brother Brian Clack in 2008 on the Philosophy of Religion considering the relationship between Religion and Terrorism, and sadly this connection has not diminished in the years that followed its publication.

But perhaps this connection should not surprise us: after all, religion is a human phenomenon, and thus it reflects the kaleidoscope of positions open to human beings. We might note that societies committed to atheism have not been averse to dealing cruelly with their citizens. I am interested in the way in which religion can add something creative and positive to life, and in an age where human experience is increasingly being shaped by information technologies and the possibility of Artificial Intelligence, it is not a bad thing to think about the ways in which human beings might create meaningful lives from reflection on their place in the cosmos.

I’m particularly interested in how psychoanalysis has helped us explore the strangeness of the connections human beings make as they seek to make sense of their place in the world. My most recent book was on Freud, and I explored his ideas explicitly against the backdrop of psychotherapeutic practice. 

My next book is on failure. I’ve become fascinated by how a dominant cultural narrative of what makes for a successful life has meant we are more miserable and anxious than ever. To be a success - so the story goes - demands attaining status, money and possessions. By exploring the shadow side of success - failure - it is possible to arrive at a different way of thinking about the meaning of life. I’m particularly interested in the way in which death has increasingly been constructed as a form of failure, when in fact it tells us something significant about the role loss and vulnerability play in determining human existence. We are not godlike creatures, separate from each other and the world. We need each other, and reflecting on loss and failure shows just how dependent we are. Instead of greeting the fact that loss and death are fundamental aspects of life with shame, we might instead allow these realities to shape better ways of living that ground us in an appreciation of this mutable world. And my book closes with suggestions about how we might do this!

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Dr Mark Cain on the human mind

I’m a philosopher interested in the human mind: what exactly are minds, how do they work and how do they develop? These questions have been at the core of my academic life since I started studying for an MPhil way back in the early 1990s. Back in those days I was rather sniffy about the relevance of science to what I thought of as distinctly philosophical questions. However, under the influence of philosophers such as Jerry Fodor and Daniel Dennett I went ‘naturalistic’ coming to see philosophy as being continuous with science. Hence, I became an enthusiast for cognitive science, the interdisciplinary study of the mind that unites philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, and Artificial Intelligence. Several years later this interest manifested itself in the publication of my book The Philosophy of Cognitive Science (published in 2015 by Polity) in which I wrestle with some of the biggest questions about the mind from an empirically informed perspective. 

Being a naturalistic philosopher of mind has its pluses and minuses. On the plus side, I do seem to be interested in questions which most intelligent and curious non-philosophers can relate to and see as important and interesting. I’m reminded of this whenever I go to my local book store and look in the popular science section that is stuffed with books about the mind and brain popularising, the kind of research that I reflect upon on a daily basis. As a philosopher I can’t overemphasise what a relief it is not to be regarded as some kind of crank engaged in a pointless endeavour. On the minus side, I have to remain on top of a rapidly expanding literature that straddles several demanding disciplines. This sometimes makes me feel ignorant and overwhelmed but I’ve found that running miles and miles every week along trails in the Chiltern Hills helps keep me positive. 

I’m currently writing a book for Routledge entitled Innateness and the Cognitive Mind. Here I will address the question of which aspects of the mature human mind are learned and which are innate, arguing that much more is innate than is often thought. If the trail running helps keep my anxiety levels down this book should be completed by the end of the year.

Details of my published books can be found here.

Dr Marika Leino on Renaissance plaquettes

What can you tell us about your research?
I started my career at Christie’s auction house in London, in the European Sculpture and Works of Art Department, and quickly learned that research could mean many different things. Sometimes it was a means of establishing authorship (or a route to the realisation that it was impossible to place a sculpture within the oeuvre of a particular artist, or even a school); at times an interesting ‘human interest angle’ was needed to give early modern sculpture a relevance to contemporary buyers; but more and more I came to an understanding that for me research allowed for a way of exploring how works of art, and Renaissance sculptures in particular, were appreciated in their original social and cultural contexts.

It is precisely from this perspective that my book, Fashion, Devotion and Contemplation: The Status and Functions of Italian Renaissance Plaquettes (Peter Lang, 2013), explored the many functions ofa category of objects labelled in the 19th century as ‘plaquettes’ - small, seemingly uniform, mainly bronze reliefs – concluding that they were in fact produced as a multitude of different object types – hat badges, sword pommels, sides of caskets and also collectors’ pieces to be held in the hand, discussed with cultured friends, and admired for their artistry and design. Very quickly, however, these original contexts were lost, the reliefs were divorced from their intended uses, and stored in cabinets of curiosity, and later museums, as a homonymous category, the plaquette. This disparity between initial function and later display has continued to fascinate me.

A selection of plaquettes from the V & A, London.

I am currently perplexed by inscriptions, which are hidden underneath the bases of a group of Italian fifteenth-century portrait busts. These inscriptions are written in Roman letters, carefully carved into the marble, stating the name of the sitter, the sculptor and the age of the sitter or the date of the work, and on occasion the profession of the sitter and the location. The busts were made for wealthy Florentine men, by foremost sculptors of their period; Mino da Fiesole, Benedetto da Maiano and Antonio Rossellino, between 1453 and 1468. My aim is to investigate the possible reasons for these concealed words, which can only been seen by lifting the busts off their bases, not an inconsiderable feat, as I was lucky to discover when the V&A bust of Giovanni Chellini, by Antonio Rossellino, was taken down for me – it took three men to lift it off its support and a hydraulic lift to place it back again! An analysis of the motivation for these clandestine inscriptions will be conducted through an examination of the busts themselves, by researching links between the sitters, as well as those between the sculptors, who all lived and worked in and around Florence and Rome. Many of the men portrayed were interested in ideas relating to humanism and antiquity, and so a key area of investigation will be the relationship between the inscriptions on the busts and contemporary notions of memory and posterity.

 Antonio Rossellino, Bust of Giovanni Chellini, marble, 1456, V&A, London.

How does your research influence your teaching?

Apart from the obvious links in subject matter – I teach straight art-historical courses which relate to my research on Renaissance sculpture and painting – I am increasingly interested in conveying to students the importance of thinking about original intended display and reception alongside current museum and gallery presentation. To this end, I, along with my colleagues Christiana Payne and Elizabeth Darling, developed a second year undergraduate module, Curatorial Practice, aimed at increasing curatorial awareness in our undergraduate students. This module not only allows us to consider the fascinating journeys objects have made from their original intended contexts to becoming ‘art’ in museums - altarpieces which are no longer worshipped in the churches they were made for; portraits which have lost their identity; fountain figures which have been dry for years – but has also give us, staff and students alike, the opportunity to consider how our research can shape the way in which works of art are appreciated and understood now. 

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Dr David Maguire discusses his research on the culture of male incarceration

What can you tell us about your research?

I am interested in the classed, gendered and criminal journeys of (young) men from deindustrialised regions and impoverished neighbourhoods in the UK. More specifically my research explores how boys and young men construct masculinity across various sites of exclusion, such as deprived housing estates, under resourced and ‘failing’ schools, residential children’s or ‘care’ homes and prisons. A major concern of this research is to explore if and how constructing or ‘doing’ masculinity across these sites leads many to contribute to their own economic exclusion, imprisonment and continued disadvantage. The most important aspect of my work is to uncover how these sites of exclusion play an active role in reinforcing and recreating the same masculinities they exclude, abandon and incarcerate.

Why did you choose this research?
I came to academic research and teaching relatively late. Before this I spent almost two decades working in heavily deprived areas or housing estates, with marginalised groups and those described as ‘hard to reach’. During this time I worked in schools and exclusion centres, with homeless populations, those involved in gang or serious youth violence, with male prisoners in both young offender institutions (YOI) and adult prisons.

During this period I was constantly struck by how for many of the young men it was ‘doing masculinity’ across impoverished spaces that led incrementally to more extreme exclusion, with every shift culminating in costly and more marginalised masculine performances. I understood then the significance of class, gender and place and wanted to explore this more.      

What makes your research different?
Many criminologists agree gender is the best predictor of crime and that men are by a huge margin the sex responsible for violent, sexual and other serious offences. It follows that in most industrialised societies, prison populations remain relatively static at over 90% male. Data from a range of sources for England and Wales shows that 90% of the male prison population is predominantly made up of undereducated, underemployed, young men from the poorest neighborhoods. Despite men featuring so heavily in crime and prison statistics there is relatively little qualitative scholarship exploring the links between masculinity and crime and even less focusing on ‘doing masculinity’ in UK prisons. Most of the important research on prison and prisoners tends of focus on ‘lifer’ or long-term prisoners. With a focus on gender and the interplay between masculinity, education, and crime among short-term ‘revolving door’ prisoners, this research adds to addressing a deficit in knowledge. Importantly through this work I reveal some of the process behind the substantial overrepresentation of poor and undereducated men as prisoners

How do you feel about being part of the team developing the new criminology course here at Oxford Brookes and will your input be informed by your research and work experiences?

I am very excited to be in at the start of this new criminology course. As a subject area criminology is growing at an incredible rate and is increasingly being seen as a pathway to rewarding careers across criminal justice agencies and in other sectors. The enthusiasm for this course in the department, coupled with the openness to draw from existing modules and expert knowledge across the faculty, sets a solid foundation to develop what will be an intellectually engaging and highly regarded criminology pathway.

The most exciting feature for me in terms of the lecturing role is the encouragement and expectation that my teaching will be both research led and informed by my extensive practical experiences. My research interests (gender/masculinity, boys ‘underachievement’, resistance to and rejection from changing workplaces, crime and imprisonment) straddle key contemporary criminological issues. I am equally enthused by the opportunity to draw on and share the extensive academic and practical knowledge from departmental colleagues.   Our associated networks will play a significant role in relating real world issues to core criminological themes and perspectives, which will offer a great experience for our students.  

Friday, 21 April 2017

Yale visit shows anxiety and concern about Britain’s role in the world

On Tuesday 11 and Wednesday 12 April, I spent two days at Yale University in Connecticut. As one of the world’ best universities, and a key centre of research and teaching in the United States, it was an excellent vantage point from which to take the temperature of American Higher Education – and especially, as a British historian myself, in terms of US views of both British history and contemporary British politics. Invited by Yale’s Centre for International Security Studies to speak to both faculty and students, it was a fascinating visit that helped me to both sharpen my research questions and to see how others perceive the UK’s modern history.

As the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union, and now enters yet another election campaign, clearly many Americans were very interested to hear and talk about the situation the UK finds itself in. What I found most obvious was a puzzlement that Britain should chose to leave the EU, but perhaps more deeply an uncertainty as to where Britain stands – diplomatically, politically, even culturally and ideologically.

On the first day of my  visit, I helped take an undergraduate class, comprised not just of History students but drawing participants from subjects as diverse as Political Science and Computing, entitled ‘War at Sea in the Age of Sail’. Together with Dr Evan Wilson, who once taught with me here at Oxford Brookes as an Associate Lecturer, we looked with the students at different visions of Britain’s foreign policy in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: a so-called ‘blue water’ policy, or a European engagement. Nothing could seem more apposite in terms of present-day choices, and the students wanted to ask about the parallels with British diplomacy right now: to talk about trade, national self-image, and foreign relations, especially over Gibraltar, a running crisis at the time.

I then gave a paper to the ISS Brady-Johnson Colloquium in Grand Strategy and International History, entitled ‘Is the Sea Still Swinging into View? Contemporary British History and the Maritime Turn’. In this I attempt to show how the uncertainties stalking modern British politics have been transmuted into the way in which we think about Britain’s seagoing past: how modern concerns over networked economies, regional and continental trade blocs, gender and identity politics, and concepts of moveable, mutable space have fed back into the ways in which we perceive Britons’ engagement with the wider world. The questions were sharp, wide-ranging, and hard to field, mainly focusing on the way in which the British imagination lost touch with the oceanic emphasis that would have seemed second nature to most Georgian or Victorian Britons: again, the parallels with today’s debates about British as a ‘global’ or ‘European’ power were not hard to see.

On the Wednesday, I gave a lecture on Britain’s Brexit vote, trying to draw out the wider cultural, geographical, political and demographic issues that helped to bring about Britain’s ‘Leave’ vote. Here I argued that this decision was not primarily economic, but cultural – a protest against rapid change in and of itself, and (in England at least) a revolt of small towns and ‘provinces’ against London and other big cities. The audience were particularly interested in the parallels with the election of President Trump in the 2016 US Presidential election, as well as the emergence of so-called ‘populist’ movements across the developed world.

Overall, what was so noticeable about the reactions in my teaching session, and at my two talks, was the lack of clarity about Britain’s modern role in the world: is it a free-trading, ocean-going, globalised power, or a more ‘normal’ mid-ranking regional nation-state? And how do Britons now see their national past in the light of those dilemmas and choices? As a country that – as part of an Atlantic archipelago – looks inevitably outwards, or as a country with deep ties and interests in the heart of its own continent? It is no wonder that US students and lecturers are unclear, because Britain is very divided and uncertain about those issues too.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs regularly, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past, and writes about current public affairs for a number of publications, including The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog, The Staggers.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Meet Dr Tom Crook, Lecturer in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture

Will you be voting on 4 May?
The local elections are almost upon us, which in Oxfordshire at least—elections are not taking place everywhere in England—means that upwards of 60 seats on the county council are up for grabs on 4 May. Democracy, so central to “our way of life,” is once more about to be practised at the ballot box. Excited?
The answer is probably not—and that’s assuming you even know these elections are taking place. If past trends are anything to go by, turnout is likely to be between 25 and 35% in most divisions. The last time Oxfordshire county council elections were held in 2013 not one division recorded a turnout above 50%. A handful even dipped below 20%.
Oxfordshire is not alone. The fact is that the majority of those eligible to vote in local elections simply don’t bother. For sure, the situation is better when it comes to UK general elections. Even so, over the long-term, electoral participation has steadily declined. The best turnout was secured in the 1950 general election, when some 84% of those eligible to do so voted. And the figure didn’t dip below 70% until 2001, when only 59% voted. Since then things have improved, though we’re still nowhere near to hitting pre-2001 levels. In 2010, turnout was 65%. In 2015, it was 66%.
Why this should be the case is doubtless complex, and has been much debated, especially by political scientists. All can agree, however, that it is partly—and for some, mostly—a product of growing apathy, cynicism and indifference, or what some call “democratic disenchantment.”
It’s just these kind of anti-political sentiments and actions (or inactions) that form a crucial part of my new research project on public life in modern Britain, which besides looking at cynicism and apathy will also examine the political (or for some, anti-political) function of secrecy and economic self-interest. It’s a project, in short, about the corruption of public life, its decay and quiet subversion. And it’s a project that I look forward to developing in my upcoming period of sabbatical leave, which begins in September and is generously funded by the School of History, Philosophy and Culture.
To be sure, apathy, cynicism, indifference: these might seem like the dregs of our political culture, the lumpen stuff we should really put to one side—they’re like the anti-matter of our political universe. It’s no surprise that political historians have been more interested in people who care about politics and the aspirations and ideals that motivate politicians and those that vote for them. And yet, when it comes to understanding what democracy is, and how it is lived and experienced, apathy and cynicism surely deserve consideration alongside activism, engagement and idealism. The statistics quoted above certainly suggest as much.
In any case, they’re no less fascinating and no less historical than the wholesome stuff of active citizenship. Non-voting is a case in point. It will come as little surprise, perhaps, that the problem was first studied in the 1930s, shortly after mass suffrage had finally been fully secured in 1928. It was then that the non-voter was first upheld as a threat to democracy. Yet, as I want to argue, it was also at this point that non-voting began to pose a kind of conceptual challenge to British democracy and all those concerned with its health. The issue of compulsory voting, for instance, was first discussed in parliament in the 1930s, prompting the question of whether such a policy was good for democracy, by ensuring full participation, or bad for democracy, because it violated the right to abstain and do nothing.
Above all, there was the vexed question of why non-voting took place: was it simply that people weren’t interested in politics at all, or rather that they felt alienated from party politics in particular, though not politics per se? Consider the following, written by Tom Harrisson, from Mass Observation’s (unpublished) study of the “non-voter” in Bolton conducted in 1938, one of the first studies of its kind in Britain (the Americans conducted the first in the 1920s): “In this country the non-voter has received little attention either from politicians or political theorists, but it seems of prime importance at the present time for all democracies to discover why so many of their citizens neglect their electoral opportunities.”
He went on to explain that there were “two main schools of thought” on the matter. The first considered “the non-voter either too ignorant or apathetic to go to the polls once a year.” The second advanced “the directly contrary opinion that the non-voters are the elite of the electorate – the sensitive and high-principled who are disgusted with the modern political battlefield.”
Little has changed since and the causes of non-voting are still not clear today. For all the contemporary studies which point to apathy and ignorance, just as many point to the kind of “disgust” invoked by Harrison—and these are very different things indeed.

So, if elections are happening where you live, will you be voting on 4 May? If not, if you stay at home, you might at least ask yourself why.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Meet Dr James Cooper, Lecturer in the School of History, Philosophy and Culture

What can you tell us about your research?

My research focuses on contemporary American history in a broader context.  In particular, it examines the transfer of political ideas and policies between the United Kingdom and the United States and how an issue in one country affects policy making elsewhere.  In short, my research revolves around the interaction between domestic politics, foreign policy and policymaking.  It has resulted in two books.  The first focused on Anglo-American policy transfer between the Reagan administration and the Thatcher government, debunking common myths about the similarities between Reaganism and Thatcherism (Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan:  A Very Political Special Relationship, Palgrave, 2012).  The second examined the role of U.S. presidents in the Northern Ireland conflict and is a significant contribution to the emerging scholarship about American influence on the Anglo-Irish process and Northern Ireland ‘peace process’ (The Politics of Diplomacy:  U.S. Presidents and the Northern Ireland Conflict, 1967-98, Edinburgh University Press, 2017).

Why did you not just choose to study the History of one country?

I do not believe that events and issues can be studied simply through the history of one country.  The politics and policy making of countries do not occur in isolation from developments elsewhere and the writing of history should reflect this.    Therefore, despite my primary focus being the history of the United States, my research considers America in a global context. 

What are the highlights of doing your research?

My research has allowed me to visit plenty of interesting places and meet fascinating people.  I conduct research in a variety of American, British and Irish archives, including numerous presidential libraries.  My favourite presidential library is probably the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (partially because it has the best canteen), although I would recommend that anyone with an interest in American history should try to visit any presidential library if they can!  I was fortunate to be able to conduct over thirty interviews with key protagonists – including: Mr Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board; Lord (Geoffrey) Howe, former UK Foreign Secretary; Lord (Charles) Powell, leading adviser to Margaret Thatcher; Mr Edwin Meese, a leading figure in the Reagan administration; and, Lord (Neil) Kinnock, former Labour Party leader – and I am regularly able to consult the most recently available archival material.  Researching in archives often leads to all sorts of surprises.  I have read documents that detail the Reagan administration’s excitement about a visit by Michael Jackson to the White House and Bill Clinton’s offer to babysit Leo Blair, youngest son of Tony and Cherie, after his presidency ended in 2001.     

Do you compare history to current affairs?

The subject matter of my research certainly lends itself to comparisons with current events in both Britain and the United States.  I have blogged on ‘Cultural Thinking’ about the regularly asserted comparison between the Reagan-Thatcher relationship with the emergence and relationship of Donald Trump and Theresa May.  In addition to making anecdotal comparisons in my teaching between history and the present, I have contributed to American and British news coverage about the politics in both countries. 

What do people think about your research?


My research had led to very exciting opportunities.  For instance, in 2012-13 I was the Fulbright-Robertson Visiting Professor of British History at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri (where I also curated an exhibit, based on my research on Reagan and Thatcher, at the college’s National Winston Churchill Museum).  In November 2014 I was interviewed about the Reagan-Thatcher relationship on the BBC News Channel.  I was a Visiting Research Fellow at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo in May 2016.    My books have been positively reviewed by my peers and I am a regular contributor to academic journals, collections of essays and conferences.  Many people find it interesting that what I study is considered to be ‘History’ given that it happened in living memory – including my own!