SOAS University of London

Centre for Comparative Political Thought

The Centre for Comparative Political Thought was established in June 2014 in the Department for Politics and International Studies. The Centre builds on the work of several members of the Department interested in developing this new area of study. The emerging field of Comparative political thought has focused on Islamic, Chinese, Indian, African (and to an extent, Latin American) ethical-political thought and the proposed Centre will develop new approaches to the subject that are distinctive in two respects.

  1. We seek to establish everyday political thinking, forged in the cut and thrust of political engagement, as an important realm of political thought, worthy of scholarly attention, alongside philosophical texts.
  2. We seek to shift the focus away from regions and traditions that have traditionally been favoured as units of comparison (e.g. non-Western, Islamic, Chinese, or Indian thought), towards political concepts (e.g. justice, freedom, democracy), to examine the different ways in which these are framed in texts as well as practices in different regions and eras.

The Centre will thus contribute to a new understanding of political thought, that examines normative sources from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, as well as empirical sites for the articulation of political thinking, both hitherto overlooked by political theorists. With respect to area studies, the Centre will highlight the role of ideas, conventionally neglected in the understanding of politics of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, as well as the grassroots production of norms that have tended to be associated with elites.

The significance of comparative political thought lies not just in extending the boundaries of academic inquiry but also in informing policy-makers and practitioners. In contemporary political theory, the achievement of technical and analytical sophistication has often come at the cost of policy relevance. Where policy is engaged, political theorists have largely been parochial, overwhelmingly preoccupied with debates grounded in and defined by the narratives of Western liberal democracies. Yet, increasingly in some of the most important policy areas - pertaining to economic growth, religious radicalism, international conflict, human rights and climate change to take a few notable examples - successful national policy-making requires effective engagement with state and civil society actors in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Furthermore, in a period when the distribution of economic power is moving away from the North Atlantic world, and belief in the efficacy of military force has weakened, conventional policy instruments are proving less effective on their own in achieving desired political change.

This initiative is motivated by the strong conviction, based on our engagement with policy-makers over the years, that in the new international context, national efficacy in achieving desired goals in a variety of policy areas -- security, trade, health, education, poverty reduction -- depends on the building of transnational partnerships and coalitions for which values are crucial. Successful international engagement requires the construction of effective values-based narratives to complement the traditional policy instruments of economic incentives and military force.

In practical terms, the Centre will build upon and consolidate the common intellectual interests of a significant number of members of the Department who have been working together for some years in this field and who form an identifiable research cluster.  These activities comprise:

  1.    An annual workshop (held jointly with the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford 2008-2011 and with the University of Nottingham 2014)
  2.    A Reading Group that began in the academic year 2012/13 and that meets regularly to discuss texts of common interest relevant to the subject.  It is linked to a London     Comparative Political Theory group associated with King’s College and the LSE and is open to staff and to postgraduate students of all three institutions.
  3.   A series of annual guest lectures to follow those given by Professor Fred Dallmayr (University of Notre Dame) ‘Brave New Horizons: Why Comparative Political Theory Now?’ (2013) and Professor Thomas Blom Hansen (University of Stanford) ‘On the Historicity of Space and Urban Imagination’ (2014)
  4. The launch of a new MSc in Comparative Political Thought in 2013 http://www.soas.ac.uk/politics/programmes/msc-comparative-political-thought/  The MSc comprises core courses and a range of courses from within the Department of Politics and International Studies, but also offers students the opportunity to choose one from a range of courses outside the Department, most notably from the Department of the Study of Religions
  5. The Centre will provide a means of coordinating efforts to draft research proposals, both for major research projects and for the networking grants that are so important for sustaining active co-operation not only with British universities, but also with universities overseas.  The intention is to use this is a means of attracting research funding as well as to publish the outcomes of this research