These potential topics indicate the kind of research that I am
keen to supervise (some are compact enough for a MSc dissertation;
some may stretch to
a DPhil) ...
Social movements/political protest
- In 2013 the collapse of Ranal Plaza factory in Dhaka killed over a thousand people, mainly garment workers.
This brings to mind the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York just over a century before, which killed over a hundred garment workers.
In that case the tragedy aided the union and spurred legislation enforcing safety regulations.
Under what conditions do such workplace tragedies lead to positive changes?
- Raphael Samuel's Lost Worlds of British Communism evocatively portrays the positive value that communists placed on obedience to their organization.
Similar discipline was found more generally in leftist social movements: one was loyal to one's trade union, for example. From the 1960s, this sense of discipline has evaporated, to the
point where there is suspicion of organization itself--manifested recently in the Occupy movement. How can this shift be explained?
Although it is a general trend across the political spectrum (fewer people now identify with any party, Conservative and Labour alike),
could it be argued that this shift has particularly hurt movements on the left?
- It is fashionable to emphasize how the internet has
transformed political mobilization. Did improved postal communication
in the first half of the nineteenth century, enabling the circulation
of periodicals and the exchange of correspondence, have a discernible
impact on social movements?
- Industries like tobacco and logging have created
'astroturf' organizations (especially in the United States), which
masquerade as a popular movement. Has this stratagem had any success?
Compare this phenomenon with the use of staged 'demonstrations' under
- The marginal contribution of any single individual to a
movement is effectively nil, and so an instrumentally rational
individual should not participate. How do participants themselves
justify and explain their participation? Rather than just asking the
question and getting a conventional response, it would be valuable to
forcefully explicate the logic of the argument and see how participants
argue against it. Do they articulate the Kantian principle? Do they
adhere to magical thinking ('if I go to the demonstration, then others
- Surveys have recorded increasing participation in political
protest since the mid 1970s, across most Western countries (see Pippa
Norris' Democratic Phoenix). However, these
surveys do not include questions about participation in strikes, which
has fallen over the same period. Can official strike statistics be used
to estimate whether participation in all forms of
collective protest has increased or decreased?
- Olson's problem of collective action has provoked an
enormous theoretical literature. Can the problem be solved if we assume
"strong reciprocity" as advocated in Gintis et al.'s Moral
Sentiments and Material Interests? Or does that make it too
easy to explain collective action—predicting far more collective action
than is actually observed?
- Scott's Domination and the Art of Resistance
argues that subjugated groups do not internalize the inferiority
ascribed to them by the ruling ideology. His cases include blacks in
the American South under Jim Crow. Yet there is evidence that African
Americans created their own status hierarchy based on color (dark skin
was considered inferior to light skin). Can Scott's argument be
sustained? Investigate using autobiographical accounts.
- There is an extensive literature on food riots in England
and France in the 18th and 19th centuries. E. P. Thompson points out,
by way of contrast, that there was relatively little protest in Ireland
during the great famine. Is this true? If so, why?
- In England traditional food riots became very rare after
1818, largely because food prices were no longer subject to dramatatic
fluctuations. Yet there were some later examples, including one in
Oxford in 1867. Why did they persist in some places?
- Workers in the 18th and early 19th century would often
physically attack employers' houses or destroy machinery during
disputes. Such attacks became rare after 1830, replaced by strikes and
other non-violent methods of protest. What explains this shift in
tactics? (Cf. Tilly's Popular Contention in Great Britain.)
- Has the International Solidarity Movement been successful
in aiding Palestinians? If so, how?
- In India in 1990, more than two hundred students killed
themselves—or attempted to kill themselves—in protest against the
proposed implementation of the Mandal report. Why?
- The struggle against British colonial rule in India (as it
was then) was notable for non-violent protest (Satyagraha),
as advocated by Gandhi. To what extent were these tactics—and the
doctrine informing them—adopted by Muslims in India? (Excluding the
North West Frontier, the subject of Mukulika Banerjee's The Pathan Unarmed.)
- Within some movements, a small minority turn to violence.
Contemporary examples include the pro-life movement in the United
States and the animal liberation movement. What explains this turn to
violence? Has violence helped or hindered the movement?
- A new ethnic identity has been officially created in the
United Kingdom: 'Irish traveller'. It first appeared as an option in
the 2011 Census. What explains this creation? Compare, for example, the
absence of 'Jew' from all official classifications of ethnicity.
- Contemporary Western societies have perverse responses to
risk. Consider two recent British examples: official panic after the
Hatfield rail crash virtually shut down therailway system, shifting
passengers on to the roads and thereby ensuring more fatalities;
unfounded panic over the MMR vaccine caused parents to refuse
vaccination, creating a pool of susceptible infants, which is now
likely to cause an epidemic. Changing attitudes to risk could be
investigated by looking at railway accidents over the last 150 years.
Compare 'public' concern (manifested in the Times
and parliamentary enquiries) with the number of passenger fatalities
per year. My hypothesis is that public concern used to have beneficial
consequences: terrible accidents in the 19th century led to important
safety measures (e.g. signal interlocking, automatic brakes on
passenger trains). As fatalities have fallen dramatically, however,
there has been no corresponding reduction in the total amount of public
concern (the 'ratio' of outrage per death has multiplied). The risk of
train travel is now so low in absolute terms that further safety
measures are counterproductive—and yet public concern forces
politicians and officials to implement such measures.
- Why did Irish Republicans not carry out mass-casualty
attacks (what Goodwin calls 'categorical terrorism') in the United
Kingdom, whereas Muslim jihadists have done so? Answers could be found
by looking at the ideology articulated by each group, or analyzing
survey evidence on the attitudes of the communities (Irish Catholics
and British Muslims) from which they emerged.
- It is frequently asserted that the British Army has unique
expertise in winning ‘hearts and minds’, earned from its campaign in
Northern Ireland. Such expertise, the argument went, will be invaluable
in the occupation Afghanistan and Iraq. How was this analogy deployed
to gain support for the occupation? The model here is Yuen Foong
Khong’s Analogies at War.
Michael Biggs, Department of Sociology, University