Vincent Tiberj discusses generational change in politics

On Thursday evening, the Centre was delighted to host Vincent Tiberj (Sciences Po Bordeaux), whose reputation ensured one of the largest seminar audiences in the Centre’s (admittedly brief) history. Fraser Raeburn was there to bring us this report of the event.

Vincent Tiberj’s work sits at the often problematic juncture between history and political science, but as pointed out by respondent Jim Livesey (Dundee), this was a methodological masterclass in how such these disciplines can be combined.

Vincent Tiberj outlines his three cohorts

Tiberj’s thesis was simple: generational change is an inescapable fact for any established democracy. As he pointed out, 59% of French voters today were not alive or able to vote in 1981. This means that when discussing shifts in allegiances – such as former Communist strongholds turning to the far-right Front national (FN) – we aren’t necessarily talking about individuals changing their views, but a generational shift. Trying to measure and account for this effect is, however, a substantially greater challenge, in part due to the competing effects of age (due to position in the life cycle, such as compulsory military service at 18) or period (something that affects the entire population at a particular moment).

Using a series of opinion polls conducted throughout France since 1973 as a base, and taking neutral, decade-based cohorts as a starting point, Tiberj was able to present a series of graphs and diagrams showing how different generational cohorts had been shaped in France. There is no doubt that at times this data was a blunt instrument, obscuring potential divides across class, region and gender, but nonetheless providing a useful holistic picture. Intergenerational changes in religious beliefs, educational attainment and employment history were all clearly visible.

These social changes formed the basis of his explanation of changing political attitudes. Although he lacked the time to take the audience through each of his approaches to this data, his discussion of citizens’ relationship to politics and political participation based on his data gave a substantial insight into his work on the subject.

Using this approach, Tiberj identified what he saw as three key political cohorts in contemporary France. The first was those born before the Second World War. These citizens did not engage with or discuss politics frequently, but nonetheless voted at a much higher rate. Tiberj characterised these as dependent voters, who saw participation in democracy as a duty, had high levels of faith in politicians and institutions, and tended to exhibit high levels of partisan loyalty.

Baby Boomers were the next generation, and Tiberj identified the impact of the protests of 1968 in not just mobilising youth at the time, but ensuring that this mobilisation lasted a lifetime. These were critical citizens, more interested in and knowledgeable about politics, and more independent than the previous generation. This cohort retains a relatively high level of political participation, but driven more by knowledge and interest than a sense of duty.

Finally, the post-Boomer cohort appear as remote citizens, who felt themselves distanced from the political system. Thanks to higher levels of educational attainment, they are more informed about politics, but less engaged with the process. Tiberj hypothesised that the connection between political knowledge and interest had been broken – after all, cynicism and distrust towards politics and politicians is hardly an irrational response in France or anywhere else. This cohort is willing to participate in politics, but only when they could see that it was important, with high participation in Presidential elections, but much less in European elections.

Tiberj put forward this analysis with a note of optimism. Rather than heralding a collapse of democratic legitimacy, these new generations exhibit a willingness to participate in politics in nontraditional ways, and in many ways are simply demanding more of their political system than previous generations. With an important caveat: this optimism applies only to the educated. The post-Boomer working class has not yet found a political voice.

Tiberj’s analysis throughout deserves the attention of someone more attuned to political theory, not least because he engaged with ideas like those of Ronald Inglehart on the impact of postmaterialism on politics. Fortunately, other members of the audience were less constrained, asking numerous perceptive comments and questions. And, even as a relative newcomer to such debates, I could see that Tiberj has contributed important new insights about modern French politics.

Fraser Raeburn is a PhD student in History at Edinburgh. He works on interwar Europe and Britain, ideological confrontation and the history of foreign fighters. His thesis examines the involvement of Scots in the Spanish Civil War. He is a member of the CSMCH steering committee.

Writing ‘the Troubles’

The Centre recently sponsored an excellent PhD and early-career workshop on the place of ‘The Troubles’ in Irish history (8-9 September 2017). This guest post from Thomas Dolan summarises some of the discussions that animated the event.

Republican mural of the Battle of the Bogside, Derry

The incursion of Arlene Foster, the DUP and, by extension Sinn Féin, back onto the centre-stage of British politics has produced an upsurge of interest in the political situation in Northern Ireland reminiscent of the darker days of its long-running conflict. A fake news article circulating on social media during the fallout of the general election satirised the situation wonderfully: a London ‘hipster’, it was reported, had proudly proclaimed that he had been reading-up on the religious and conservative ethos of the DUP long before it had become fashionable to do so. The sold-out (a happy first for HCA’s Irish History Group) public lecture ‘Scribes, Sectarianism and the History of the Northern Ireland Troubles’ delivered recently at the University of Edinburgh by Professor Richard English (Queen’s University, Belfast) evidences how such events nourish a need for contemporary Irish and Northern Irish history in Britain.

The lecture was associated with the Writing the Troubles Workshop organised by members of the Irish History Group (Tommy Dolan, Roseanna Doughty, and Rachael Thomas), with the support of the Irish Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History. It brought together doctoral and early-career researchers scattered throughout these islands to reflect upon the challenging methodological and conceptual issues thrown-up when writing about the recent history of Northern Ireland. A key aim was to foster a relaxed, informal atmosphere conducive to discussion. Consequently, we opted for pre-circulated papers, with attendees delivering short ten-minute presentations on their work, followed by debate. The workshop then concluded with a reflective round-table discussion chaired by Professor Enda Delaney,

The format proved inspirational, the first panel setting the tone in terms of quality and feel. Martin’s McCleery’s vision of an ‘intimate history’ of political killings provoked much debate. His focus on the micro-dynamics of killings as a means of understanding the various ‘pathways’ many paramilitaries must adopt to overcome their instinctual aversion to murder complimented Rachael Kowlaski’s call for micro-studies of ‘nodal’ violent events during the conflict so as to better understand the intentions of the paramilitary organisations involved. In contrast, I suggested that historians try and generate conceptually-driven understandings of the evolution of a now relatively peaceful and political stable Northern Ireland, but that doing so could prove problematic for a historical community who, unlike, say, their British counterparts, have long been predisposed to the study of violent conflict and political impasse.

The second session reflected upon groups hitherto marginalised within the historiography of ‘the Troubles’. All found Adrian Grant’s vision of a ‘meso-history’ of  Belfast’s working-class communities intriguing; an approach melding ‘micro-studies with the grand narrative approach’. For example, Adrian demonstrated how focusing on the effects of deindustrialisation on these communities can generate better understandings of the origins of ‘the Troubles’, while allowing for reflections on ‘wider, global economic trends’. Aimee Walsh and Eli Davies supplied much-needed insights into the experiences of women. Considering female republican prisoners in Armagh Gaol during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Aimee forcefully demonstrated how the ‘female body has not been thoroughly considered in relation to the conflict’. Eli on the other hand, considered neglected literature produced by female authors during ‘the Troubles’, observing how the ‘daily, lived experiences of women’ have been silenced largely because they do not fit in with the ‘bigger male cultural narratives’. Discussion was further facilitated by Jan Freytag’s call for more nuanced understandings of the differing social and political roles played by individual Catholic clergymen during the conflict, as opposed to thinking of the Catholic Church as simply a monolithic institution.

The final session saw Roseanna Doughty and Rachel Thomas consider media representations of the conflict. Roseanna assessed British responses to the Peace Process, ably challenging a view widely held, especially amongst republicans, that the press merely parroted their government’s line. Rachael focused on the reaction of the American press to the 1981 republican Hunger Strikes. She argued that although these generated much Irish-American support for the republican movement, there were limiting factors, such as (interestingly) memories of the British-American alliance during the Second World War, and Reagan’s decision not involve his administration in efforts to resolve the protests. Lastly, Sarah Feinstein reflected upon contemporary representations of the Maze and Long Kesh Prison and the difficult task of dealing with the traumatic legacy of the Hunger Strikes. She focused on story-telling initiatives such as the construction of the Prison Memory Archive. As she observed, ‘what is unique among the footage is the many stories of the mundane…the everyday aspects of life where small moments of resistance, solidarity and compassion stand out…This brings a texture to both the site and the individuals who populated it’.

Professor English’s lecture

During the round-table Professor Delaney highlighted key issues generated by both the workshop and Professor English’s lecture. Above all, he noted a tension between the need to produce micro, local histories of ‘the Troubles’ and broader, conceptual studies. As Richard highlighted, ‘the Troubles’ were ‘intensely local’ and it is probably more accurate to think of ‘seventeen different conflicts’ as opposed to one. Yet he also urged us to be alert to the way in which much wider themes consistently intersected with, and impacted upon, the situation. The need for greater sensitivity to the role of religious belief in the recent history of Northern Ireland was also flagged, so too the need for more biographical literature. For example, we still lack good, scholarly biographies of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness!

Perhaps most importantly, Professor Delaney observed how although the idea of interdisciplinary scholarship is typically lauded in academia, historians rarely ever talk to each other formally, let alone with scholars working in other disciplines – and this is certainly true with respect to those focusing on Northern Ireland. In fact, the workshop evidenced how all our scholarship was heavily influenced by location; scholars based in Northern Ireland tending (on the whole) towards micro-histories: those working in Britain veering towards conceptual studies. Apparent to all, however, was the need for regular, reflexive dialogue between scholars dealing with the violent history of Northern Ireland in the post-Good Friday Agreement era. Consequently, we hope to build upon this highly successful and, indeed, very enjoyable workshop by maintaining dialogue between participants and staging further discussions in settings throughout these islands. Watch this space…

Thomas Dolan recently completed his PhD in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology under the supervision of Alvin Jackson and Owen Dudley Edwards. His thesis was entitled ‘Visions of History in the Thought of the Architects of Peace in Northern Ireland: Gerry Adams, John Hume and David Trimble’.

Summary and podcasts from our inaugural roundtable

Our first event of the year – a roundtable on ‘Truth and Democracy’ – took place last night in a packed room in the David Hume Tower. Centre director, Emile Chabal, gives a flavour of the discussion. You can also click on the links to the podcasts if you would like to listen to each speaker’s presentation in full.

Emile Chabal welcomes people to the roundtable

The topic of the roundtable was, as one of the speakers pointed out, a very ambitious one. There is nothing self-evident about ‘democracy’, much less ‘truth’. But we were lucky to have three distinguished speakers to offer contrasting perspectives. Unusually for a history seminar, the evening was characterised by sharply diverging opinions, both in the initial presentations by the speakers and the lively discussion afterwards.

Our first speaker was Christina Boswell, Professor of Politics at the University of Edinburgh. She is one of the leading experts in the fields of knowledge, public policy, and migration. Drawing on her extensive research on policy makers in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, she suggested that ‘truth’ was not – and should not – be a key factor in democratic politics. Instead, she proposed that we think in terms of ‘trust’.

Looking specifically at contemporary politics, she also pointed out that the emergence of performance targets and ‘new public management’ in the 1990s were initially conceived as ways to demonstrate the ‘truthfulness’ and ‘trustworthiness’ of political claims. But these measurements have proved to be, at best, a mixed blessing.

Christina ended her talk by exploring the tensions between a ‘ritualistic’ respect for supposedly objective ‘data’ and ‘targets’, and a more ‘impressionistic’ belief in the value of symbolic cues.

Our second speaker, Richard Whatmore, is Professor of Intellectual History at the University of St Andrews. He opened his talk with the arresting claim that, historically, political thinkers have generally seen representative democracy as a form of ‘deceit’, which purports to empower the people, but only does so very briefly at election time. He also reminded us that most of these same thinkers have been very fearful of mob rule and altogether sceptical about the principle of democracy.

In the latter part of the presentation, Richard turned his attention to Adam Smith and David Hume, and in particular their discussions of the relationship between commerce and politics. Smith and Hume had stark warnings about the corruption of politics by commerce and, in today’s neo-liberal society, there was ample evidence of what this might mean in practice.

Richard ended by suggesting that politicians and political actors have become too closely intertwined with the worlds of business, lobbying and trade. In the process, they are losing their sense of duty and the common good.

Our final speaker, Steve Fuller, is Auguste Comte Chair of Social Epistemology at the University of Warwick. In his brief presentation, he challenged us to rethink the notion of ‘post-truth’. Rather than view this terms in a purely negative light as a ‘distortion’ of the truth, he argued that we would be better off seeing it as a recognition of the intractable and essentially contested game of politics.

To illuminate his point, he repackaged Machiavelli and Pareto’s metaphor of the ‘lions’ and the ‘foxes’. The lions are those who defend the status quo; the foxes are those who seek to overturn it. In the current context, Brexit and Trump could be considered examples of the foxes taking charge.

The important point, however, is that a post-truth world is one in which we do not simply participate blindly in this battle between lions and foxes, but begin to recognise that this game is actually happening in the first place. Post-truth, in Steve’s words, is a ‘meta’ understanding of politics.

The question and answer session that followed the three talks was as wide-ranging and stimulating as the talks themselves. Members of the audience raised questions about everything from Facebook to Habermas, and there was a robust exchange between the speakers about the relative importance or otherwise of basic standards of ‘truth’ in a democratic system.

All in all, this was a wonderful way to kick off this year’s programme – learned, polemical, thoughtful, and far-reaching. We’ve set a high bar for the rest of the year!

— Emile

Gearing up for the new semester…

The leaflets have been printed, the programme has been finalised… and we’re almost ready for this semester’s activities.

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Donald Trump is not the first politician to upturn the relationship between ‘truth’ and ‘democracy’.

Our first event is a fantastic roundtable on the subject of truth and democracy, which will take place on Tuesday 19 from 4-6 in LG10, David Hume Tower. We’ve got three distinguished speakers and we’ll be live-tweeting the event with the hashtag #truthanddemocracy. Please do come!

After that, we have a terrific range of seminars that deal with every aspect of democracy from France to Brazil. We’ve got early career and more established scholars on the programme. And almost all of the talks feature comments from local specialists.

Beyond our seminars, we’re continuing to develop the Centre in new and exciting ways. In November, we will be welcoming our first CSMCH-IASH Postdoctoral Fellow, Rakesh Ankit from Jindal University, Delhi. With our growing network of collaborators and affiliates, we’re confident that we’ll be able to support a wide range of initiatives, including conferences, graduate events and film screenings.

Finally, we’re hoping to launch a new series of mini event podcasts and interviews to supplement this blog.

As ever, you should stay tuned to our Twitter feed and our Facebook page for more updates. And do let us know if you have an idea or simply want to be added to our mailing list!

— Emile

Welcome to the CSMCH blog!

Starting in September, we will be using this blog to publicise the Centre’s activities and to invite a broader discussion around what we are doing and what is happening in the world.

Amongst many other things, the blog will include…

  • Posts about our events
  • Guest contributions from our speakers and the wider academic community
  • Podcasts and videos
  • A range of other useful information, including details of conferences, workshops and special issues
A portrait of a scribe from the Indian illuminated manuscript, the Khamsa of Nizami (1595-6)

The blog is designed to complement our new website, which has full details of who we are and what we do.

We very much hope you will take part in this exciting conversation, whether virtually through the blog and via social media, or in person at one of our events.

We look forward to meeting you!

– Emile