A HUGE congratulations to Dr James Weinberg for winning the Walter Bagehot Prize.
James was in Nottingham this week at The UK Political Studies Association Annual International Conference 2019: (Un)Sustainable Politics in a Changing World, where he was awarded the 2018 Walter Bagehot Prize for the best PhD in Government and Public Administration. This prestigious prize is awarded nationally, but this is not the first award James has received. In January 2019 James won The University of Sheffield Chancellor's Medal to honour his work in advocating citizenship education and civic participation.
Kindly, James has taken time out from his busy schedule of prize winning and hand shaking, so you can get to know him.
In our first of our 'Spotlight on ....' interviews, James answers some thought provoking questions and we learn about his innovative research, his love of classic literature and his adoration of Winnie the Pooh!
• Name: Dr James Weinberg
• Role at the SMI: Research Associate
1. Describe your job in three words
Challenging. Stimulating. Worthwhile.
2. How long have you worked for The University of Sheffield?
The last four years.
3. What do you enjoy about the work you do?
Working with and studying different types of people. Social science is, ultimately, an examination of how we all live together in a web of real and imagined realities, and play out our individual lives within that collective experience. Whether it be researching politicians’ personalities or young people’s citizenship education, I am extremely fortunate to do a job that allows me to engage with these different communities.
4. Have you ever worked outside of academia? How has it helped you now?
After completing my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I trained and qualified as a secondary school teacher in English Language and Literature. Teaching upwards of 120 students per day in a London school where the demographic falls into the highest quintile of child poverty, I learned a lot about how to motivate young people to study and how to get the best out of myself under pressure. I also learned a lot about my own privilege as a young white man who had grown up in a stable home, and above all the difference that small acts of kindness can make to someone’s day.
Politics affects everybody, every day, and in almost every aspect of their lives.
Dr James Weinberg, SMI Researcher
5. What research are you working on now?
I have three research projects that are currently ‘active’. The first focuses on citizenship education in schools. I am working with industry partners in the third sector to design and evaluate physical and digital interventions in education to improve young people’s political literacy and participation. The second focuses on political contact between Members of Parliament and citizens in the UK. Working with colleagues in the Politics Department, I have designed and fielded experimental surveys that examine the how the style and format of interactions between citizens and politicians affects the democratic satisfaction and participation of the former. The third is a book that builds on my previous doctoral research into ‘the personal side of politics’. Utilising surveys and interviews with 106 Members of Parliament and 1500+ members of the British public, I address three key ‘problems’: Who enters elite politics and how are they different to the general public? Do politicians’ personal characteristics matter for their behaviour once they are elected to parliament? Do voters really get the ‘wrong’ politicians?
6. What would you like to be the ultimate outcome of your research?
My research in the last four years has been conducted with three lofty long-term goals in mind: to improve the minimum statutory offering of political education in UK schools; to tackle and alleviate public distrust in politics and the perception gap that has emerged between the public and politicians; and to improve institutional support for the mental health and wellbeing of those who do attempt a career in politics.
7. What legislation would you change to improve how science in your field is done?
These are not exactly legislative changes as such, but I would probably suggest three broad reforms to improve the conduct of social science. The first would be stronger connections between government and academia. Academics account for a much smaller proportion of ministerial and civil service meetings than individuals from big business and the media, and I firmly believe that this means that the best research, evidence and expertise is being lost in the policy making process. Secondly, Higher Education funding should be ring-fenced and, wherever possible, expanded. Put another way, we need to address the growing consumer culture of ‘getting a degree certificate’ and also ensure that there is sufficient research funding to support a diverse array of academic projects from around the UK and beyond. Thirdly, I would suggest that ‘impact’ and ‘activism’ become official parts of academic contracts in the same way that research, teaching and admin currently are. This would give academics the time and space to engage with those individuals or communities they’re studying. Finally, I would push for more active pedagogies and civic participation in Higher Education teaching and learning. Where ethically possible, we should be getting students engaged with their subject outside of the classroom or library.
8. Do you have another area of research that you’re currently not working on that you would like to?
I would like to get much more involved in the study of political and interpersonal trust, insofar as re-conceptualising how political science defines and measures ‘trust’ in politics, and understanding the ways in which generalised distrust in politics affects how our politicians govern.
9. What kind of response have you had to your research / findings?
I have tried to conduct all of my research from a solutions-focused perspective and, where possible, fed all results and ideas back to those individuals and communities I’ve studied. This has helped to disseminate my work, but also helped me to understand its limitations, define ‘next steps’, and achieve real-world impact. For example, in the last two years my research into political education has led to me being co-opted as Lead Fellow for Citizenship on the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Democratic Participation, giving evidence to a House of Lords select committee investigation into citizenship and civic engagement that was heavily cited in the final report, and being awarded the University of Sheffield’s Chancellor’s Medal for impactful academia.
10. Why is your area of scientific discovery important (or relevant) for the ordinary citizen of this country?
Politics affects everybody, every day, and in almost every aspect of their lives. Almost three ‘Brexit years’ have recast a spotlight on a range of socio-political challenges, including the fragile social fabric of the UK and, in particular, the political polarisation of young and old, rich and poor, urban and rural populations. At the same time, we are seeing declining levels of partisanship, diminished voter turnout, and plummeting trust in political elites. If my research can, in some small way, contribute to more symbiotic relations between the public and politicians on one hand, and more effective citizenship education that equips people with greater political agency on the other, then I will feel satisfied that I have conducted research with meaningful repercussions.
11. If you could choose anyone, who would you pick as your mentor?
Winnie the Pooh, because he has an excellent approach to work/life balance, a ready supply of daily aphorisms, and he shares my love of honey.
12. What is something you learned in the last week?
I read an article about environmental decay and learned that we have already destroyed 80% of the Earth’s forest and 40% of the Earth’s tropical rainforests! Every day, 50 to 100 species of plants and animals become extinct due to human activity. Things have to change, and quick.
13. What is currently on your bedside table?
‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ by John Fowles. An outstanding historical fiction that challenges gender norms, notions of sexuality, and exposes the travesty of intellectual hubris.
14. If you could learn to do anything, what would it be?
Learn other languages. I did French and German A-Level at school, but I haven’t used them since. I’m hoping to rectify this in the not-too-distant future.
15. Your top 3 favourite Podcasts/Books?
For the human story at the heart of each of them: ‘Cutting for Stone’ by Abraham Verghese; Desert Island Discs; and ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Tressell.