Interview with Prof. Colin Hay

‘The reader controls our bias.’
Colin Hay on the political analyst’s condition.


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This, the first year of my PhD, included a research-training workshop with Colin Hay. As it finished just before submitting a (demanding) draft first chapter of my thesis, several questions I had for him remained not only unasked, but also not even clear in my mind. So I got a simple idea: let’s formulate all my questions and send them to him under the cover of an interview for a magazine in Mexico I am part of, killing two birds with one stone.

The result: a delightful piece on what I could term ‘the political analyst’s condition’. After reading it, I noticed that the implicit question of the whole interview was something like: ‘what kind of animal is the student of political phenomena’? Colin Hay was actually the correct mind to be asked something like this.

R.C: Shall the students of political phenomena still be insisting in calling themselves ‘scientists’? Does it still make sense talking about a ‘political science’? Why these claims on the scientific status of the study of the political are still so dominant in most universities around the world? Is there an alternative to this view on how scholars see/refer to themselves?

This is always a good question.  The first thing perhaps to say is that I can’t and wouldn’t want to speak for others here – as long as political analysts reflect on what they do and reach a clear and well-informed view as to whether what they engage in is a practice that warrants the label ‘science’ then I will be very happy.  My hunch is that the more people engage in that kind of reflection, the fewer will be so happy to label what they do so easily as ‘scientific’ – or at least as only scientific.  Personally, most of what I do is not scientific, as I am typically interested in questions that cannot be answered scientifically – normative questions about culpability and responsibility and about policy choices or strategies for improving things.  In a sense the questions which can be answered scientifically are often the least interesting ones – important to get right, but the start not the end of the process of reflection and analytical judgement.  As such I prefer the more neutral term ‘political analysis’ to characterise the kind of process I engage in.

R.C: How would you diagnose the political studies as a discipline within the ‘social sciences’? Which are the most relevant ‘paradigms’ or ‘schools’ within the discipline? How do they relate to each other? Which of them are increasing or decreasing in regards to influence? Is there any new development in the discipline to which we should pay particular attention?

I sometimes feel like I no longer have the time to keep sufficient up to date with current trends in the literature to be able to answer this question well – and in a way the more important question is about innovation and promise within the discipline, not the shifting centre of gravity of the discipline itself.  In terms of the latter, however, I think things, as ever, evolve slowly – we are perhaps all institutionalists now, but insofar as that is the case and insofar as that was not always the case (and there is perhaps an argument for suggesting that we always were all institutionalists – we just didn’t acknowledge it) then this should not be seen as a triumph for non-rationalist perspectives.  In other words, institutionalism provides the context within which earlier battles – between rational choice and behaviouralist and more critical tendencies – are still being fought out … The nature of those battles has changed very little.  What is more interesting, I think, is the emergence of new more inductive approaches to political analysis and the way in which this anthropological and ethnographic turn in some parts (usually the fringes) of the discipline is becoming aligned with constructivist and interpretivist work.  It is early days for this kind of work, but I see considerable promise in it – and perhaps most encouraging, it seems to be inspiring a younger generation of scholars.

R.C: In regards to your contribution on the strategic relational approach for political analysis and the role ideas have in political developments, how it has been received by other scholars and students? What you answer to critics that would argue that your contribution might well help improve ‘descriptions’ as opposed to ‘explanations’? Would you regard your book ‘Political Analysis’ a theory, a methodology, or a historiography of the discipline?

That, too, is an interesting question.  The strategic-relational approach (SRA), if one can call it that, was of course developed with Bob Jessop and it is his term not mine – and, perhaps, and to be fair, more closely associated with him than with my work per se.  I suspect my part in that has been little more than to bring a set of reflections about how actors engage with the contexts in which they find themselves from sociology to politics and political economy.  In that sense, it sometimes surprises me how well the work has been received.  In terms of viewing this as an approach capable of providing, perhaps, rich descriptions rather than explanations, I think I disagree.  But first it strikes me that most of what we term explanations in what we call the social sciences are typically little more if anything than abstracted redescriptions – often offered at a more general level.  That is very much not what the SRA is about – it is about identifying mechanisms of causation and about isolating, in a way, the necessary and sufficient conditions of a specific outcome rather than another.  So, whilst it might not always generate good explanation, it is perhaps clearer about the difference between explanation and description than many alternative positions.  That, I think, is a good thing.  The point about ideas is that, from my perspective, in order to explain (rather than describe) why this happened rather than that we need to know quite a lot about the ideas actors hold and how they come to hold them; for, in the end, they act the way they do because they hold the ideas they do.

R.C: Shall we focus on studying phenomena in order to contribute to a theory or studying theories in order to contribute to a phenomenon? What should be the relation between the scholar and the political world that surrounds him/her? Given that the scholars are part of the same polities they’re trying to study, how can bias be controlled/diminished/avoided?

I’m not sure I quite look at it in this way.  I don’t think the bias can really be controlled and I certainly don’t think it can be avoided.  Consequently, rather than strive to achieve the impossible – by devising spurious strategies or bias control or elimination – we are, I think, better simply to acknowledge the bias and to write in such a way as to draw attention to it.  We can trust, if you like, the reader to control for our bias if we are good and reflexive enough to acknowledge it and to share it with them.  I advocate, then, a reflexive and yet unapologetically political form of political analysis – and, again, this is no political science. Indeed, it is part of that reflexivity to resist the temptation to call it political science.

R.C: In contrast to the 1929 crack, and despite the fact that the current economic model is in a comparable crisis, it seems that today there is not an alternative inside the ruling order as the one represented by Keynesianism seventy years ago. Talking about the role of ideas on political phenomena, why now there seems to be such strong lack of new political ideas?

I think the implicit premise here is right – at least up to a point.  What today’s crisis shows, I guess, is that crises themselves are no guarantors of the transition that we typically assume them to herald in the absence of the ideas that might inform that transition (which is a point I made about earlier crises – notably that in Britain in the 1970s).  Ideational change invariably precedes institutional change and the premise in your question is that we lack today the ideas to turn to which might bring about such a change.  Yes, I think that is right.  But there are two caveats here.  First, whilst it would be nice if those ideas existed today, it is still early days in the unfolding of this crisis episode – and we should not yet give up on the hope that the ideas we need will be supplied in time.  1929 was a moment of crisis – but the resolution and the institutional change we now associate with that crisis would take nearly two further decades to become institutionalised.  Second, and relatedly, this crisis may well end up being resolved (insofar as it is ever resolved) by a return to old ideas (such as Keynesianism, albeit in a rather different form) rather more through the dawning of a new ideational age.  Indeed, I think the latter is very unlikely indeed – and that raises the interesting question of whether a contemporary variant of Keynesianism is capable of resolving this crisis.  That is a tricky one – and one we will perhaps have to leave for another time; but the fact that pose it as a question perhaps indicates that I am somewhat sceptical.

Colin Hay studied Social and Political Science at Cambridge University (Clare College), before moving to the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University to work on his Ph.D. under the supervision of Professor Bob Jessop. His first academic post was at Lancaster University. He moved to the University of Birmingham in 1995 and was promoted to Professor in 2002. During his time at Birmingham he held visiting posts at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University (US), in the Department of Political Science at MIT (US) and in the Department of Government at the University of Manchester (UK). He is a founding co-editor of the journals Comparative European Politics (with Ben Rosamond of Warwick University and Martin A. Schain of New York University) and British Politics (with Peter Kerr of the University of Birmingham, Dave Marsh of the Australian National University and Stephen Kettell of the University of Warwick). He is a member of the editorial team and, from January 2010, lead editor of New Political Economy. He was a member of the 2008 RAE sub-panel for politics and international studies. He was elected as an Academician of the Social Sciences in 2009.

Colin Hay joined the department in 2007 as Professor of Political Analysis, having previously held the same title at the University of Birmingham where, from 2002-2005, he was Head of the Department of Political Science and International Studies. In Sheffield, he is the Department’s REF Lead and is co-director (with Tony Payne) of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI).


Ramon I. Centeno is a Doctoral Research at Department of Politics, the University of Sheffield.

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