New book by Prof Jennifer Todd: Identity Change After Conflict

Identity Change after Conflict: Ethnicity, Boundaries and Belonging in the two Irelands by Prof Jennifer Todd.

This book is a comparative study of how ordinary citizens in nationally and religiously divided societies respond to major social and political change. It is based on very extensive qualitative research in both parts of Ireland with a control study in France, and it uses new measures, methods and concepts of analysis. Its focus on individual identity innovation – set against analysis of social boundaries and cultural grammars – allows comparative empirical analysis of incipient processes of identity change in very different social settings. Its typology of identity change, oriented to project, content and argumentation, shows the obstacles specific to each type of change and the existence of social traps, where individuals’ resources and opportunities lead them to types of change almost certain to fail. Its conclusions go against contemporary wisdom. Identity change is pervasive, even more so in conflict-ridden situations than in consensual ones. It takes a limited number of forms, working from given national and religious bases rather than rejecting them. And it meets predictable social traps. Thus we can build in analysis of micro-level change as one part of a multi-levelled processual analysis of social transformation, where its impact differs in different contexts. So, for example, gradual cumulative micro-level change has led to threshold-like cultural transformation in the Republic of Ireland; more extensive, intense and radical micro-level change in Northern Ireland has ended in social and political stasis. The book argues that pluralist and cosmopolitan ideologies have failed to grasp the process and that there is a need for : constitutional signposts beyond identity politics.

The book was published as an ebook November 24, 2018 by Palgrave Macmillan and should be published in hard copy in mid December. Further details on the Springer site.


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The ‘Repeal of the 8th Amendment’ Referendum on Abortion

by Prof David Farrell

On May 25 all Irish citizens (who are registered to vote) will have an opportunity to vote on whether or not to allow the Oireachtas (the Irish Parliament) to legislate for abortion in Ireland.

The focus is on article 40.3.3, which was inserted into the Constitution as a result of a referendum in 1983 (‘the 8th amendment’). It reads as follows:

“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

The purpose of this referendum vote on May 25, therefore, is to determine whether to leave the existing article 40.3.3 as it is, or to replace it with the following wording:

“Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy.”

The outcome of the vote on May 25 is clear enough:

  • If the majority vote No, then the current constitutional and legislative framework remains in place, which allows for terminations of pregnancies only under very limited circumstances (where there is real and substantial risk to the life of the woman including the risk of suicide).
  • If the majority vote Yes then the Oireachtas is free to introduce new legislation regulating the termination of pregnancy. The government has already indicated the sort of legislation it would like to introduce, though clearly that would be dependent on Dáil support, which is a big ask with this Dáil!

The outcome may be clear but what is certainly not clear is the ballot paper we’ll be presented with at the polling station. It is hard to conceive of a ballot paper design that could be more confusing than this!

But don’t let the ballot paper confuse what is ultimately a straightforward choice. Put simply, the choice on May 25th is over whether to vote No, and keep the current situation (of highly restricted access to abortion) in place, or to vote Yes, to allow the Oireachtas to introduce a more liberal abortion regime.

Objective information about this referendum is available on the website of the Referendum Commission.

A very worrying feature that has come to prominence in this referendum campaign more so than in any other is the lack of regulation of the internet and social media, which allows unscrupulous campaigners to use inappropriate surreptitious campaign methods to seek to influence undecided voters. (See here for more on this). We’ve already seen how this sort of activity played out in the recent US Presidential election and the UK’s Brexit referendum.

We can only hope that this doesn’t unduly influence the outcome of this referendum.  It shows, yet again, why Irish elections and referendums need to have a much stronger regulator in operation.  The rather quaint, minimalist and cautious role provided by the Referendum Commission needs to be replaced by a well-resourced, professional and permanent Electoral Commission.

Let’s hope that government inaction in this area to date doesn’t have unfortunate consequences for this referendum.






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The Paradoxical Survival of Monarchy in the Middle East: Why do some regimes fall and others survive? The case of the Saudi Monarchy

by Saleh Alharbi 

The Arab Spring of 2011 ended several authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Other authoritarian regimes, especially the gulf monarchies like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia remained largely undisturbed. On one hand, the popular protests – which toppled long-existing dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, led to the killing of Libya’s four-decade-long ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, and triggered a prolonged civil war in Syria – marked an unprecedented political change in the region.  While authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria came under attack, others, especially the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia were largely untroubled.  How do we account for this paradox? What enables the monarchies in the Middle East, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to withstand the threat of democratic change?

To understand this, it is necessary to look at the question of regime survival within a perpetually contested process of state-making, evolution, and – quite possibly – unmaking. At the domestic level, the state is a product of successful domination by a political organisation or force over all other forces seeking hegemony. The process of domination also meets resistance from sectors of society that are negatively affected by the dominating forces. Thus regime survival is a question of how a state’s dominant political actor or group of actors manages political contestation within the state’s borders. In other words, the survival of certain regimes is something actively and continuously created.

This is a conceptualisation of the state which is simultaneously a conceptualisation of the political, or of the-state-in-society. Describing the nature of the state – how it came into being and how it self-reproduces – cannot be fully disentangled from examining what constitutes the realm of politics. This juxtaposition allows us to think about the persistence of some regimes, to account for the breakdown of others, and perceive potential threats to those that still manage to survive until today.

In order to understand the survival of the monarchy in Saudi Arabia it is important to elicit those struggles – the clashes, negotiations, tactical coalitions, and deliberate incitement of conflict between different groups – that have contributed to the seeming impossibility of democratisation. The state-in-society theory of Joel Migdal provides an apt framework for this purpose. The uniqueness of the Saudi Arabian political landscape, however, calls for a specific concept – the double standard coalition a strategy of domination – which, though aligned with the broader state-in-society framework, particularly describes Saudi Arabia’s state-society relations. The double-standard coalition allows us to examine the important groups who have competed for power and who have demanded and resisted reform. The coalition that emerges has allowed the Saudi monarchy to manoeuvre towards its survival.

Two dominant, but competing, social forces, groups that could potentially usher in political change in Saudi Arabia, have emerged from the history of tribal and religious society. On one hand, the Islamists have traditionally been influential in Saudi Arabia, because of the deep entanglement of government and religion in the country. As the law of the state draws on Islamic laws, the state and religion have formed a mutually sustaining relationship. On the other hand, Liberal fields have emerged in society during recent years with the rise of new intellectuals, artists, students, and women’s rights advocates, all trying to have an influence within Saudi society.

These two ideological camps, with their own ideas of an acceptable social order, have since competed for political influence. Both, however, assume an attitude of scepticism towards democracy in Saudi Arabia. Both the Islamic and the liberal forces have avoided democratic reforms as each camp assumes that democracy will politically benefit the other.  The incumbent Saudi monarchy has capitalised on these influential forces’ attitude towards democratisation and has deliberately fuelled disputes between them, or kept conflicts unresolved. It has maintained “double standard” coalitions with both camps and has simultaneously enjoyed their support. Meanwhile, both forces have sought agreements with and concessions from the Royal Family in order to maintain their influence in determining a future social order. This kind of strategic interaction between the Royal Family, the Islamists, and the Liberals reinforces the resilience of the status quo as well as the popular perception that the monarchic regime is durable.

That it has to maintain alliances with ideologically diverse but socially-influential groups, while deliberately keeping them in conflict, points to the constructed nature of the Saudi ruling regime. That is, the hegemony of the Saudi monarchy is preserved by the competitive interaction of different stakeholders each articulating their own interests and pursuing their respective objectives. The perceived credibility of the Saudi regime’s enforcement capacity emanates more from the state actors’ constant engagement with the mutually opposing dominant social-political forces. The Royal Family’s double standard coalition strategy allows it to make compromises, accommodations, and alliances and, hence, to develop into relative durability.

It is possible to understand why the Saudi Monarchy has remained stable while other authoritarian regimes have fallen. It is also possible to understand why democratic change has been slow in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, it becomes possible to understand the paradox of why some of the most famous liberals in Saudi Arabia oppose democracy. 

Saleh Alharbi

Saleh Alharbi is a third year PhD candidate at the School of Politics & International Relations, UCD. His research focuses on Politics of the Middle East, political reform, democratization, terrorism, Islamic political thought and human rights. Saleh had a Master of International Relations from University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. And a Bachelor of Political Science and Global Political Economy from King Abdulaziz University, Saudi Arabia. Previously to joining UCD, Saleh worked for three years as a lecturer and a teaching assistant in the department of Political Science, and as the deputy head of Media and Public Relations unit in the Faculty of Economics and Administration in King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia.


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Acknowledging Cross-Cultural Variations in Perceptions of Mental Health and Illness

by Emma Mathias

“Madness has been and remains an elusive thing … it is equally possible to think in terms of the manufacture of madness, that is, the idea that labelling insanity is primarily a social act, a cultural construct” (Porter, 1987, p. 8)

The World Health Organisation (WHO) (2014) estimates that one in four people across the globe will experience mental health problems at some point in their lives, with an estimated 80% of these people living in developing countries (Jacob and Patel, 2014). With the recent inclusion of mental illness in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an opportunity has arisen for these individuals to receive increased assistance. The WHO (2001; 2013) estimates that up to 85% of people in developing countries do not receive any treatment for mental illnesses, and has called for international action in order to effectively implement their recommendations on mental health legislation, policies and programmes. There is talk of ‘scaling up’ services with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ applied to mental health services and policies, often without due consideration for the appropriateness of the services that are to be implemented (Fernando, 2016). There is currently a lack of adequate guidelines as to how mental health resources should be utilized in developing countries, and a lack of understanding of mental illness in non-Western cultures in general, making this a difficult task.

There has been a dearth of research to date into the different ways in which mental health is conceptualised in different cultures across the globe. Large discrepancies in the accumulation of knowledge on Global Mental Health issues are glaringly obvious when we consider that approximately 90% of all research is conducted with 10% of the population, mainly within Western cultures (Kirmayer et al., 2014; Sharan, Levav, Olifson, de Francisco & Saxena, 2007). Presuming that the results of studies conducted with Western populations are directly transferable to those from different cultural and social backgrounds may lead to inappropriate service interventions if research is not counterbalanced with a substantial amount of high quality studies in non-Western contexts (Fernando, 2014; Mills, 2014).

A number of researchers (e.g. Fernando, 2014; Mills, 2016; Oloyede, 2002; Ventevogel, Jordans, Reis & de Jong, 2013) have recently argued that a global approach to mental health service provision is likely to do more harm than good, as mental health is socially and culturally determined. Therefore, mental health services need to be developed within the cultural and social settings in which they occur (Fernando, 2014; Mills, 2014). Mental illnesses as we understand them in the West are based on psychiatric concepts that have been developed in the US and Europe since the early 1900’s (see Bleuler, 1913; Kraepelin, 1919). We may be dealing with a ‘basic error of validity’ by assuming that mental health is conceptualised in the same way across all cultures, and this may be counter-productive in efforts to attempt to address the issue (Berg, 2003; Kleinman & Good, 1985; Ventevogel et al., 2013).

The majority of researchers investigating mental health in developing countries have taken a universalist approach, however, starting from the presumption that categories of mental illness are applicable across the globe, and have presumed a biochemical basis for mental illnesses. Many of these studies have attempted to adapt psychological measurement scales to assess the incidences of mental illnesses in developing countries. However, other researchers argue that transferring measurement scales for use in a completely different context may render them inaccurate and of little value if there is doubt about whether they are testing what they claim to be (e.g. Mendenhall, Yarris & Kohrt, 2016; Summerfield, 2008).

Results from researchers working from a more relativist position indicate that different cultural explanations are given for mental illnesses in various different cultural settings, and that distress is often expressed in different ways across cultures. These studies provide invaluable insights into the ways in which mental health is conceptualised amongst members of non-Western cultures, and give us clues as to how best to address these issues. These results have significant consequences for the delivery of mental health services across the globe, emphasising the necessity of culturally appropriate mental health assessments and service provision that will address the unique needs of different populations accordingly. Expanding on research studies such as these will be essential to designing the most appropriate mental health services for individuals in developing countries to ensure that SDG 3.4 to “reduce by one-third pre-mature mortality from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) through prevention and treatment, and promote mental health and wellbeing” (United Nations, 2016) is reached by 2030.


Emma Mathias is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Sustainable Development Studies, UCD, and an Assistant Lecturer in Applied Psychology in the Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT). Emma holds a BA in Psychology and an MSc in Development Studies, and has over 15 years’ experience working in the field of Mental Health and Intellectual Disability. She is currently working on an interdisciplinary PhD project entitled ‘Exploring the Phenomenology of Mental Illness in sub-Saharan Africa: A Case Study of Ghana’, bridging her expertise in the area of mental health and international development.

This blog is posted in advance of her SPIRe seminar on ‘Exploring the Phenomenology of Mental Illness in sub-Saharan Africa: A Case Study of Ghana’, discussant Tobias Theiler, on Wednesday, 25th April at 2pm.



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Is the Open Ballot a Closed Door to Women in Parliament?

by Mary Brennan, University College Dublin

Around the world millions of women celebrate 100 years since they joined the ranks of the electorate… but not the ranks of the Parliamentarians!!

As Yvonne Galligan consistently points out, the suffragettes did not suffer discrimination, incarceration and horrific systems of force-feeding simply for the right to put a mark on a ballot paper.  From the beginning these women fought for the equal right of gender to take part in political decision making. The almost international centenary of the vote is indeed an anniversary to be celebrated, but it is also a moment to take note, celebrate how far we have come, but realise the suffragette cause has not yet been won.

Table 1 Average Percentage of Women in Parliaments of the World

Source: Inter Parliamentary Union[1]

The Inter Parliamentary Union site shows the average female representation in the parliaments of the world.  The universally consistent under representation of half of the world’s population is some evidence that both the supply and demand for women politicians is artificially repressed (Krook, 2010).

Does it matter?

There is a valid argument that you don’t have to be a woman to do the right thing, make the good decisions, govern justly.  Much has been achieved in terms of improving the lives of women over the past 100 years, particularly in the areas of legal reforms and employment legislation. In terms of work, the marriage bar was a common piece of legislation in all four countries included in the table above. The marriage bar was a law that required women to resign from their employment after marriage. This loss of the right to work was argued to be reasonable because under the marriage contract it was the husband’s obligation to provide for the wife and family.

Source: Author’s own research

This obligation is also attached to the notion that a man is entitled to a living wage, which is a wage that provides enough to sustain the man, his wife and family.  The wage for a woman was needed only to provide for herself or if a working wife was regarded as merely a supplementary income. As shown in Table 2, it wasn’t until the second wave of feminism that married women secured some level of equal protections in the work place.  However, it is depressing to note how long it took in all states to criminalise sexual violence within marriage.  The legal logic behind this injustice can be traced back to British common law and the 1735 judgement of Sir Matthew Hales, who ruled that:

A husband cannot be guilty of rape upon his wife for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind to her husband which she cannot retract.’ (Featherstone, 2016)

Does it matter? – Yes, it does!

Which is why my research centres on the topic of women in political representation and particularly.

How does variation in intra-party processes, party culture and party leadership mediate the impact of quota regimes on female candidate selection?

The aim of this research is to identify if, and if so, how, a gender bias is informally maintained, even when formal barriers to female candidate selection have been removed.

Come and hear some of my findings on whether a technicality in the electoral system – in this case specifically the ballot paper – can allow parties to hinder the effectiveness of the quota from my paper:

Is the Open Ballot a Closed Door to Women in Parliament?


[2] Removed by Australian Federal courts in 1966 but not removed from State of Victoria until 1973


Mary Brennan is a Government of Ireland Scholar, whose research interest is in the comparative study of gender in political decision making.  Her current research centres specifically on the interaction of electoral gender quotas and political parties.  Mary holds an MSc in Politics and a BA (Hons) Politics (major) Psychology (minor) from UCD.  Mary is currently based in Brussels as an affiliated scholar to the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) Belgium. Her recent joint publication with Fiona Buckley, is The Irish legislative gender quota: The first election, Administration, Vol 65, Issue 2, pp. 15-35, DOI: 10.1515/admin-2017-0013.


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American Innocence and the Ethics of Patriotism

by Prof Roberto Sirvent

If you’re a player in the United States’ National Football League (NFL) and you’ve decided to kneel during the playing of the National Anthem, you have been called many things: unpatriotic, ungrateful, and even a “son of a bitch.” That these words came from the sitting U.S. President Donald Trump should come as no surprise. Having made a promise to “Make American Great Again,” Trump has forced philosophers to rethink commonly held notions of American patriotism.

In this talk, Roberto Sirvent argues that interrogating the ethics of patriotism requires much more than condemning it as a philosophical mistake. Rather, he shows that a critique of patriotism (in the U.S. context) must involve a critique of ideologies that undergird and fuel patriotic attitudes. Two of these ideologies, he argues, are American exceptionalism and American innocence. These twin ideologies inform not just political rhetoric but historical memory as well.

Both conservatives and liberals draw on these narratives of innocence and exceptionalism constantly. It’s present in Donald Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” but also in Hillary Clinton’s rebuttal that “we don’t need to make America great again. America never stopped being great.”  The mainstream, corporate media are also active propagandists for American exceptionalism and innocence. For example, in a New York Times editorial, the staff acknowledges the “mistakes” of US foreign policy yet reaffirms its exceptional character: “There’s no doubt that the United States has made terrible mistakes, like invading Iraq in 2003 and torturing terrorism suspects after Sept. 11 [but]… in recent decades, American presidents who took military action have been driven by the desire to promote freedom and democracy.”

How is it that the U.S. invasion of Iraq is seen as a mere “mistake”? How did the entire editorial board of the New York Times become convinced that the U.S. military enters wars “to promote freedom and democracy?” How does one maintain belief in the U.S. as a force for good in the world in light of the genocide of its indigenous people, slavery, and decades of imperialism around the globe? What ideological work is involved to view these actions as mere “mistakes”, “aberrations”, “necessary evils”, or even “things of the past,” rather than as constitutive of the U.S. State itself?

Throughout the talk, Sirvent explores how ideologies of American exceptionalism and American innocence are tied to the way many people in the U.S. venerate the military, flag, law, and Constitution. Thus, not only is a critique of ideology required to properly philosophize about the ethics of patriotism; a critique of idolatry is required as well. To be sure, there is much at stake in debates about patriotism, especially since the stories we tell ourselves – whether it’s about slavery, genocide, colonialism, or empire – have significant implications in struggles for social justice. After all, if the system is broken, then it needs to be fixed (or reformed). But if the system is working exactly as it’s supposed to be, then it needs to be dismantled. And it’s time to start imagining what a new world might look like.

Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics, Hope International University, Fullerton, CA. This blog is written in advance of his Dublin Political Theory Workshop on Friday, 6. April 2018, 13:15-14:15, in G316 Newman Building.


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The international development civil society sector in Poland: from beneficiary to agent of change

by Dr Galia Chimiak, Polish Academy of Sciences.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have emerged over time as the entities considered best equipped to initiate “development from below” (Hart 2001). Yet in the 1990s it was professed that their popularity with donors will not last forever and “at some stage NGOs, like flared jeans, will become less fashionable” (Edwards and Hulme 1996). National and international NGOs remained the favoured child of donor agencies up to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, 2001 (Howell et al. 2006). The superseding development-security nexus had an impact on states’ and other donors’ strategy towards NGOs, which has been evidenced in the pursued disciplining and taming of civil society worldwide.

Yet the trajectory of development of the civil society sector in former socialist states in East-Central Europe departs from the presented above evolution of NGOs in the advanced industrial countries. Before the toppling of the previous regime in Poland, only supervised by the one-party-state voluntary organisations were allowed to be registered whereas independent civic initiatives remained un-institutionalised or underground. After 1989 the civil society sectors in the region began to grow, also due to the external support provided from public and private donors alike. Poland and Hungary received the largest share of foreign foundations’ involvement with democracy assistance (Quigley 1997). Polish NGOs did not limit their internationalisation to the cooperation with foreign donors. The Polish civil society sector was one of the first to engage in trans-border cooperation with the other East-Central European countries undergoing transformation at the time. In 1992 Janina Ochojska of the Polish Humanitarian Action organized the first convoy of humanitarian aid to Sarajevo. The Polish NGO sector subsequently got increasingly engaged in democracy assistance and development cooperation, thus initiating the transformation from recipient of Official Aid to Official Development Assistance provider.

Given the singular history of the emergence and institutionalisation of civic initiatives in the former socialist bloc, the question arises as to how the NGO sector has fared on the background of the previously presented general environment enabling the functioning of the civil society sectors worldwide. This seminar will seeks to answer questions regarding the circumstances conditioning the development of the internationally-oriented NGO sector in Poland and the impact its civil society sector has exerted on the priorities and modalities of the governmental Polish aid program. These issues are so the more pertinent given that in old donor countries it has been NGOs that used to be the objects of socialisation in public institutions’ effort to further policy transfer and norm appropriation (Smith 2011), rather than the other way around. In the case of NGDOs in Poland, it will be argued that NGDOs themselves played a seminal role in the appropriation of norms and practices in the area of development cooperation by the line ministry.

The engagement of societal actors in international cooperation and the involvement of the Polish state in development assistance were taking place in a parallel fashion up to the end of the 1990s. The synergistic effect of the cooperation between these two stakeholders was facilitated by the prospect of EU membership. The various roles Poland played in development cooperation, from becoming a member of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance in 1949 through receiving Official Aid after the toppling of socialism in 1989 to becoming an emerging donor with EU accession in 2004 and finally joining the forum of established donors OECD-DAC in 2013, are indicative of the complex history of the engagement of the country in this area. Yet, as this seminar will endeavour to demonstrate, the contemporary Polish aid has been shaped not only by geo-political circumstances. Polish aid has namely benefited from its cooperation with the already relatively well-developed NGDO sector, which willingly shared its hands-on experience and know-how in providing humanitarian aid, development cooperation, and global education with state institutions responsible for development assistance.

The research can be broadly situated in the field of sociology of development. As it is interdisciplinary in nature, it also relies on insight from other social sciences such as psychology, international relations and political studies, inter alia by taking into account theoretical insight from these disciplines. The study assumes a micro perspective as it focuses on the actors’ viewpoint. As such, this research rests on the premises of supply-side theories of non-profit organisations. These theories highlight the pivotal role NGOs’ activists’ motivations and background play in the establishment of such organisations. The theoretical underpinnings of this research furthermore draw on constructivist thinking and specifically on the second generation of constructivist scholars.

Polish NGDOs’ strengths were found to lie in the continuing legacy of the Solidarity movement of the 1980s, the Polish aid professionals’ hands-on experience with transformation and cooperation with foreign funders alike, and the ensuing credibility of Polish NGDO activists. The perceived community of fate with other nations, who continue to live under a totalitarian system, keeps fuelling this cooperation. There is an added value of development cooperation provided by Polish NGDOs given that these organisations themselves have benefited from external assistance. The country’s in-between developmental status has been identified as a factor accounting for the legitimacy and integrity of Polish aid provided by Polish NGDOs. Unlike aid professionals in donor countries with colonial past (Lewis 2013), Polish aid professionals can and do freely move between sectors, which also facilitates the travel of ideas and know-how between internationally-oriented NGOs and national NGOs.


Dr hab. Galia Chimiak is an associate professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences. Her research interests are in societal self-organisation and international development cooperation. In 2008-2009 she worked for UNDP in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Since 2004 Galia Chimiak has taught at several universities in Warsaw as well as in Trinity College Dublin. She is a member of the International Society for Third Sector Research and the Development Education and Awareness Raising Multi-stakeholder Group at DG DEVCO of the European Commission. In 2014 Galia Chimiak was a visiting fellow at UCD SPIRE. Her book The Growth of Non-Governmental Development Organisations in Poland and Their Cooperation with Polish Aid came out last year.

This blog is posted in advance of her SPIRe seminar on “The international development civil society sector in Poland”, discussant Prof. Paul Walsh on Thursday, April 12th at 1pm.

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Are right-wing populist party voters ‘populist democrats’?

by Dr Caroline McEvoy

A defining feature of politics in the twenty-first century is the idea of democracy as a normative good. Studies have shown that, far from being the ‘best of the worst’ form of government, democracy is considered by the public to be of near universal value (Kriesi et al, 2017,1; Norris, 2011, ch5).  It is less clear, however, what voters mean when they invoke the term ‘democracy’.  Understanding if and how citizens hold competing democratic ideals is important since public evaluations of how democracy is perceived to work has significant consequences for trust in the regime, political efficacy and civic engagement (Hobolt, 2012; McEvoy, 2016; Norris, 2011). It is only recently that serious consideration has been given to how voters aspire to and evaluate democracy in a differential fashion (Kriesi et al,2017). The field of research has commonly assumed that when the public speak of democracy, it is understood to mean ‘liberal’ democracy.

Yet, as any student of political science understands, democracy is a highly complex concept. Both normatively and empirically it eludes a simple definition and debate continues as to what elements are essential (and desirable) for the system. Some arguments lean towards a minimal and less participatory model in the Shumpetarian vein whilst others argue for a more inclusive and directly involved citizenry. Democracy can thus be direct, representative, or deliberative; liberal or illiberal; and may involve both maximal and minimal views of government intervention in social, economic and cultural affairs. A central question, which to date remains under-explored in the field, is whether voters can distinguish between democratic modes and hold preferences towards competing types, finding expression of these attitudes in support for particular parties.

On the supply side of this argument, an emerging trend has focused on how populist parties express an understanding of democracy in a manner that is at odds with the liberal definition shared by the political mainstream (Albertazzi and McDonnell, 2008; Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2012; Pappas, 2016) . As Pappas (2016) notes, populist challengers are always democratic, using rhetoric that focuses directly on the ‘will of the people’ and yet, at the same time are distinctly illiberal, holding several democratic ideals that are at odds with the aspirations of representative democracy. For populist parties then, democracy centres on the protection of a single, unified public will and elements that are central to liberal democracy – such as the primacy of elections and the representative process, checks and balances between institutions and the protection of minority interests against the tyranny of the majority – stand opposed to this ideal.

On the demand side, there is a rich debate surrounding the motivations behind support for the populist right. Primarily, the discussion centres around the following issue: is a vote for a populist party an expression of ideological congruence with the stated aims of the party or is it a non-ideological signal of discontent against mainstream politics? (Akkerman et al; 2014; Lefkofridi and Casado-Asensio, 2013; Lubbers and Coenders; 2017; Norris, 2005; Pauwels, 2014; Van der Brug et al, 2000, 2005; Van der Brug and Fennema, 2003). The existing literature argues that when voters favour a populist right candidate they do so, both out of dissatisfaction with how democracy works in their country and out of ideological congruence with a distinct set of policy alternatives. The aim of my paper is to explore whether this finding extends towards public attitudes for competing modes of democracy. Put differently, I ask if supporters of the populist right share in an alternative understanding of democracy – namely a populist mode of democracy – which is at odds with the liberal variant commonly supported by centrist parties.

Using a dataset from the European Election Study Round 6 (2012), the paper argues that supporters of populist parties hold different ideological conceptions of what democracy should entail compared to voters of the mainstream. The study finds significant differences in attitudes between voters of the populist right and other party families on some, but not all, elements of populist democracy. Moreover, the study finds that differences in support for competing democratic modes are influenced by higher levels of political interest, where more politically interested voters tend to have a clearer understanding of the differences between democratic types. The results indicate that attitudes to democracy and, in particular, the consequent behaviours following from dissatisfaction with democracy, are complicated by the difficulties average voters face in disentangling the elements of competing democratic types.


Caroline McEvoy is Lecturer / Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin. Her research interests are in the areas of political behaviour and public opinion with a particular focus on political representation in Europe. Previously, Caroline was an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postdoctoral fellow at UCD (2015-2017) and Teaching Fellow/Adjunct Assistant Professor at Trinity College Dublin (2013-2016). Her recent work has been published in journals such as Journal of Common Market Studies, Politics & Gender, Representation and West European Politics. She will be giving a SPIRe seminar on  “Are right-wing populist party voters ‘populist democrats’?” Discussant Prof. David Farrell on Wednesday, February 14th, (Note earlier time) 13:00-14:15. 


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Cultivating Ecological Consciousness: Shifting from Reductionist to Holistic Worldviews

By Louise Fitzgerald

Techno-optimism and greening growth dominate mainstream environmental policymaking, with Market Based Instruments (MBIs) & geo-engineering two manifestations of this. MBIs claim that in order to value nature it must be financialised, and incorporated into the economic system. Geo-engineering is based on the assumption that Business As Usual can continue as the Industrial Growth Complex holds promise of innovating solutions to current crises. While differing in approach, they are united in fundamental logic, not only in negating the need for a significant reorientation of the economy, but in a deeper worldview, as will be interrogated within this paper.

Critiques of MBIs to date have largely focused on commodification of nature into the capitalist system (Kill, 2014). Such analysis is related to the broader criticism of Greening Growth, and associated injustices surrounding implementation of MBIs on the ground (See Bond et al., 2012; Cabello & Gilbertson, 2012). The Geo-engineering critique concentrates mostly on feasibility and risk of proposed technologies, also hedged in concerns of the potential for carbon and technology lock-in and related justice issues (Cairns, 2014).

This paper develops and enhances this debate by focusing on a largely overlooked and under interrogated problematic of such policies; the enshrining of a reductionist worldview. In this way it further deepens perspectives in understanding and articulating the issues inherent in such policies. Such analysis holds a number of contributions. Firstly, it illuminates the shared assumptions about nature underpinning what is described here as “Techno-Growth-Optimism”. Secondly it demonstrates the dangers arising from this flawed reductionist view, relating it back to social and economic systems, as this fundamental assumption is the root cause of current crises. Finally, it presents an orientating paradigm within which emerging alternative sustainabilities and emancipatory movements can be appreciated and fostered.

Reductionism: origins & implications

Reductionism, the idea that complex phenomena can be understood and explained by reducing them down to the smallest of “singular” entities is a hegemony that underpins the organisation of contemporary socio-economic structures. Since its very origins in the Scientific Revolution it has been inextricably linked to the domination and destruction of nature (Merchant, 1980). Reductionism is at the root of the growing ecological crisis, because it entails a transformation of nature such that the processes, regularities and regenerative capacity of nature are destroyed (Shiva, 1988). MBIs are inherently reductionist in that, “Nature’s capacity to regulate, store carbon and sequester carbon dioxide, to regulate and filter water or to provide a home for a complex web of life has been abstracted into isolated units of ‘ecosystem services’ so that they can then be traded on the open market (Kill, 2014, p. 19). Geo-engineering, in the belief that we can isolate & “hack” the complex processes of the planet, while assuming this won’t have implications for the whole, shares this logic (Klein, 2014). Such mechanistic thinking about the complex life sustaining systems is the root cause of the environmental crisis. It also underpins social and economic crises, in cultivating the view of humans as rational self-interested entities, separated from one another and the natural world. Such economic and social crises have in turn fostered a dislocation with mainstream politics, as this discord in turn has cultivated fertile ground for extremism, resulting in multifaceted political crises.

Challenges to reductionist hegemony

With such large-scale prevailing overlapping crises, the time is ripe for challenges to the hegemonic reductionist worldview to emerge. Indeed, traditional indigenous science, and non-Western cosmologies such as Buddhist Systems thinking have long provided intellectual antidotes to reductionist views. Meanwhile, contemporary developments such as Gaia Theory, and Quantum Entanglement Theory are fundamentally undermining the scientific basis of reductionism in conventional scientific spheres. This, again, is reflected in grassroots environmental movements, with the clarion call of “we are nature defending itself” as environmentalism recalibrates itself from predominantly middle class conservation focus to more deep ecology and justice-based perspectives of humans as embedded in the wider web of life, humans as nature.

Within this lies hope for emancipatory and alternative sustainabilities to emerge, and for marginalised knowledge to come to the fore. This will arise from challenging hegemonic reductionism, as from its very origins this “epistemological violence” has been intrinsically linked to the domination of nature, women, and delegitimisation of organic, spiritual and holistic worldviews and those who bear them (Merchant, 1980; Shiva 1988). Thus, shifting from the domination and oppression of the current Industrial Growth Complex is predicated on challenging this hegemony.

A true paradigm shift: from reductionist to holistic worldviews

As this paper explores, the path to emancipation lies in such an interrogation; to make visible the insidious and pervasiveness of reductionist hegemony, in our societies, in our disciplines, and in ourselves. Only through this decolonization of our minds can we cultivate holistic systems thinking to challenge the fundamental drivers of (green) capitalism, develop adequate responses to the current crisis and foster a collective consciousness fertile for alternative sustainabilities based on convivial, holistic, restorative of balance, truly emancipated worldviews to emerge and flourish.

Global warming, plastic ocean pollution, the sixth mass extinction, growing inequality, all call for a new consciousness to emerge regarding how we exist in this world, and with one another. But what does this entail? Does consciousness mean just increased awareness, or does it necessitate a deeper questioning of fundamental assumptions and worldview that underpin the systems from which these crises came? Here consciousness means perception, to seek to reveal and challenge existing politics of knowledge, and cultivate new ways of understanding, alternative ontologies. This is the current challenge for political theory, so that crises may be transformed into opportunities for justice.



Louise Michelle Fitzgerald SPIRe Doctoral recipient, UCD

Irregularly tweets under: @LouiseMichelleF

Louise Michelle Fitzgerald is a second year PhD researcher and SPIRe Doctoral recipient at the School of Politics & International Relations, UCD. Her research focuses on environmental and climate policy, and seeks to analyse what conditions and characteristics give rise to effective environmental policy. In particular she aims to contribute to knowledge of how to develop holistic, future-just, social-just effective environmental policy. Broadly she is interested in political ecology, alternative sustainabilities, deep ecology, system-thinking and holistic perspectives in cultivating solutions to current socio-ecological crises. Previously to joining UCD she lived for 3 years in Berlin where she worked in environmental research and civil society organisations. She is an active member of a number of climate and environmental justice organisations, both in Dublin and Berlin.




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Intra-government conflict and electoral accountability

by Carolina Plescia and Sylvia Kritzinger (Department of Government, University of Vienna)

Competitive elections offer citizens the opportunity to reward or punish elected officials for their performance while in office. Keeping elected official accountable is a keystone of democracy. The most direct evidence that elected officials are subordinate to voters in democracies is the retrospective economic voting: that is, voters punishing incumbent governments that preside over a poorly performing economy (Lewis-Beck and Stegmaier 2000). For the retrospective voting mechanism to work however, voters need to be able to identify parties’ responsibilities for achievements or failures while in office. If lines of responsibility are not clear, the ability of voters to evaluate and punish politicians declines (Tavits 2007). The assignment of responsibility is particularly problematic when governments are formed by more than one party (Powell and Whitten 1993). Under these circumstances, the assignment of responsibility is obscured because voters are unsure about who is responsible for economic policy-making. In fact, the existing literature shows that, all other things being equal, voters are more likely to hold single-party governments to account for their performance compared to coalition governments, as responsibility attribution is less obvious in the latter case (Fisher and Hobolt 2010).

However, coalition governments vary considerably in their configuration (Strøm et al. 2008): some are composed of parties who largely share policy priorities and agree on common goals; others are more heterogeneous, often time formed by litigious parties. Conflict within the government has been found to have enormous consequences on policy outputs and government stability (Warwick 1996; Müller and Strøm 2000). As of today however, the effect of the type of coalition government on the working of electoral accountability has not been studied.

Our paper investigates whether conflict among government parties have consequences on responsibility attribution. We argue that conflict among coalition partners, when visible to the public, can help clarify to voters the government responsibilities for poor performance. Specifically, through repeated conflict, parties in government can provide voters with important information on parties’ policy actions that voters can use to assign responsibility for policy outcomes. To test this claim, we couple data from the European Election Study 2009 with a novel measure of government conflict. Our novel measure of intra-government conflict is based on an integrated dataset that on an almost continuous basis collects data from media reports of press releases, parliamentary speeches and politicians’ statements using machine learning in all countries in Europe. This data document cooperative and conflictual public interactions among politicians of the government parties and we rely on this data to create a novel measure of intra-government conflict.

The findings from our paper show that conflict between government parties has a substantial negative effect in interaction with retrospective evaluations, which indeed suggest that conflict among coalition partners helps voters gathering important information on government actions. In addition, the results indicate that the degree of retrospective voting due to government conflict is similar for the prime minister party and its junior coalition partners. In particular, the paper shows that the junior coalition partner, which is usually the less visible party in the government, gets punished as much as the prime minister party when government conflict is high. This finding speaks to recent election events in UK, Ireland and Germany, where the junior coalition partners of conflictual governments – the Liberal Democrats, the Labour party and the FDP respectively – have been harshly punished by voters.

The current study contributes to the existing literature in several important ways. First, this study improves our understanding of the accountability mechanism by investigating the impact that the type of government has on responsibility attribution. Second, the findings improve our understanding of one of the most salient empirical regularities in comparative politics, the observation that incumbent parties do not always suffer losses when economic conditions have not improved. In this paper, we show that while parties may have strategic incentives to diffuse political responsibility when policy outcomes are suboptimal, certain types of governments and the conflict they experience make it harder for them to escape punishment. Third, this study sheds light on an important forgotten aspect of retrospective voting that is, how do voters gather information on parties’ actions while in government. Our results indicate that the visibility emerging from conflict plays an essential role in keeping voters informed on who is responsible for policy outcomes.


SPIRe Seminar Series

This blog was written to accompany a seminar in the SPIRe seminar series.  The author’s seminar  “Intra-government conflict and electoral accountability” will take place on  Wednesday January 31st, 14:00-15:15, in G316 Newman Building. Discussant Dr James Cross. Full schedule.


Carolina Plescia is Assistant Professor at the Department of Government at the University of Vienna since 2014. Her work has been published in journal outlets such as Electoral Studies, West European Politics, Party Politics, and International Journal of Public Opinion Research. She is currently a member of the Austrian National Election Study (AUTNES) and part of the H2020 project RECONNECT. Twitter: @carolinaplescia

Sylvia Kritzinger is Professor for Methods in the Social Sciences at the Department of Government and she is currently Member of the Senate at the University of Vienna and Deputy Director of the Research Centre “Vienna Centre for Electoral Research – VieCER”. She is one of the principle investigator of the Austrian National Election Study and part of several EU-commissioned projects. She has authored more than 40 international journal articles and several books on issues spanning from public opinion research, political communication and extreme-right voting.

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