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Political Science in the Age of the Pol Prof

by Jonathan Dean
July 9, 2021

The reputation of political science is substantially shaped by a handful of "Pol Profs", but the academic study of politics is important. An anti-Pol Prof is needed. 3130 words / 13 min read

It’s a familiar scene: a high-profile politics professor at a Russell Group university says something inane or reactionary on Twitter, prompting a slew of criticism, largely from younger left-wing Twitter users. So frequent is this scenario that the term “Pol Prof” has seeped into the wider lexicon, denoting a smug, condescending political scientist with a particular ire for anyone politically to the left of Andy Burnham. As an unashamedly left-wing political scientist, I have been by turns angered, amused and exasperated by the prominence of the Pol Prof within my chosen academic discipline. But who or what exactly is a “Pol Prof”? How did the figure of the Pol Prof become so dominant within wider perceptions of academic political science? And what can be done to rethink the academic study of politics, such that Pol Prof-ism figures less prominently?

First, let’s be clear about exactly what we mean when talking about “Pol Profs”. Its etymology derives from @PolProfSteve, the Twitter handle of Steven Fielding, a political historian at the University of Nottingham known for his brash hostility towards the Corbynite left. At the risk of sounding a bit #NotAllMen, the term “Pol Prof” is not a shorthand for all politics professors. Rather, it denotes a particular set of traits that some in the political science community exhibit, encompassing ideological commitments, methodological assumptions, and aesthetic sensibilities. A recent article in the journal Political Quarterly by Peter Allen and Dai Moon pithily summarises these traits thus:

[Pol Profs] tend to launder what are broadly centrist or centre-right political views through quantitative data that is subsequently presented as non-ideological. The Pol Profs are typecast as residing in an online universe of ‘sensible’ political commentary that is supportive of a brand of centrist politics similar to that advocated by Tony Blair in the 1990s, nowadays voiced by political columnists like John Rentoul and Andrew Rawnsley. Along these lines, the Pol Profs regularly produce ‘takes’ on political events that are broadly favourable to the status quo of political institutions and policies, and bemoan the inability of those on the left to accept that their ideas are beyond credibility’.

In addition to the above, I would also add that the Pol Prof frequently evinces a kind of masculine bravado, marked by an absence of self-doubt, and a penchant for performative contrarianism. The best known Pol Profs, and certainly those who most frequently incur the wrath of the left Twittersphere, are arguably the aforementioned Fielding, as well as University of Kent quantitative political scientist turned anti-“woke” polemicist Matthew Goodwin.1 And yet, the description offered above describes probably 20 individuals at most. Pol Profs are not numerous, but they enjoy an exalted status within a deeply hierarchical university system, as well as a high profile online and in the broadcast media. Pol Profs feature prominently in public perceptions of academic political science largely because they are the only politics academics that most citizens are at all likely to encounter. But, crucially, the small class of Pol Profs is underpinned by a rather larger cohort of academics who might be described as either “Pol Prof-adjacent” (i.e. they exhibit Pol Prof-ish tendencies but stop short of being archetypal Pol Profs), or “aspiring Pol Profs” (junior scholars who revere, and aspire to emulate, the Pol Profs).

The Pol Prof frequently evinces a kind of masculine bravado, marked by an absence of self-doubt, and a penchant for performative contrarianism.

But how did we get here? How did such a small group with such idiosyncratic traits come to loom so large? One explanation lies in the origins and the history of the discipline. At its founding, political science came to define itself as the scholarly analysis of “the state”, as distinct from other domains of human life such as culture, economics, and kinship/intimacy. In the British context, this manifested through a focus on elite, Westminster politics: the “Westminster Model”, as it has come be known. This has meant that scholarly authority in British political science often correlates with the intimacy of one’s knowledge of the inner workings of parliamentary process, voting behaviour, and the dynamics of mainstream political parties. Politics—for the Pol Profs and, to be honest, much political science—is therefore narrowly demarcated and curiously self-contained, often analysed in isolation from wider cultural, social, and economic processes. This, in turn, means that some political scientists are easily bewildered by extra-Parliamentary political forces, i.e. those that cannot be explained or understood through reference to the usual machinations of elite Westminster politics.

Political science came to define itself as the scholarly analysis of “the state”, as distinct from other domains of human life. In the British context, this manifested through a focus on elite, Westminster politics.

A further crucial factor is that political science, and to some extent the social sciences in general, were, from the outset, burdened by an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the natural sciences. Throughout much of its history, the discipline has often responded to this challenge by trying to cultivate a science of politics, aping the natural sciences’ emphasis on empirical observation. This approach to political analysis has two key features. First, it affirms the importance of scholarly objectivity, believing that political scientists can and should put their existing political/ideological commitments to one side when conducting academic research. Second, it believes that political life, like the natural world, functions in accordance with observable general laws that enable political developments to be accurately measured, mastered and, crucially, predicted in advance. Even before the recent rise of the Pol Prof, the discipline’s confidence in predictive analytic models had been shaken for some time. Prior to the early 90s, the received wisdom among political scientists was that the apartheid regime was stable, and that the state socialist regimes were likely to endure. The 2008 crash, the 2011 Arab revolutions, Brexit, Trump, Corbyn, and, more recently, Starmer’s failure to reverse Labour’s electoral fortunes, have provided further grist to the mill of those who question the centrality of prediction to political science research. Indeed, one reason some find Pol Profs so irksome is that despite the recent failure of their preferred (predictive, empiricist) model of political research on its own terms, they nonetheless proceed unburdened by any discernible self-doubt, or inclination that their methodological assumptions might need to be rethought.

Despite the recent failure of their preferred model of political research on its own terms, Pol Profs nonetheless proceed, unburdened by any discernible self-doubt.

What is more, the Pol Profs’ aspirations to evidence-based neutrality belie a clear and consistent set of ideological commitments. The belief in the empirical accuracy of a vision of politics premised upon order, regularity, and predictability very easily spills over into a normative defence of order, stability, and the status quo, wherein any politics which defies the received wisdom of political science’s predictive models will often be deemed wrong, misguided or stupid. And this was precisely what happened when Corbyn assumed leadership of the Labour Party. There was a clear tension in the Pol Profs’ well-documented hostility to the Corbyn project: at times, their hostility purported to be simply an analytic prediction that Corbynism would fail, because it went against existing scholarly expectations about British politics. But over time this ostensible “objectivity” became ever less tenable, because Pol Profs’ overt hostility to Corbyn and his supporters was never grounded in sober, “value-free” analysis. Rather, it arose from a commitment to a liberal, centrist and/or centre-left politics which harboured a deep-rooted ideological hostility to the left politics Corbynism represented. This problem—i.e. the tendency to assume, incorrectly, that liberal centrism enjoys a scholarly objectivity that rival ideological positions lack—is longstanding and persistent: Corbynism simply made it more transparent.

The belief in the empirical accuracy of a vision of politics premised upon order, regularity, and predictability very easily spills over into a normative defence of order, stability, and the status quo.

As such, the depth of the fear and loathing that Pol Profs continue to exhibit towards the post-Corbyn left must be seen in a wider political, affective and biographical context. Most Pol Profs are of the age cohort whose formative years were during the immediate post Cold War era. You could say Pol Profs are quintessential children of the End of History. Therefore, many Pol Profs—along with the wider political journalist and pundit class—came of age anticipating a future in which there would be no alternative to a kind of Blair/Clinton-style progressive neoliberalism, and in which the antagonisms that shook the twentieth century would give way to a technocratic, post-democratic “ruling of the void”, as the late Peter Mair famously put it. The expectation was that, in an absence of mass citizen mobilisation, Pol Profs (as well as others who analyse politics professionally) would enjoy an unchallenged epistemic privilege within a largely depoliticised, technocratic terrain. Thus, recent developments have been met with bewilderment—not just because they have confounded analytic predictions, but because they unsettle the very foundations of the post-Cold War sensibilities that shape the Pol Prof worldview.

A final factor underpinning the rise of the Pol Prof is the increasing emphasis in higher education on “impact”, i.e. an expectation that scholarly research should have some sort of direct and measurable influence on the “real world”. The impact agenda means that prospects for professional recognition and promotion are increasingly dependent on the pursuit of research which has the potential to shape policy; it also encourages academics to increase their profile among non-academic audiences through, for example, providing commentary in the print or broadcast media, or developing a strong Twitter presence.

The impact agenda has been widely criticised for encouraging a certain conservatism: it is much easier to be “impactful” if your academic research speaks to existing policy priorities. And most media platforms—with their appetite for short, uncomplicated, bite-sized “takes”—are notoriously averse to scholarly work that seeks to critique or complexify dominant discourses. So Pol Profs enjoy their high media profile in part because they afford a sheen of scholarly respectability to discourses and ideologies that are already hegemonic (for instance, the belief that Labour needs to “move right on culture to win back the working class”; or that “populism” can be used as a catch-all term for any and all challenges to the status quo). What is more, the discipline’s longstanding attachment to prediction intersects with the impact agenda’s emphasis on public engagement to normalise a peculiar style of Pol Prof discourse centred upon the competitive casting of short-term predictions. This has the effect of blurring the boundary between (long, slow) scholarship and (short, immediate) punditry, whilst also linking scholarly prowess to one’s capacity to correctly “call” election results, or other political developments, in advance.

The impact agenda’s incentivising of gratuitous self-promotion is in keeping with wider trends in contemporary higher education. Indeed, the Pol Prof is, in many ways, the quintessential neoliberal academic. The Pol Prof upholds the values of productivity, self-promotion, and being constantly “on”, ever ready to offer their immediate take on whatever is unfolding at that precise moment in the 24-hour news cycle. Rather than engaging in slow, careful, reflective analysis of conjunctural forces, the Pol Prof offers fast, simple, digestible nuggets of insight. The Pol Prof – much like the ideal neoliberal subject – is individualised, autonomous and hyper-productive. As numerous feminist scholars have pointed out, this ideal of sustained productivity and public visibility is not viable if you have a large burden of pastoral or caring responsibilities at work or at home. So it should come across as no surprise that literally all the high profile Pol Profs are men, and the vast majority white: the Pol Profs are, to a large extent, a mere symptom of the existing gendered and racialised hierarchies within the neoliberal university.

But why does this matter? One response might be to say that political science is a lost cause, and that anyone who is serious about making sense of our current moment should look to other disciplines. But my criticisms of the everyday practices and epistemic hierarchies within the discipline arise not from a desire to trash the academic study of politics but, on the contrary, from an optimistic belief in its profound transformative and intellectual value. Take, for example, “the state”, i.e. political science’s traditional object of the study. Although talk of the “hollowing out” of the state was fashionable for a time in the immediate post-Cold War period, debates about the contested role of the state in all its complexity have taken on a renewed importance after the 2008 crash, and political science and political theory remain essential for such an undertaking. What is more, political science and political theory have tended to oscillate between an emphasis on “the state” (as a defined arena of political/institutional activity) and “the political” (denoting the ways in which dynamics of power and resistance shape all aspects of human—and indeed non-human—life). Although the former remains dominant, the latter has a substantial foothold in the discipline, manifest in the significant (and in some cases growing) impact of, for instance, interpretivist, feminist, post-structuralist, postcolonial/decolonial, and intersectional approaches.

At its best, the academic study of politics offers a dynamic and expansive vision of “the political” (which includes, but is not limited to, “the state”), forcing us to confront our implication in complex dynamics of power, politics, and resistance. Examples of such an approach can be found in recent work on politics and social media, the politics of race and empire, young peoples’ politics and activism, rhetoric and ideology, the politics of gender and sexuality, and populism and the far right, to name but a few. None of this is to say that studying the state, or using quantitative methods, are problematic per se. The problem is the disproportionate visibility and status that quantitative methods, alongside a rather reified view of the state as political science’s proper object, enjoy. The point being: the academic study of politics is absolutely essential for understanding the modern world, but the image of political science projected by the figure of the Pol Prof to the wider public is in many ways misleading. A more dynamic, pluralistic, intellectually exciting vision of political science—in which Pol Prof-ery holds less sway—to a certain extent already exists, albeit below the radar for some.

At its best, the academic study of politics offers a dynamic and expansive vision of “the political”, forcing us to confront our implication in complex dynamics of power, politics, and resistance.

But this work is unfinished, and there are several potential stumbling blocks. One is the simple fact that many in the political science community do not think there is a problem, viewing our criticisms as uncivil, mean-spirited, or simply intra-disciplinary gossip. Conversely, some political scientists share mine and others’ misgivings about the antics of the Pol Profs, but are reluctant, in these times of precarity and job insecurity, to voice this publicly for fear of adverse professional consequences.

A further difficulty arises from the manner in which the wider discussion about Pol Profs has unfolded. In keeping with the competitive and individualistic tenor of the neoliberal attention economy, most critiques of Pol Prof-ery (including, to be quite frank, my own) often consist of little more than trying to “own” specific professors on Twitter. But this just individualises a problem which is, fundamentally, not really about specific individual professors: indeed, contrary to the perception of some, several high profile Pol Profs have in fact published interesting and thoughtful work, and some are rightly praised for being friendly and collegial at an interpersonal level. Conversely, some Pol Profs clearly derive a barely-concealed glee from antagonising their left-wing critics on Twitter. So rather than fixating on this or that problematic utterance by professor X or Y, what we really need is to do is challenge the very structures of the discipline—and neoliberal higher education more broadly—that incentivise and reward Pol Prof-ish behaviour.

One way of doing this is through parody and humour. Indeed, there is a well-loved Twitter account called @ProfBritPol who adopts, for comic effect, the persona of a smug politics professor who mistakes their centrist ideological commitments for objective political truth. @ProfBritPol has been around for several years now, and is clearly the work of somebody very familiar with the inner workings of the discipline, but their true identity remains unknown. Although it’s hard to quantify, I do think that the popularity of @ProfBritPol did for a time provoke a much-needed self-consciousness on the part of some Pol Profs. But @ProfBritPol can’t be expected to do this singlehandedly. The classroom is also a crucial terrain of struggle, as recent discussions about decolonising the social science curriculum will testify. I teach a final year undergraduate module entitled ‘Reimaging Politics’, which seeks, in part, to think about politics beyond the disciplinary constraints traditionally imposed by mainstream political science by examining the politics of race, gender, and popular culture (and I’m far from alone in pursuing such an undertaking). Recent efforts by the Political Studies Association at promoting equality and diversity within the profession are also very encouraging, albeit still limited.

Some of the more overtly reactionary or problematic utterances that Pol Profs put forth on Twitter risk doing real reputational damage, and do little to make politics an enticing option for prospective students.

However, greater diversity in terms of methods and research topics is insufficient if we are to remain within a higher education system governed by neoliberal logics of competition and accumulation. One of the positives of the Corbyn years was that a left critique of the commodification of higher education came back into mainstream political discourse. Unfortunately, it now seems to have ebbed away slightly—perhaps exacerbated by the fact that many previously highly-politicised academics now feel burnt out due to the combined effects of the pandemic and the neoliberal university. Granted, the antics of the Pol Profs may not be the most obviously malign manifestation of neoliberalism in higher education. But some of the more overtly reactionary or problematic utterances that Pol Profs put forth on Twitter risk doing real reputational damage, and do little to make politics an enticing option for prospective students.

For some members of the online left, there is clear enjoyment to be gained from highlighting the often very substantial chasm between Pol Profs’ supposed expertise, and their evident inability to comprehend key political developments. But for more critical and radical scholars within the profession, it’s a source of concern and embarrassment. Another political science is possible, and to some extent already exists—but to realise its full potential, it will be necessary to redouble our efforts at imagining the university beyond neoliberalism.


  1. Ironically, both Fielding and Goodwin depart somewhat from textbook Pol Prof-ery: the former is not a quantitative political scientist, and the latter champions a kind of authentocratic communitarianism at odds with the anti-Brexit liberalism of most Pol Profs. 


Author:

Jonathan Dean (@jonathan_m_dean)

Jonathan Dean is Associate Professor of Politics at the University of Leeds, where he is co-director of the Centre for Democratic Engagement. His academic research focuses on the theory and practice of left politics, focussing in particular on the role of gender, populism and popular culture.