Friday, February 24, 2006


Two good bits of news over the last week. First, I've finally got a new job. This is a project based in the LSE library looking at how researchers are using e-resources and databases here. The project is a national one, tying up other university libraries in the country. I start in March when my current job finishes and - ideal for me - it's two days a week.

Second, I'll be presenting a paper at my first conference later this year. My masters dissertation, on the different experiences of the Left in education reform in Brazil, has been accepted for a conference on social democracy at Sheffield in June. OK, it's Sheffield and not somewhere abroad. But at least it's a start.

I can see some rewriting is probably going to need fitting in at some point...
Different starting points, same outcome

Also managed to fit some time in last week to attend a seminar up at the Institute of Education on higher education policy and reform in Argentina and Chile. Quite interesting, if only as a comparative reference for my own work. The impression I gained was that both countries are moving towards a more market-oriented system for HE, but from different perspectives. Whereas Chilean society seems to have accepted the principle of tuition fees and paying for university, in Argentina the public ethos still persists, even as private institutions continue to be created.

The seminar was also useful for the drinks I had with some of the more active members of the study group there - not least because I'm presenting at the monthly seminar next month. And it's nice to have a few friendly faces rather than a room of strangers!
Nothing to worry about?

I don't get out much when I'm putting together a paper for my supervisor, but I was able to sneak out for a round-table discussion hosted by the Mexican Society at the LSE. The topic was the upcoming presidential elections in that country and academics and pollsters were present.

It seems that the standard bearer of the Left, Lopez Obrador, is in the lead and barring any mishaps will probably be Mexico's new president. Calderon, the candidate of the PAN, lies seven points behind, with the PRI a few points further back, in third place.

One of the academics had doubts and concerns about the Left; with a social movement behind him would Lopez Obrador be a 'responsible' president? I find this objectionable. After all, why on earth would the Left be irresponsible? With the questionable exception of Chavez - who seems to be more bluster anyway (his anti-US rhetoric hasn't changed the fact that his biggest oil market is still... the US) - haven't the last few years shown that the Left tends to operate in a fairly moderate fashion? In Brazil, Argentina, Chile and most recently Bolivia, we're seeing presidents elected who are restraining themselves - and frustrating their own supporters.
Long-winded seminar round-up

Apologies for the slow blogging lately. I'm in the middle of putting together the final third of what I hope will be my introductory chapter and literature review and I'm trying to get it in for my supervisor by the end of today!

So yes, two weeks' worth of first year seminars to comment on. Last week Josue Fiallo presented his proposal, which will examine judicial reform in Central America and the Caribbean. My reading of his argument was that the region is relatively under-developed in this respect and so I put it to him that there was an underlying teleological assumption there. Was he assuming some form of linear progress towards a North Atlantic ideal? If so, how do we account for the variance in elites' acceptance of the rule of law, most notably in the context of America's war on terror and legal black holes in Guantanamo Bay? There was also a question about whether he could abstract from the sub-region he'll be studying to the wider region? Is the rest of Latin America - and especially the Southern Cone - as 'backward' in legal reform as he argues?

Josue was followed by Jeremy Williams, who is a political theorist. Refreshingly he is making some bold, controversial claims that eugenics can be justified and proceeded to upset a number of people in the seminar! I didn't follow it all, but I was struck by his argument that owing to issues of cost and parental obligations to the state (in return for their right for IVF), that given the choice between four embryos - one which would result in a mental infirmity, two others that would give a genetic pre-disposition to alcoholism or criminality and a fourth that was 'clean' - then we should go for the fourth. My sole contribution was to ask that, in the absence of the 'clean' embryo, which would the state be entitled to impose upon the prospective mother? Was he arguing for a hierarchy in which 'clean' is followed by the genetic pre-disposition and finally the mental infirmity? He said he would have to go back and think about it. I look forward to returning to this!

And so to this week. Sofia Sebastian wants to look at the involvement of international organisations on democratisation. In particular this would be the EU and its influence on the process in South East Europe (SEE), with Serbia and Croatia as possible case studies. However, she was making comparisons with Central East Europe (CEE), which raises questions: why the different level of EU involvement in the latter and not the former? How do we account for that? Might not a comparison between one SEE state with a CEE state be more productive? Anyway, it seems she's at the start of her investigations, so we'll probably watch this space.

Finally, Kanokrat Lertchoosakul presented an outline for her work on Thai political activity. She wants to examine why it is that these activists who were prominent in advocating democracy and left-wing ideas in the 1970s have now become conservative and alligned to the present populist government. I must admit I wasn't entirely sure how her project was going to be developed and this appeared to be reflected in the convener's observation that there were three ways that it could be developed. Nevetherless, not knowing anything about Thai politics and society, I found the presentation extremely interesting - and it shows why I like the seminar. The various projects taken on are extremely diverse. I was also struck by Kanokrat's comment that in the 1970s Thailand was 'exceptional' for having a political amnesty for dissidents, compared to the rest of South East Asia. I'm not qualified to say much, but I wondered whether that was really the case.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Seminar roundups

Yes, I’m afraid I’ve been slack lately. Something about getting on with my own research (I’m handing my supervisor a paper on the Latin American Right today for discussion on Monday). Consequently I haven’t been too good at mentioning what we’ve been up to in the first year seminar.

To run through them briefly: last week it was Omar El-Mougy’s turn to present his ideas on the stalled democratisation project in Egypt. The discussion quickly got bogged down in a debate over whether Islam and democracy are compatible, which is a moot point given the different interpretations that exist about each. Jacqui tried to offer a way forward which meant avoiding having that particular discussion. I found the paper rather helpful as a contrast to my own work, especially on the conceptions of authoritarianism and democracy that Omar brought out. And it also explains why he hasn’t been attending our Thursday night meet-up sessions over the last few weeks (although well done for coming last night)).

Yaz Santissi then gave us an outline that he’s working on. Unfortunately there was no paper to go with what looked like an interesting topic on internet governance. He’s curious to understand why the process of e-regulation was decided upon prior to the mass expansion and consumption of new e-technology. This stands in contrast to previous technologies, including radio and videotape where pirating prompted a reaction. Why is it that the big corporations moved so early to sew things up? Yaz seemed to allude that the reason could be due to there being a qualitative difference in current technologies compared to previous ones. But I asked whether that really was the case? Surely the same concerns are made about technologies through time – it’s just that the environment in which they come into existence changes. And in the case of today we’re living through a more globalised world than in the past.

This week Elize Sakamoto and Camilia Kong shared their work. Elize is interested in corporate social responsibility in the arms industry. What is it and why has it dragged its heels compared to, say, the pharmaceutical industry? I took her up on that point since I found it interesting to hear her say that the medical firms had managed to do this but that only now was an NGO coalition being put together to challenge the arms industry. Furthermore she also suggested the arms industry wanted to be more regulated. I found both ideas extraordinary. What could account for that? She responded by saying that it could have something to do with post-September 11. I’m afraid I find that a frustrating answer, since it’s used to explain all manner of things – yet terrorism, small arms proliferation, extremist ideologies were all present before then.

Finally Camilia presented on some work she’s doing on Hume. I wish I could offer more on her ideas but I’m afraid I’m no theorist. There was some discussion on instrumentalism and the discussion seemed to revolve around rationality and making choices. But by this point I was feeling just a tad bit exhausted. It was my 30th last weekend and it was a long one. And definitely not for this page…