Our Department

Since opening in 1964, the University of Essex has been at the leading edge of political science through a commitment to excellence in research and education.

Topping all previous six Research Excellence Frameworks, we can rightly claim to be the intellectual home to a significant proportion of the UK’s leading researchers. Four of our 30 full-time members are Fellows of the British Academy - the highest proportion of any department across the UK.

Our research and our teaching focus on the following areas:

Understanding global challenges

Our Department contributes to the understanding of current global challenges from empirical, analytical, and normative perspectives. Our academic staff provide policy advice to democratic governments, international governmental and non-governmental organisations, and democratisation movements all around the world. We are actively involved in election monitoring, conflict resolution, and we give strategic recommendations to parties, interest groups and business corporations.

Hear from the Speaker

Rt Hon Dr John Bercow MP, Essex graduate and Speaker of the House of Commons from University of Essex on Vimeo.

"The standard of work produced, the quality of the feedback and the innovative teaching approaches are outstanding. The University of Essex not only excels at research, it excels at teaching and yet again provides the benchmark against which other departments struggle to match."
Graeme Davies, University of Leeds

Notable achievements

Key points in our history

Over its 50 year existence our Department has never been committed to any one orthodoxy or approach to political science, but instead to dialogue between them and research excellence, whichever approach has been adopted. This has been important in maintaining our flexibility and international success, and taking the lead in wider institution-building.

  • 1963: First Professor of Government appointed

    Albert Sloman, Essex's founding Vice-Chancellor, appoints Jean Blondel as the first Professor of Government.

    Sloman was the maverick among the ten new universities created in Britain at that time, in terms of not replicating the old models but aiming at a research-oriented institution with only ten, specialised large departments. To ensure excellence at the University, it had a tenure requirement for junior staff. Teaching was organised in cross-Departmental schools which, together with a compact campus, brought otherwise disparate specialists together, such as politics.

    This was a radical approach as there were only 15 politics departments in Britain in 1960, mostly with four or five lecturers and one professor as Head of Department. Such Departments focused on teaching undergraduates the history of political thought and British politics. There was little contact between them – even less abroad. Recruitment was mainly from their own First Class graduates, who could then stay on for life.

    Sloman broke the mould by gambling on Blondel, who in turn had rebelled against French academic tradition by doing his thesis on and in Brazil and then going to a postgraduate fellowship in Britain. Having also spent a year in the USA his ideal was to create a large department on the North American model. A freewheeling appointments policy brought in unsuitable staff, but also senior figures who shared his broad ideals and worked to effect them; in the first place by applying tenure to create a more professional and productive collective.

  • 1965: MA courses and PhD supervision introduced

    Organised graduate instruction, unheard of in Britain, was suddenly supported by the new Social Science Research Council with student bursaries. Totally unprepared, Blondel recruited 12 candidates from anywhere he could. Most failed at the end of the year but the bursaries continued. This supported the re-organisation and expansion of the MAs to 70 students by the end of the 1970s.

    In addition, PhD supervision was also collectivised and organised. Methodological teaching and research was also supported by a home produced computer package (ECXP) as a result of heavy pressure on the computing centre.

  • 1969: Inaugural Summer School in Quantitative Social Science Data Methods

    A UNESCO grant helped fund the first Summer School which was attended by 25 students from across Europe. The Summer School fed into graduate courses and showed that Europeans could develop collective enterprises on a continent-wide basis. From 1970 funding was found to make this an annual event, now known as the Essex Summer School in Social Science Data Analysis.

  • 1970: European Consortium for Political Research

    By the end of the decade, with its headquarters at Essex and Jean Blondel as its first Director, the European Consortium for Political Research brought together 200 institutions across Europe to sponsor joint annual sessions of workshops, the Summer School and numerous other activities.

    From an Essex point of view, there were now collaborators and networks across Europe with which comparative research could be pursued.

  • 1970: British Journal of Political Science

    Edited from Essex, this research journal rapidly became comparable with leading American journals in terms of coverage. Today, the British Journal of Political Science is widely considered to be one of the leading general political science journals.

  • 1970s: Emergence of a professional and dynamic department

    From these formative years the Department emerged fully professionalised and dynamic. Its most important inheritance was probably a collectivist ethos geared to achieving its vision and keeping its various activities going. Blondel consulted everybody all the time, collectively and individually, about what was to be done.

    The awareness of common departmental concerns and of taking collective action to achieve them has persisted to this day, and is particularly evident in responding to emergent crises. Collectivism is bolstered by participation in the weekly departmental seminars and the dinner associated with it, which have provided an effective way of assimilating newcomers into the shared departmental ethos.

    The first Department of Government was purged and reformed in the late 1960s. The second, more professional, Department consolidated itself during the 1970s. Few new initiatives were undertaken but existing activities were expanded.

    The Department’s standing as one of the University’s largest and most successful buttressed it against various crises and their consequences – notably student demonstrations and revolts in the early 1970s and the subsequent financial crisis resulting from these.

  • 1980s: Time of transition

    At the beginning of the eighties the recruitment of new and strong personalities onto the Department staff, together with the departure of the mathematical political analysts marked this as a time of transition for the Department, which heavily focused on post-Marxist linguistic analyses and institutional studies of British politics. However, more traditional concerns with quantitative and comparative analyses did continue to flourish.

    The Department has always been characterised by change. The major personalities of the 1970s continued with their projects, notably the British Election Study and the Manifesto Research Group, collecting and analysing data from 25 post-war democracies.

  • 1980-90s: Emergence of new Department

    At the end of the 1980s three prominent personalities left simultaneously. As department standing is as much a matter of reputation as achievement, the senior group initiated a head-hunting policy of identifying and attracting desirable recruits, particularly to senior posts, which has continued since.

    With the arrival of three notable staff members and more during the following decade, the Department emerged with a renewed focus on quantitative research and political sociology. The British Election Study was brought back to cover 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010.

    Publications notably increased, with a series of text books on European and British politics associated with the Department. Various predictive models of elections (the Essex models) were widely quoted and cited in the British media. Meanwhile the Summer School and ECPR expanded their activities.

  • 2000s: Arrival of international staff members

    Various University changes, general aging and other causes again resulted in an exodus of staff in the mid-2000s. Changes in almost a quarter of the personnel produced new orientations in both teaching and research. Area specialisations in Russia, Latin America and North America which had been a major feature of Essex courses for 40 years completely disappeared.

    Commitments to methodology – particularly associated with the Summer School, whose participation exploded in the second half of the 2000s and, comparative and international political economy, rational choice, and systematic political theory – were gradually strengthened. The new Department members came either from the USA, or (often after American training) from continental Europe. The Department of Government has perhaps always been the most 'Americanized' political science department in Europe. The interests and the new orientations new members of staff have generated a new identity for the Department.

    The presence and activities of the older and newer members of the Department has facilitated evolution rather than revolution. Rational choice models and quantitative explanation of political phenomena have after all been a central focus of departmental concern from around 1970. The major focus remains on theory driven data analysis, with both theory testing and data generation given their place. We can expect that when the next identity of our Department emerges, it will have the same general orientation towards specialised research applications.

  • 2013: Regius Professorship awarded

    The Department was awarded a prestigious Regius Professorship as an acknowledgment of its considerable history and achievements.