The never-ending question: What is your PhD on?

Next week (yay!!) I officially start my PhD.

I’m hoping that as I get going I will be able to use this blog as an update on my work and the things I’m researching as part of this project. Naturally though, this opens up the question, what is your PhD on?

I’ve already been asked this multiple times, struggling to put into words my area of investigation. So I thought, before I get going, I’ll give it a shot — outlining at least the starting point of my research, of course acknowledging that this will change.

My PhD is born out of interest of two social phenomenon.

The first is the rise of identity politics. Benjamin Riley and I described identity politics in an article we wrote for Overland Journal like this: “Identity politics usually refers to a philosophy and practise of building political movements around identities based on race, gender, sexuality, sex, age – the list goes on. There is an implied essentialism to identity politics: you become defined by what you are, rather than what you do. Intersectionality, the idea that a person can ‘be’ many things at once (gay, trans, living with a disability, etc.), is sometimes used to rebut accusations of essentialism, but we would argue intersectionality is in fact identity politics par excellence. Far from freeing us of the shackles of identity, intersectionality simply gives us a more complex matrix to slot ourselves into. We still are; we are simply many things instead of one.” Identity politics has become a dominant form of organising in many left wing circles, and in a later discussion Ben and I also critiqued this approach, arguing that the essentialised nature of it has created an individualised form of politics that eschews solidarity, and ignores the essential class nature of capitalist society.

The second phenomenon that I’m interested in is the rise of anti-politics (check out Tad Tietze and Elizabeth Humphry’s excellent piece on this). Anti-politics is a form of anti-establishment politics that we’ve seen become extremely prominent in the last couple of years — whether it is the rise of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote, or Pauline Hanson in Australia. This is a politics based on the rejection of the political establishment; an establishment that is increasingly, and rightfully, being seen as disconnected from the general population. 

My interest is in how these two forms of politics intersect. In particular there are two areas I’d like to investigate. 

First I want to know why particular forms of anti-politics — Trump, Brexit, Hanson etc. have much of their basis in the rejection and marginalisation of minority groups. How can a form of anti-establishment politics turn its ire on other groups who are also rejected by the establishment? Is it just because this establishment politics is, in part, based on right-wing reactionary bigotry, or, as I’ve argued before, is it about people increasingly seeing identity politics as a form of establishment politics, and in turn reacting against it in that form.

The second area of interest is how people who are engaged in identity politics have reacted toward the growing sense of anti-politics. In particular I think there has been quite a level of skepticism or hostility toward anti-politics, with people in minorities increasingly placing their faith in state structures over the general population. This was particularly clear in the marriage equality plebiscite debate that occurred in Australia recently, with one of the key arguments against the debate being, in essence, that we cannot trust the general population with such an important policy issue. Many raised the spectre of violence on the streets and increased suicides all because of a public discussion and debate on this issue. I want to know where this hostility to the public arises from, and in particular ask whether this hostility has actually reinforced the right-wing anti-politics approach, rather than repelled it.

So there you have it, my PhD interest summed up in short blog post. I hope to keep you updated as I go along and I look forward to looking back at this piece in four years time when I’ve finished to see where I’ve ended up.

Would love, as always, to hear your thoughts.

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