We are interested in PhDs looking to study whole vocabularies of politics, beyond the individual concepts of citizenship, civil society and rule of law with which CISRUL began in 2009. We hope that PhDs will help us to grasp the complexities of how political principles relate to each other, and are embedded in specific contexts, as well as how they shift over time, within and across those contexts.

1. Just as CISRUL started with the concepts of citizenship, civil society and rule of law, other programmes focus on one or two political concepts, such as ethnicity, nationalism, human rights or democracy. Our proposal is for PhDs to focus on whole vocabularies of concepts, tracing the dynamic relations between them, takes us beyond our previous research, and that of other centres. When “British subjects” were reclassified as “British citizens” in 1981, for example, they were not magically transformed – it was another moment in a centuries-old history involving the statuses of subject, citizen and also national, linked in turn to others such as permanent resident and Commonwealth citizen.

2. We call for PhDs to study the dynamics of political vocabularies within and across contexts. CISRUL’s contextual approach already differs from, for example, the longstanding Cambridge School, which sought to understand concepts largely within the context of scholarly and literary writings. Our research at CISRUL has included a much wider range of contexts, taking in mass and social media, political activism, and even neighbourhood disputes. We propose now that PhDs consider concepts’ movement across those contexts, between media, politics, the academy, literature and activism. For example, activists began proclaiming a “climate emergency” to challenge the priority of “economic growth”, eventually achieving uptake in mass and social media, to the point where politicians took up the concept, and academic researchers now use it descriptively.

3. We propose that PhDs look beyond established political concepts – citizenship, democracy, human rights – to take in emergent concepts, including ones that might prove to be fleeting. “Radicalization” and “extremism”, for example, are now on the agenda of institutions from intelligence services to universities, and may yet prove ephemeral, though their predecessor “terrorism” remains a mainstay of political discourse. We also look to how concepts become political in the first place. “Pandemic”, for example, is an epidemiological concept that is also a political (and legal) one – once the WHO declares a pandemic, governments are bound by international treaties to do certain things. “Peak oil” is a concept introduced by a geologist in the 1950s and long disputed by economists, but it is also used to political effect in shaping long-term policy goals.

By honing this sophisticated approach to the dynamics of political vocabularies across contexts, the PhDs will look to refresh the languages of social, cultural, legal and political theory, and of the public and political debates of our times. Though we have given these examples as a guide, applicants are free to adapt or to go beyond those topics, or to propose political vocabularies of their own. One lesson from our first decade is that giving free rein to applicants is more likely to generate proposals that break the mold.

Learn more about funding opportunities for PhDs.