The Nottingham Centre for Normative Political Theory

Research: Utopianism, Realism, and Ideal Theory

Utopian and Dystopian Political Thought

The research of Lucy Sargisson and Tony Burns is concerned with utopian and dystopian forms of political thought. Utopianism is an umbrella term that refers to the dreams and nightmares that drive much political action. Utopias are a manifestation of utopianism and they tend either to be positive (utopian) or negative (dystopian). Some utopias contain both eutopian and dystopian visions of the future. All utopias share certain features. For example, they stem from discontent with the present and identify key themes to be wrong with their author's world.

Often these themes form the cornerstones of their present social and political world, examples include the convention of privately owned property, gender relations and methods of governance. They are profoundly political, seeking thoroughly to analyse the present and to offer visions of better ways to organise human life. Utopias have a number of different political functions, including criticism of the present and the imagination of (often radical) alternatives, they can be didactic, catalytic, and heuristic. Imaginary utopias assume many forms, such as science fiction, social and political theory, architecture, music and medicine. And sometimes people try to realise utopian dreams of a better world, in the here and now. This includes intentional communities, co-housing and also social and political experiments within, for example, environmental politics and feminism.

Ideal Theory and the Realist Critique

Recent years have seen an upsurge of interest in 'realist' criticisms of 'ideal' theory. Realists claim that ideal theory fails to appreciate the autonomy of the political realm, treating normative political theory as a mere extension of moral philosophy. On the realist view this has led to a curiously apolitical account of political philosophy which is abstracted from historical and locational context, fails to understand the inevitable contingency of political life, and which therefore dooms itself to political irrelevance. In failing to be 'action-guiding' it fails to be 'political' in any substantive sense. Is this realist critique of ideal theory valid? Does ideal normative theory have value even if it fails to be action guiding, for example in its ability to transcend existing political structures and norms? If you have an interest in undertaking research in questions of ideal and non-ideal theory please contact Mathew Humphrey

Power and the Political

Discussions in normative political theory are invariably bound up which questions about control and influence, and whether or not certain groups are able to impose their values on others because of their privileged access to power and status in society. Some of the most important figures in western political thought - including Marx and Weber - have grappled with these questions, and classical conceptions of power have been refined and reformulated over the past half century, especially by thinkers associated with feminism and post-structuralism. Does power manifest in a single structure or does it increasingly take the form of a series of discrete networks and relationships? Is power necessarily repressive, or can power take a more constructive form? Can we ever entirely transcend or remove ourselves from power relationships, and how does power relate to freedom? The work of Gulshan Khan and Mark Wenman explores these and related questions.



School of Politics and International Relations
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University of Nottingham
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