School of Politics and International Relations

PhD Projects

The school has a vibrant postgraduate research community, and we have listed some of the inspiring and insightful PhD projects being undertaken, arranged by research theme.

Comparative politics

Weixiang Wang

Supervisors: J Sullivan; G Khan; started Oct 2020

New Normal, New Propaganda: Demystifying China’s Digital Propaganda under Xi Jinping Administration

Propaganda is normally understood as the dissemination of information, through words, signs and symbols to influence beliefs or behaviours. It has conceptual overlaps with public relations, public diplomacy and other forms of political communications in general. A critical perspective could address the conceptual confusion by taking propaganda messages as discourse, which reveals the socio-political dynamics and power relations lying behind.

The proposed project takes such a critical perspective and focuses on digital propaganda of People’s Republic of China (PRC) under Xi Jinping administration, with particular attention paid to materials promoting nationalism, boosting regime legitimacy and building up President Xi’s personal prestige.

Combing the approaches of virtual ethnography and discourse analysis, the empirical study collects and analyses a variety of data including both textual and visual materials from various social media platforms. It also uses participant observation and semi-structured interviews with key-stakeholders involved in the production, dissemination and consumption of propaganda messages.

This project aims to illustrate the expressive forms of China’s digital propaganda and the way an array of different actors receives, processes and reacts to this stimulus within the broader context of [co/re]-production, dissemination and consumption of propaganda. Connecting to a broader literature of political communication and “authoritarian resilience” (Nathan 2003), the proposed project also stands as a rare attempt to apply discourse analysis to the PRC’s cybersphere in combination with an immersive virtual ethnography research approach.

Currently (May 2021), Weixiang is systematically reviewing works on ideology, discourse, propaganda and political communications in general, Weixiang hopes to connect two branches of propaganda literature which represent different epistemological positions: critical theories, especially works on ideology and discourse, and the (American) empiricism, especially works on media and mass communication. In terms of theoretical framework, Weixiang has made some initial steps to combine Michell Foucault and Jacques Ellul’s work to produce a new framework on propaganda.

As the nature of this project deals with the broader context of internet and (social)media of China, Weixiang has been actively working on several collaborative papers through which he hopes not only to enrich the empirical “meat” of the PhD project but also to contribute to the wider discussions about China’s internet, media and the related (sub)cultures. The projects include: 

  1. Chinese media’s coverage of BLM
  2. Chinese state’s disciplinary mechanism on traditional (TV and movie) celebrities and internet celebrities (wanghong)
  3. Chinese cadres’ engagement with livestreaming E-commerce
  4. A Chinese perspective on diplomatic parlances “wolf warrior” (zhan lang) and “insulting China” (ru hua)

Ruta Skriptaite

Supervisors: B Renz, C Spary; started Oct 2019

Political Image-making and post-Soviet Patriarchal Leadership: A Comparative Analysis of Belarus, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan

Ruta's study explores the interaction between hegemonic masculinity, nationalism, symbolic representation and political image-making in the post-Soviet space. For that she chose to juxtapose three case studies of post-Soviet presidents - Belarusian president Aleksandr Lukashenka ‘Batka’, former Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev ‘Papa’, and now deceased Turkmen president Saparmurat Niyazov - ‘Turkmenbashi’- arguably some of the most patriarchal leaders of the post-Soviet sphere.

Despite the turn towards the study of men and masculinities within the gender and politics literature, there is very little conceptual work on the link between hegemonic masculinity in the practises of political image-making and symbolic representation or empirical analysis of these specific patriarchal leaders. Hence, the research has three key aims:

  1. To explore political leadership in post-Soviet spaces, which are still relatively terra incognita
  2. To theorise how hegemonic masculinity can help us understand post-soviet leadership
  3. To analyse the ways in which visual imagery relates to symbolic representation.

I am currently moving into the practical stage of my research. Ruta has already completed three substantial chapters that shall serve as both - the literature review and the theoretical part of my thesis. The practical stage of her research will consist of analysis of the visual and non-visual imagery of the three regimes, study of surveys that hold data related to the topics such as gender and political leadership or gender hierarchies and the society in relation to the three case studies. Her methods also include semi-structured interviews with individuals who could provide valuable insights on the topics including the dynamics and particularities of the three leaders’ political image - making methods, symbolic representation and gender as well as gender dynamics and equality in the three case study countries.

The thesis and articles produced as a result of this research shall provide conclusions that will be of interest to those studying subjects such as authoritarianism, cult of personality, post-Soviet studies, gender and politics, feminism, masculinities, politics and art, LGBTQ+ studies as well as gender and visual representation.

Callum Tindall

Supervisors: C Milazzo and H Williams; started Oct 2018

Populism Rising: On the Growing Importance of Populism in 21st Century Britain

Focusing upon 21st century UK politics, this research examines the rising phenomenon of populism. As the UK has seen a rise in electoral support for populists, highlighting the need for citizens to "take back control", the time is ripe to interrogate this form of politics. This project seeks to address the evolution of British populism from its beginnings on the fringe to expanding to the mainstream of British politics. It examines whether its rhetoric can present itself as the solution to future issues. Ultimately, can populism present a serious challenge to the British political system?

The research is comparative in nature, focusing upon the extent to which the two major British political parties, The Conservatives and Labour adopt populism, alongside the established British populist party of UKIP. These parties' General Election discourse is analysed over the three most recent elections (2015, 2017 and 2019) to build a comprehensive picture of the extent to which populism has penetrated the British political mainstream. The findings indicate that the Conservative party is considerably less populist than both Labour and UKIP. Despite all parties sharing a demotic (people-centred appeals) approach, the Conservatives do not substantiate elite critique as a foundation of their appeal. However, following the growing hype of populism, this study discovers that populist rhetoric has grown across recent elections, with figures such as Corbyn entrenching a deep populist divide through his “for the many not the few” discursive divide. Ultimately the study finds that populism appears influenced by a leader, yet no substantive shift from populism to non-populism (or vice-versa) is found intra-party. Further, there seems to be much support for the growing importance of populist rhetoric, especially as parties shift their focus from class-based to broad people-based articulation.

The research is primarily qualitative in approach, building a comprehensive understanding of populism in the UK from a variety of sources. The focus of the case studies will be via interpretive political discourse analysis as an effective form of argument. The sources include party manifestos, election broadcasts, televised debates, and social media from those embroiled in British populism’s growth. Social media offers an important platform for populist figures to connect with the public through the use of simple language to clean up the messiness of politics, more so than through the traditional media. Social platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram offer researchers a unique insight into citizens' reactions to events and the rhetoric expressed by the populist movements espousing the bifurcation of British politics will be explored.

Lewis Scott

Supervisors: S Fielding and A Denham, started 2019

Technologies of Brand Communication in British Political Parties since 2010

Since the mid-2000s, social networking sites (SNSs) have grown increasingly central to our lives. SNSs have changed the way we use the internet, and they have also fundamentally changed the laws of engagement between voters and politicians. Politicians are now able to advertise directly to voters; and voters can follow their representatives in real time and contact them directly and immediately. This thesis contends with this new advertising context and aims to uncover and assess the branding strategies underpinning the branding behaviour of British political parties today.

Politics as an academic discipline has struggled to match the development of advertising technology with development of theory and analytical tools. Voters prioritise visual content on SNSs, but political scientists seem to prefer numerical and textual data. A major contribution of this thesis is, therefore, its approach to visual data which uses semiotics to analyse and interpret images. This approach borrows from and builds on tools and approaches from disciplines such as Marketing, Art History, Linguistics, and Psychology.

The first part of the project seeks to describe and understand the visual brand communication strategies of five British political parties (the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, and UKIP) over a period of three electoral cycles between 2010 and 2017. Branding materials distributed by each of the parties will be collected and coded for analysis. These materials will include Instagram posts, tweets, and Facebook posts. A semiotic analysis will be applied, whereby ‘texts’ (in this context a text can be any assemblage of signs) are broken down to their constituent symbols before an intuitive assessment is made of the intended meaning of the text as a whole.

After the semiotic analysis has been applied, the focus will shift to identifying trends and patterns in the data. The abundance of marketing employees on party payrolls suggests that parties believe that there are good and bad ways to market their parties. This section of the project will attempt to understand those unwritten rules which govern party behaviour. This section will also consider whether the rules of engagement differ between parties and over time.

The third and final section of the project is designed to test the success of the methods of brand communication employed by the political parties. The section will use the conclusions from the semiotic analysis as hypotheses and test them using semi-structured interviews with marketing practitioners within parties. This will help to triangulate the findings of the first two sections and test the validity of the semiotic approach to analysing political brand communication.

Together these three sections will enable conclusions on what strategies different political parties employ to market themselves to voters; what factors influence those strategies; and how successful each strategy is. Besides its discrete contextualised results, this thesis contributes to the study of political branding a semiotic framework for analysing visual data, and the first analysis of visual branding in an entire political ecosystem across a period of several election cycles. This represents an important step towards developing mid-range theories for a sub-discipline which produces primarily individual case studies.

International relations

Thomas Eason

Supervisors: R. Cormac and D. Gill.Started Oct 2018

Beyond Blair: Governmental Politics, Cognitive Biases, and the British Decision to Invade Iraq

Thomas is currently in the final stages of writing up his thesis, a case study of the British decision to invade Iraq in 2003, from which he develops a novel framework to help guide the analysis of foreign policy decision-making. Thomas does this by synergistically combining the Foreign Policy Analysis literatures on governmental politics and political psychology to create a new Foreign Policy Analysis framework, before then applying this framework to the Iraq case.

The new framework promises to help analysts develop more detailed and accurate explanations of foreign policy decisions, while the Iraq case study promises to refresh contemporary understandings of the British decision to invade Iraq, challenging simplistic 'Blair-centric' narratives that have become pervasive within the literature. 

Peter Magill

Supervisors: W Rees, E Burke; started Oct 2019

The Peculiar Relationship: Contemporary Anglo-French Defence Cooperation

Peter's area of study is British Defence Policy, with his thesis specifically focusing upon defence cooperation between the United Kingdom and France. Peter's main objective is to analyse the relevance of defence cooperation with France to contemporary British policy and consider how it influences British approaches to a number of different global issues.

In particular, Peter is looking at issues surrounding defence procurement, interoperability and expeditionary warfare. Most recently his research has focused on the Lancaster House Treaty and how it has shaped contemporary defence cooperation between the UK and France. Going forward he will be conducting further research on Brexit and how it has impacted Anglo-French defence cooperation.  

Peter's PhD is a comprehensive analysis of the period covering the past 20 years in detail, while also placing contemporary developments within their appropriate historical context. It is therefore striving to provide a holistic view of the current UK-France relationship and the factors that influenced its development.

Political theory

Benjamin Thomas

Supervisors: M Humphrey and A Denham; started Oct 2018

Conceptualising Ideological Transition: Centre-right Neoliberalisation in the UK and West Germany

Neoliberalism is a fairly common term in the social sciences, but there is still a lot unknown about how the body of ideas evolved from an approach to economics to a controversial minority ideology to a dominant approach to policy. My research project develops a theory of ideological transformation by examining two cases where neoliberalism took hold in centre-right parties, the West German CDU 1945-1949 and the UK’s Conservative Party 1970-1979.

This project draws on ideology studies as well as conceptual, intellectual and political histories to examine ideologies in political and social context. The story of neoliberalism is not just one of intellectual origins and advocates but also a process of justification to a wider community. Linking the contestations within parties, conceptually and through the lens of ideology, provides a new angle on these histories as well as the dynamics of parties and ideologies. Looking at two cases also facilitates comparative study of neoliberalisation and ideological transition as well as some of the transnational dimensions of this story.

For this research project Ben continues to carry out archival research at archives in the UK and Germany as well as interviews with politicians, academics and others associated with the cases studied. My findings have led to a range of conference papers.

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