What are you currently researching?
My postdoc work is centred on our understanding of the United Kingdom’s Union, independence, and how levels of politics relate to one another. Recently, I led up a project on parties and the Union, and carried out a number of interviews with former and current Labour politicians in Cardiff, Edinburgh, and London.
It has become pretty clear from this research that the Labour party, despite being the party which delivered devolution, has struggled in an increasingly nationalised political space.
I’ve been working on more comparative work on how these arguments are made, in both the UK and Spain, and in a post-Brexit context. I’m also increasingly interested in how crisis response becomes an arena for constitutional contestation – seen in the current pandemic but also in other areas – and am working up a research proposal on this.
What led you to research this topic?
My interest in territorial politics originated somewhat randomly, and long before my entry into academia. I was doing a French immersion programme in Wallonia and I was fascinated by the dynamics between Flemings and Walloons, and that interest was further spurred by a 2006 ‘mockumentary’ which posited a uniteral declaration of independence in Flanders. After a foray into the non-profit world, I returned to academia just in time for the Scottish independence referendum.
What impact, if any, have changes in British politics and society over the last decade had on your area of research?
This has been a tremendously fruitful time as a researcher with a specialism on British and territorial politics. I applied for my PhD ahead of the 2011 election which saw the SNP form a majority government, kicking off an intense and ongoing debate about Scottish independence and the future of the United Kingdom.
And it has been pretty non-stop ever since, providing me with some wonderful postdoc opportunities. I do think we could all do with a brief period of calm to reflect on (and write up!) the implications of the last decade, and perhaps take some naps.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as an academic? And the worst?
The best advice I’ve received and ignored was to start using a reference manager immediately. Deadlines will always find me manually compiling the reference list, cursing my fecklessness.
But in all seriousness, the best academic advice I’ve received was on teaching, passed to me by Nicola McEwen (who I believe got it during her PhD): ‘You should be nervous, it means you care…’
I sometimes get annoyed that my voice cracks a little in those awkward first few minutes with a new class, but I remind myself that I am nervous because I care deeply about my students and the work we will do together over the course of the term.
If there was one bit of social science research you would encourage people to read, what would it be?
In the classroom, I teach what my students call ‘methods by stealth’, showing a wide range of primary sources (campaign videos, speech transcripts, social media feeds, manifestos) and asking students to analyse them in detail.
Students infamously despise research methods but something about handing them sticky notes and highlighters and encouraging them to really dig deep is incredibly effective.
I do this in the traditional classroom and in public workshops, and am always surprised with the really amazing insights they come up with.
Statistical literacy is obviously super-important but qualitative analysis – who is speaking, what are they saying, how are they saying it, and what are they trying to do – is equally important for our ability as citizens to parse political messaging and make political judgements.
By Coree Brown Swan, Deputy Director and Research Fellow, Centre on Constitutional Change, University of Edinburgh.