Centre for Social and Political Thought

SPT at Sussex: a short history

The Social and Political Thought MA and doctoral programme at Sussex fits almost perfectly with the vision of the University's founders: an interdisciplinary programme that brings together academics from Politics, Sociology, Philosophy, Intellectual History and Law who in most universities would never encounter each other, and that bridges the conventional divides between the explanatory, normative and ideological aspects of social and political thought, between contemporary social and political theory and its history. Yet the programme was not set up until 1978. It was established by a group of faculty including the philosophers Chris Arthur, Roy Edgley and István Mészáros, the sociologists Tom Bottomore and Gillian Rose, and the political scientists Teddy Brett and Theo Mars. The programme was modelled on a similar programme at York University in Ontario, where Mészáros taught for a time. There was initially some discussion of naming it 'Marxist Studies', before the broader term was agreed. The MA's two core courses were called 'Basic Texts in Social and Political Thought' and 'Problems of Method', the first covering classics like Aristotle's Politics and Hobbes's Leviathan, and the second methodological approaches to understanding the social and political world. 32 years later, after a number of overhauls, the direct descendants of the two courses still survive as 'Text and Critique in Social and Political Thought' and 'Theorizing the Social'.

With the retirements of Arthur, Edgley, Mészáros, and Bottomore in the 1980s, and Rose's move in 1989 to Warwick, where she set up another Social and Political Thought programme, other colleagues became more actively involved: the sociologists Mary Farmer, Luke Martell, William Outhwaite and Peter Saunders, the intellectual historians Donald Winch and John Burrow, the political scientist Alan Cawson, the Italianist David Forgacs, the political philosophy John O'Neill (not to be confused with his namesake at the York Social and Political Thought programme) and the geographer-sociologist Andrew Sayer. William Outhwaite, in particular, was mainstay of the programme for much of the 1980s and 90s. The programme developed its own full programme of optional courses, as well as sharing courses with other MAs.

Andrew Chitty, appointed in philosophy after O'Neill's departure in the mid-1990s, became a key member. He helped to found the programme's in-house journal Studies in Social and Political Thought, which has appeared regularly since 1999, and the Centre for Critical Social Theory. He worked alongside Martell and Outhwaite, the political scientists Neil Stammers and Darrow Schecter, the intellectual historians Martin van Gelderen and Richard Whatmore, and the sociologists John Holmwood and John Abraham. More recently Daniel Steuer (English), Gerard Delanty and Alan Lentin (Sociology), Samuel Knafo (IR), Tarik Kochi (Law) and Gordon Finlayson (Philosophy), the present convenor, have joined the programme. Its optional courses now range from 'The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory' to 'Race Critical Theory' and 'The Politics of the Unconscious', along with more mainstream offerings such as 'Recent Social Theory' and 'Political and Legal Philosophy'.

The programme now has over 500 alumni, including a number of professors and lecturers in Philosophy and Sociology spread across the globe, as well as CEO's of major companies, lawyers, human rights activists and NGO workers.

Social and Political Thought is one among only four similar programmes in the English speaking world. I has been one of the most successful and long-standing graduate programmes at Sussex For many years it attracted  perhaps 15 or 20 students a year, but in the last few years these numbers have grown to more than 30. Its intake has also become increasingly international. This year students from the United States, Canada, Chile, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Japan, China and Sudan, as well as several EU countries, are studying for the MA. As the world becomes ever more 'political' the programme it looks likely to continue to attract students in search of the tools to understand it, and to remain one of the jewels in Sussex's crown.

Andrew Chitty
Gordon Finlayson

(Written in February 2011 as a contribution to Fred Gray's Making the Future: A History of the University of Sussex, published that year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the University of Sussex.)