The ‘ivory tower’ is often used to describe academia, but what if there’s a way to bridge the divide between what we learn in the classroom and the impact it might have in society?
Merriam-Webster defines the ivory tower as “a secluded place that affords the means of treating practical issues with an impractical often escapist attitude”. It’s been used to describe academia because of the sense that ‘theory’ is removed from ‘real world’ problems and issues.
But nothing could be further from the experiences of David Abadir, Olivia Hipworth, and Camille Kummer, undergraduate students of Contemporary Political Theory (GV262) under Dr Paul Apostolidis. Over Lent Term, they pursued their interests in political philosophy, but this time going beyond the classroom and engaging in community-based research projects for organisations striving towards positive social impact.
Under Dr Apostolidis’ direction, GV262 students were given the opportunity to work with Hope For The Future (HFTF), a climate charity that helps people communicate with their elected MPs on the urgency of climate change, and Autonomy, an independent think tank that focuses on the future of work and economic planning. Interested students sent in their CV and a brief essay to indicate their motivations.
Dubbed LSE Public Research Partners (PRP), this kind of partnership is the centrepiece of Student Futures initiatives focused on civic engagement. With GV262 as its pilot project, LSE PRP aims to align the academic interests of students and faculty members with community-based organisations that have specific research needs. Overall, it’s a promising win-win-win situation.
David, a third year Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) student, and Olivia, a second year Politics student, worked with HFTF on a research project called Journeys to Democratic Engagement on Climate Issues. They interviewed individuals who had gone through HFTF trainings and activities, to better understand motivations for getting involved in climate activism and experiences in lobbying for climate action.
David tells me, “It was a great opportunity to apply the studying that we’d done on the module to actual real-life activism and politics. A personal belief of mine is that studying the social sciences in their most abstract sense can be fun, but where it can really be of value is where they can help influence the world and where they can help us understand how change happens.”
Studying the social sciences in their most abstract sense can be fun, but where it can really be of value is where they can help influence the world and where they can help us understand how change happens. – David Abadir, 3rd Year, PPE
The experience has also changed the way Olivia sees connections between political theory and ‘real world’ problems and issues. “For so long, the idea of political theory for me, was so daunting and so untouchable, but actually, when you speak to everyday people who haven’t studied the theories, you can pick up bits of theory from what they’re saying. It made me realise how accessible theory is and how critical it is to everyday life.”
Camille, also a PPE student, worked with Autonomy to explore the needs of migrant workers who work nocturnally, in areas of care work, sex work, and delivery services. But because of lockdowns due to the pandemic, it was challenging to conduct interviews. Her main focus pivoted towards literature review on the concept of ‘nocturnal commons,’ a worker night centre that could help address workers’ physical, psychological, and political needs.
For Camille, applying theory opened up avenues to strengthen existing skills. “One of the skills I was able to develop was the ability to kind of intuit or anticipate and proactively manage the research direction. I looked into normative justifications for nocturnal commons, its practical challenges, potential sources of resistance from the broader community, and how we might mitigate those concerns.”
For a first run, Dr Apostolidis seems pleased with the successes of this LT’s PRP projects. He reflects, “It’s good to be able to give students opportunities to interact with groups, organisations, and causes in the surrounding community. It really helps them understand the main issues, problems and questions that are relevant to their course on a deeper and more complex level.” On tackling COVID-19 challenges, he says, “I cannot believe in retrospect that we actually pulled this off. That’s from real flexibility, perseverance, and creative spirit amongst our students and our community partners.”
The organisations have also been thrilled with the outcomes, since both Olivia and Camille have been chosen to continue their research as summer interns. They will focus on analysing and synthesising research materials produced during LT and then submit and present a final report that discusses overall findings and practical implications for HFTF and Autonomy.
Camille says, “My motivation to keep working with Autonomy stems from a deep enjoyment of the topic, a strong desire to support the project’s mission, and positive past experiences with similar research tasks. Being passionate about reducing social, political, and economic inequalities, I really enjoyed working with Autonomy and would love to continue contributing my skills to a socially meaningful project.”
For Olivia, it’s about looking to her future. “This has definitely changed my relationship with research. It’s been eye-opening to succeed at this opportunity. I’m now thinking of going into research in the future, maybe pursue an MRes. It also made me consider getting involved with HFTF as an activist after uni because they’ve really made me look at my own habits and carbon footprint, and I’ve even advertised them to friends and family.”
Moving forward, LSE PRP is poised to grow as a long-term initiative. Dr Apostolidis shares, “We’re going to develop an array of different opportunities in different disciplines and connect with faculty members who see this kind of work as something they’re personally motivated to pursue.” This will complement LSE’s priorities in doing ‘research for the world’ and pushing for more civic engagement. He adds, “LSE has a long tradition of seeking to ‘know the causes of things’ not just for their own sake, but to do so for social betterment. We need to have a wide and open approach to what that might mean.”
LSE has a long tradition of seeking to ‘know the causes of things’ not just for their own sake, but to do so for social betterment.– Dr Paul Apostolidis, Dept of Government, Student Futures Civic Engagement Lead
For concrete ideas on how you might use your research skills to impact social causes and help improve our world, visit our Student Futures page on Engaging with Civic Issues. Let us know what you’ve been up to or what you think of PRP by dropping a comment below!