Dr Dermot Hodson is Reader (Associate Professor) in Political Economy at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is also Visiting Professor at the College of Europe, Bruges. He has researched widely on political economy, particularly on the eurozone and wider questions of European Union (EU) governance and integration. His latest book The Institutions of the European Union (4th edition, Oxford University Press) is co-edited with Prof. John Peterson (University of Edinburgh) and will be published in January 2017. In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of subjects from the film Fight Club to his favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is Governing the World: The History of an Idea by Mark Mazower. It has been a pleasure to interview Dermot and we hope you enjoy reading about his adventures.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: I usually say that I teach politics at Birkbeck College and that my work focuses mainly on the European Union but also on aspects of British politics and global governance. At this point, it is entirely possible that the person sitting next to me will look for another seat.
Q: Could you tell us about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: I’m a city dweller. I grew up in Dublin in, what James Joyce called, ‘the heart of the Hibernian metropolis’.
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: History and Economics were my strongest subjects, which is not to say that I didn’t also find them challenging.
Q: Can you recall any reoccurring comments from your school reports?
A: Fortunately not, although I do remember getting -130% in one Irish language essay in primary school. This tells you something about my aptitude for Ireland’s official language but also about the kind of school I went to. It might also explain my enduring interest in promoting fair and transparent marking criteria in university coursework.
Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: For my final exams in secondary school, I had to choose between Biology and Economics and wasn’t wild about doing either. I chose Economics and knew after a few weeks that I wanted to study it at university. Growing up in Ireland in the 1980s, high unemployment and emigration were hard to ignore. Economics immediately spoke to these and other concerns. I had a fantastic teacher, J.J. Murphy, who had a dry sense of humour that brought the dismal science to life.
My schooling was unbelievably nationalist at times.
Q: Can you remember the point at which you fell in love with your subject?
A: I remember TV ads in the early 1990s calling on citizens and businesses to get ready for the European single market. The cover of U2’s 1993 album Zooropa – a postmodern European flag – captured people’s hopes and fears about the continent after the Cold War. My schooling was unbelievably nationalist at times, dwelling on Ireland’s glorious defeats rather than the tough choices it made (and delayed) in becoming a successful independent state. Europe offered a chance to think about Ireland in a very different way: as an outward looking progressive country forging a new relationship with the U.K. As I learned more, I came to see the EU, for all of its shortcomings, as an experiment in whether nation states could learn from their bloody histories or whether they were bound to relive them. Much as I came to love studying Europe, this love has never been blind. I spend most of my time as an academic thinking about what the EU does wrong and asking whether it could do better.
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: Trinity College Dublin. It was my first choice. It has a great reputation and a beautiful campus in the centre of Dublin. I also liked the mystery of entering an institution that had been a closed world to so many Irish people. Until 1970, the Catholic Church required its followers to get permission to attend. My school, while it did not discourage us from attending, didn’t really encourage us either. This made Trinity a more interesting prospect to me. My parents didn’t go to university but they love learning and are passionate about education and they were incredibly supportive of my choice.
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: I studied Economics and Philosophy. Economics was more or less familiar from school but Philosophy was off the chart. To go from a conservative Catholic school to a bastion of empirical philosophy and atheism was incredible. I remember reading an introductory text on David Hume in the first few weeks. It made no sense to me and, in a way, I had to learn how to read and to think all over again. It took long hours in the library but it was a fascinating intellectual journey. It shaped me as a scholar and. by challenging the beliefs and values that I grew up with, as a person. With hindsight, I was very fortunate to stumble into a subject I knew nothing about beforehand.
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: Among Philosophy lecturers, Prof. James Levine supervised my undergraduate dissertation; he listened to my ideas with patience and enthusiasm and set me on the road to becoming an academic. Among Economics lecturers, Prof. Hartmut Lehmann taught brilliant courses on Labour and Transition Economics and encouraged me to do postgraduate studies. Good lecturers matter but so too do good classmates. I made great friends at university, who studied hard without neglecting the social side of being a student. Indeed, the two sides would often blur as we spent mornings over coffee and evenings over beer discussing big ideas. I try to remind my students that universities should be social spaces as too many think of them as places where you come to lectures to get information and then go home.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: By my final year as an undergraduate, I wanted to study more, which made a Masters the logical choice. Making the leap to PhD level was a more daunting prospect. I was incredibly fortunate in this regard to get a job as a research assistant for Prof. Iain Begg after finishing my Masters. Iain was a very generous boss who gave me opportunities well above my junior status and I can say with certainty that I would not have become an academic without him.
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: I did a Masters in European Economic Studies at the College of Europe in Bruges and my PhD in European Political Economy at the London School of Economics.
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: PhDs are supposed to have soporific titles and mine was Explaining the Dual Outcome in Euro Area Fiscal Policy, 1999-2002. It started out as a fairly unwieldy treatise on how the European Union sought to reconcile supranational control of monetary policy with national control of economic policy. With the help of my supervisors, Dr Bob Hancké and Dr Waltraud Schelkle, it ended up as a short but focused study of why some member states breached the EU’s rules on government borrowing during the early years of Economic and Monetary Union while others didn’t. Dull though the title might have been, I found it to be a really interesting topic. I ended up working on governance issues that played a major role in the euro crisis several years later.
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: I studied in three fantastic universities and I got so much out of my time in all of them. Not many people wish they had taken longer to do their PhD but I’m probably one of them. I moved to Brussels in the third year of my studies to take up a job at the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs. This was an incredible opportunity to work on eurozone governance issues but it meant writing much of my PhD in the evening while getting used to a new working environment during the day. My solution was to finish my dissertation at high speed before work commitments mounted. I submitted it in record time and it was good enough to win the UACES Prize for best EU studies PhD. It would have been nice too to stay longer at the Commission, where I worked on fascinating issues with some brilliant economists. However, after four years in Brussels, Birkbeck offered me a lectureship. As is so often the case with career matters, timing is not something that you can control.
Q: Tell us about your current research focus?
A: My work has three strands. Firstly, I continue to research EU economic governance and how it is being reshaped by the euro crisis. Secondly, I am interested in broader questions about European integration, building on my 2015 book The New Intergovernmentalism with Chris Bickerton and Uwe Puetter. Thirdly, I am interested in the relationship between EU politics and law. I’m currently working on a research project with Prof. Imelda Maher (University College Dublin), which tries to explain the rise of parliaments, the courts and, through the possibility of referendums, the people in EU treaty-making.
Q: What do you believe is your single most important piece of research?
A: Getting from the first spark of an idea to a piece of published research can be arduous. It takes patience to develop your argument and gather evidence before facing fierce feedback from your peers. It makes little sense to embark on this journey if the research is not important to you. Whether others will see your work as important is, unfortunately, an entirely different story.
Q: Within your area of study, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: There are important methodological innovations all the time but it is ultimately breakthroughs and setbacks in the political sphere that drive new research questions and agendas. None more so in my field than Brexit – the UK’s vote to leave the EU – which forces us to rethink what we know about European integration, the link between domestic and international politics and the distributional consequences of globalisation among many other issues. There is now a huge interest in the EU among politicians and the wider public. This is an extraordinary – if tumultuous – time to be studying Europe.
The current backlash against globalisation is worrying and reveals just how fragile the international system is.
Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be researching in 2116?
A: As someone who has a progressive view of international affairs, I hope my successors will be researching new and better ways of building international institutions that foster peaceful cooperation between and beyond states. As someone who takes history seriously, it is hard to imagine that the path to such cooperation will be straightforward. The current backlash against globalisation is worrying and reveals just how fragile the international system is. We cannot know what international institutions will survive and thrive over the next 100 years but I hope that future generations will keep studying their history and functioning and keep trying to do better.
Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: Legacies are for politicians who are past their prime. However, I hope my work connects with people. In terms of research, it is always a great honour when people read, cite and challenge your work. In terms of teaching, ‘Change your life: study at Birkbeck’ is a slogan that I see on buses throughout London. These signs remind me that universities can and should be transformational places. It is up to individuals to change but as a teacher or colleague, you can help in small ways that sometimes have big impacts on people’s lives. I have benefitted enormously from the encouragement of teachers and colleagues. I try to do the same for others and hope they will do the same for the next generation.
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: I record a weekly podcast on British politics, Westminster Watch, with my colleague Dr Ben Worthy, which is great fun to do. I also run a seminar series at Birkbeck on politics and the arts. At the next one, we will be discussing the representation of Ireland’s 1916 Rising before going to the National Theatre to watch Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, a powerful critique of the events leading to and from Ireland’s rebellion against British rule.
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: I have a niece and two nephews – all three 18 – who are doing their final exams this year and deciding on their College choices. They would probably prefer that I offer a little less unsolicited career advice. However, what I would advise anyone at this stage is to aim for the best university they can rather than the one they feel most comfortable in applying to. By best I mean the university that will bring the greatest intellectual challenge and bring the kind of opportunities that they cannot yet imagine. By comfortable, I mean institutions that friends or family might be most familiar with. I remember arriving at university at this age and it being a strange and unfamiliar place. With the benefit of hindsight, it was this strangeness and unfamiliarity that made my time as an undergraduate so exciting and rewarding.
The desire to become an academic reminds me a little of the porch scene in David Fincher’s film, Fight Club.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: The desire to become an academic reminds me a little of the porch scene in David Fincher’s film Fight Club. A young person turns up at a house to join the shadowy Project Mayhem only to be told he is too young, trespassing, wasting everyone’s time…etc. He is eventually let in but not before a second person joins the queue only to be told he is too old, trespassing wasting everyone’s time…etc. The moral of this story? Think carefully about whether you really want to join Project Mayhem, an apt metaphor for the life of an academic at times. Secondly, this is a job, like many others, in which you will need large reserves of resilience. Get ready to hear ‘no’ a lot more than you hear ‘yes’ but keep trying until you get the latter.
Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: Ernst Haas’s The Uniting of Europe (Notre Dame 1958) and Andrew Moravcsik’s The Choice for Europe (Cornell 1998) are seminal studies that, in a sense, begin and end the search for grand theories of Europe. Helen Wallace and William Wallace’s Policy-Making in the European Union (now in its 7th edition and edited by Helen Wallace, Mark Pollack and Alasdair Young) also had a big impact on how I think about the EU. It shows that the EU is a complex system of governance. This complexity matters for understanding the EU, particularly at a time when politicians are peddling populist phrases about the need for states to ‘take back control’. In reality, states are ever present in EU policy-making but this is not something that national politicians like to admit.
Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: Mark Mazower’s Governing the World: The History of an Idea (Allen Lane, 2012) gives a fantastic introduction to international institutions. I would recommend Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel that tells us everything we need to know about being European and, indeed, a citizen of the world at a time when politicians are stoking up nationalist sentiment.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: My dad worked for Guinness Brewery for most of his career. It would be remiss of me, therefore, not to ask for a pint of ‘the black stuff’.
If you’d like to find out more about Dr Dermot Hodson you can check out his academic profile and Twitter page.