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Josh Patel

Research Overview

I am a second year PhD student at the University of Warwick. My research is supervised by Claudia Stein and Mathew Thomson, and kindly funded by History Departmental funding.

The thesis is currently proceeding under the working title: '"All those who are qualified by ability and attainment […] and who wish to do so,": economic thought, social equality, and the Robbins Report (1963).'


The thesis will examine the political philosophy of the economic theories underlying higher education expansion. The Treasury commissioned Robbins Report (1961-1963), chaired by economist Lionel Robbins, is given special emphasis. The report urged the government to support further expansion of higher education, following higher education growth in the 1950s and 1960s and its principles of equality and state welfare provision. To argue this, the report relied heavily on statistical description and inferences and commissioned the first major sample surveys of higher education in the UK. The thesis asks why the report should have taken such a form.

To answer this question, it is necessary to situate the report in the context of the history of governmentality, the history of economic thought, and the history of the development of the discipline of statistics. The report drew heavily on the legacy of Lionel Robbins’ economic science and his political philosophy. Robbins was an outspoken liberal individualist and fierce opponent of much centralised state planning and interventionism. It seems odd that Robbins and his committee would produce such a report, which has been seen as a pillar of the welfare state and one of the major achievements of social democratic governance.

This thesis argues that the dominant welfare and social democratic politics of the 1950s and 1960s was not contradictory to Robbins' economic theory and political philosophy; it was often complimentary. The Robbins Report is an exceptional example of this consensus. The Report was not just a ‘report complied in the spirit of social justice’, as praised by one historian. The Report highlights the shared commitments between social democracy and the emergence of a new economics of education: the gathering of statistical information by which to deduce objective policy means to shared social ends; the endorsement for the importance of the experience and subjectivity of the individual and their choices; opportunity and social equality; and a strong relationship between individuals, the state and personal prosperity.

The thesis will proceed to establish how far this political philosophy and attitude of liberal governmentality can be seen to have influenced higher education expansion outside of centralised government policy. The project will focus on three universities: York, where Robbins was Chairman of the Academic Planning Board; Warwick, where interests of Midlands industrialists were prominent and where there was enthusiasm for a new Business School following a government report concurrent to the Robbins Report; and Stirling, the only university established as a direct consequence of the Robbins Report, where Robbins was chancellor. In these case studies, the thesis will analyse the interests of participants such as prominent public figures, local industrialists, university administrators, trade unions, and national bodies such as the UGC, CVCP and AUT. It will pass judgement on how far the type of political philosophy typified by Robbins was influential in higher education expansion.

Previous Research

My previous research has been historiographical and primarily concerned with the so called ‘biological turn’ in history writing since the early 2000s. This research explored the attraction for many historians of the insights of biology, evolutionary psychology, and neurobiology, in addition to, or in place of, traditional written sources, and the consequences of such a move for history writing. I have argued that the ‘biological turn’ unreflexively reciprocates the privileged epistemological position of science in popular and wider culture, contrary to the understanding of science in contemporary history of science. More fundamentally however, the attraction of the sciences, both in the ‘biological turn’ and in contemporary orthodox ‘sociocultural’ history writing, lies in acknowledged and unacknowledged understandings and definitions of what constitutes 'historical truth' in history writing. These understandings can be traced back to early-twentieth century American pragmatism, which have been deployed in response to what is seen by some sociocultural historians as the threatening ‘relativism’ of the linguistic turn and poststructuralism since the 1990s.


Research interests

My general area of research interest focus on twentieth and twenty-first century British thought, and includes more specifically:

  • History of ideas/intellectual history/‘Historical epistemology’, (particularly concerning 'human nature' and the 'self').
  • History of liberal governmentality and self-governmentality since 1945
  • Historiography of global history and environmental history.
  • History of science and history of popular science.
  • Pragmatism, Neopragmatism, and its history.
    Academic Background
    • 2017-2021: History PhD, University of Warwick..
      - Awarded full departmental studentship.
    • 2016-2017: MA Global and Comparative History (Distinction), University of Warwick.
      - Awarded 2016-17 Best MA Dissertation Prize.
      - Dissertation title: ‘Telling the ‘Truth’ about the ‘Biological Turn’? Sociocultural history and pragmatism.’ Supervised by Claudia Stein.
      - Awarded full departmental scholarship.
    • 2013-2016: BA History (First), University of Warwick.
      - Dissertation title: ‘The ‘Biological Turn’: politics and agency.’
      Publications and conferences
      • November 2019: (forthcoming) 'The moral and economic thought behind the ‘flow survey’ of 21-year-olds by the Robbins Committee (1961-63)', History of Education Society Annual Conference.
      • September 2019: (forthcoming) 'The welfare state and liberal economic thought in the Robbins Committee (1961-63): an uncomfortable alliance?', Research Group on University History, Manchester, Universities and their Contested Pasts.
      • July 2019: 'Neurohistory: heretical history writing? The pragmatic philosophy of sociocultural history and the future of the critical humanities', IX Lisbon Summer School for the Study of Culture: Neurohumanities: Promises & Threats. Supported with funding from the Warwick Connecting Cultures GRP.
      • June 2019: 'Quinn Slobodian, 'Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism' (2018): Global History Reading Group', Global History and Culture Centre Blog
      • May 2019: Realising the ‘Good Society’ through Economic Science: the Robbins Report into Higher Education (1963), Department of History Postgraduate Conference, University of Warwick.
      • September 2018: 'An unlikely alliance? ‘Human Capital’ and Social Democracy in the Robbins Report (1963)', HEC Summer School, European University Institute.
      • May 2017: 'The ‘biological turn’ in history writing: what is man? And how do these assumptions drive history writing?', Department of History Postgraduate Conference, University of Warwick.
      • March 2017: ‘The ‘Biological Turn’ in History Writing’, Exchanges: The Warwick Research Journal, 4:2 (2017) pp. 280-297.
        - Some very early thoughts on the ‘biological turn’. Contains material initially submitted as part of my undergraduate dissertation.
        - In the same issue of Exchanges, credited as 'editorial assistant' in Michael Trevor Bycroft, 'Ideals and Practices of Rationality – An Interview with Lorraine Daston' Exchanges: The Warwick Research Journal, 4:2 (2017), pp. 173-188.
      July 2019

      Josh Patel