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Josh Patel

Research Overview

I am a first year PhD researcher at the University of Warwick. My research is supervised by Claudia Stein and Giorgio Riello, and kindly funded through History Departmental funding.

The project is currently being rethought. It is currently proceeding under the working title: ‘Learning and becoming a new ‘subject’: liberal governmentality and self-governmentality in British higher education expansion 1950-1970’. The project is currently arguing that in higher education expansion of the 1950s and 1960s, there is a strand of discourse which aims to expand equality of opportunity to encourage an early form of ‘entrepreneurialism’ in students. This part of a wider and longer term change in British society in how individuals participate in society. The aim is to use using higher education expansion as a historical context to contribute to a history of the development of a new liberal subject.


One story of the history of British higher education argues its expansion in the 1950s was part of the post-war reconstruction effort. The social democratic government provided free higher education to all those who could benefit, removing the class barriers to accessing a university education. However, by the 1990s, the introduction of student loans signified a shift in policy – individuals should pay for their own education. Higher education was no longer a social good. Instead education was pursued to improve an individuals’ job prospects. This has been labelled a ‘neoliberal’ policy.

Today’s view of higher education is, in economics, supported by ‘Human capital theory’. In 'human capital theory', acquired and inherited abilities and skills are quantified, through wages, as 'capital', which can be invested in, and invested with. This generates future capital. In higher education, for example, a student will forgo earnings and even pay for training in the present if they believe that the skills they learn will be valued more by employers and lead to higher earnings in the future.

In his 1979 lectures Michel Foucault described ‘human capital theory’ as a tool of liberal governmentality and self-governmentality in the context of American ‘neo-liberalism’. This subject of ‘human capital theory’ and liberal governmentality was an ‘entrepreneur of the self’ who invested time and effort into improving their abilities to generate increased returns in the future. Foucault’s analysis of the ‘liberal subject’ has been increasingly explored recently in many disciplines, including Ulrich Bröckling (2017) in sociology and Miguel de Beistegui (2018) in philosophy.

The ‘entrepreneurial self’ is generally understood as a phenomenon occurring after the rejection of Keynesian welfare economics in the 1980s and the turn to the ‘neo-liberalism’ of Fredrich Hayek, Chicago School of Economics and Mont Pèlerin Society. However, Hayek’s ‘neo-liberalism’ was born in the context of the 1930s, when liberalism under siege by what Hayek described as ‘collectivism’: Fascism, socialism and Communism. By 1947, Hayek and the founding of the Mont Pèlerin Society, Hayek had gathered together many prominent liberal thinkers with the aim of reenergising the liberal political project in the post war period.

In the light of Foucault’s analysis and recent reassessments of the origins of ‘neo-liberalism’ back to the 1930s, it is possible to identify the influence of ‘neo-liberalism’ on the ‘subject’ in post-war Britain at one of the sites of the formation and self-formation of the subject – in a society’s education system. The political debate and huge expansion of numbers and investment in higher education in 1950s Britain suggests deeper social changes were afoot than has currently been acknowledged.

Preliminary research has already identified several possible directions of inquiry. British Economist Lionel Robbins, a founding member of the Mont Pèlerin Society, close friend of Hayek, but who also worked with Keynes during the Second World War, chaired the committee behind the 1963 ‘Robbins Report’ to Government on higher education reform. The Report promoted the government strategy of higher education expansion. Many of the arguments made in the Report descended from Robbins’ unique blend of liberal economics, influenced both by the social democracy of post-war Britain and ‘neo-liberalism’. The report’s recommendations acknowledged both the concern of social democracy for science and technology but suggests a solution which attempt to minimise any threat to liberty - a primary concern of the ‘neo-liberals’. The report proposed a higher education system which met the ‘supply and demand’ of students as liberal subjects, over an education system designed to meet a government planned national manpower quotas. A liberal subject like the ‘entrepreneurial self’ is present in the principles of the leaders of industry and the new universities in the 1950s. A struggle to reject this changing liberal subject can be identified in the student troubles of the late 1960s and 1970s.

The project aims to contribute firstly to the histories and genealogies of ‘neoliberalism’ and the ‘liberal subject’. It will do this by providing historical context in British liberal governance and self-governance. This perspective will contribute to the description of the ‘entrepreneurial subject’ and question its usefulness as a tool of historical analysis by pointing towards its boundaries and geographies. Secondly, genealogies of the subject currently do not engage with how the subject comes into being. Analysing the development of higher education institutions will explore this ‘learning’ process.

Previous Research

My previous research has been historiographical and primarily concerned with what has been described as a ‘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 ‘truth’ embedded 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’, (particuarly concerning 'human nature' and the 'self').
  • History of science and history of popular science.
  • History of liberal governmentality and self-governmentality since 1945
  • Historiography of global history and environmental history.
  • 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 confrences
      • 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.
      • May 2017: The ‘biological turn’ in history writing: what is man? And how do these assumptions drive history
        Department of History Postgraduate Conference, University of Warwick.
      July 2018

      Josh Patel