Every year the ANU School of Politics and International Relations hosts scores of visiting academics through our Visiting Fellows program. One of our current visitors is Professor Christine Sypnowich of Queen's University, Canada. We spoke to Professor Sypnowich about what she's hoping to achieve during her time at the ANU.
Q: What project are you working on while in Australia?
In my recent book, Equality Renewed: Justice, Flourishing and the Egalitarian Ideal (Routledge 2017) I made a case for an approach to equality centred on the concept of human flourishing, arguing that the political philosophy of egalitarianism should be understood as seeking to make people more equal in the constituents of living well. Unequal distribution of wealth can have the effect that some people are poorly housed, badly nourished, ill-educated, unhappy or uncultured, among other things. We care about inequality because of its effect on people. And yet, much contemporary egalitarianism avoids the question of how people are living, determined to be neutral about questions of the good. I counter that emphasis on neutrality with an account of human flourishing which, I contend, should be the ‘metric’ for egalitarian policy. My argument delved into various constituents of human wellbeing, including aesthetic considerations like access to culture, art and heritage. My current project picks up on that and seeks to formulate a political philosophy of cultural heritage. Heritage is rarely discussed among political theorists but I believe it has relevance for important questions of equality, justice, community and autonomy. Among the issues it raises are heritage as a public good; the conservatism inherent in conservation; collective memory and the contestation over historical narrative; the ethics and politics of place; human wellbeing and connections to history; stewardship and private property; and the topic of my talk this term, the problem of NIMBYism.
I am also working on some other related projects, such as utopianism and political education, Marx and liberal egalitarianism. And I have been commissioned by Polity Press to write a book on the political philosophy of GA Cohen, a fellow Canadian, ‘analytical Marxist’, and formidable political philosopher whose pathbreaking work on equality and freedom has significantly influenced my intellectual development.
Q: Why did you choose the ANU?
Well, it chose me! I should say Keith Dowding suggested I apply for a Visiting Fellowship and I was lucky enough to be successful. I’m absolutely delighted. ANU is a first-rate university, with prodigious strengths in politics and political theory. And it gives me the wonderful opportunity to visit Australia, which I’ve never done before.
Q: What drew you to your current area of research?
Well, as I explained, my current projects follow from my recent book. But these interests more broadly also were stimulated by my practical work as a community activist, and also my interest in heritage, which has been life-long, though especially kindled by living in Oxford, where I did my doctorate. I live in a heritage conservation district in a 200-year-old village on the edge of Kingston, Ontario, which has had a few battles against unfavourable development, and I’ve been involved in a local campaign to stop the closure of a historic downtown high school. Plus I’m also chairperson of the Coalition of Kingston Communities, an umbrella organisation of over a dozen community groups that presses City Hall to be accountable and transparent. I’m increasingly conscious of how much people’s quality of life is affected by where they live, the schools they go to, the urban environment in which they work and play.
Q: What do you think political theory is able to contribute to the study of politics?
When I teach political theory to undergraduates at Queen’s University in Canada, I always say that it’s a subject which, in contrast to other sub-disciplines in philosophy, has ‘its feet on the ground’, but in contrast to political science, has ‘its head in the clouds’. And I think that’s a good way of capturing the significance of the study of political theory – it asks vital normative questions about how we ought to live in common, which should always guide empirical inquiries about how politics is actually practiced, in institutions, social movements, or the international order.
Q: Finally, what’s on your bucket list while you’re here in Australia?
I’m looking forward to seeing a kangaroo outside of a zoo! But I’m also excited about seeing the rest of the country – I’m giving talks in Melbourne and Sydney, and when my family joins me at the end of my 2-month stay in the department, we plan a trip to the Great Ocean Road. We Canadians joke about how tourists foolishly think they can fit in jaunts to all the far-flung attractions in a few days, but I had to disabuse myself of the same mistake in planning my trip here. There are so many beautiful sights – a pity I can’t take in them all! In any case, wherever I go, I’m sure I will encounter wonderful people. Everyone has been so welcoming and kind here. Thank you very much for the opportunity to join your lively, engaging and friendly intellectual community!
Professor Sypnowich will be delivering a guest seminar on NIMBYism as part of the SPIR Seminar Series on Thursday 10 May 2018.