Dr Portia Roelofs

Dr Portia Roelofs

Please briefly introduce yourself and what you are currently doing 

I am the Clayman-Fulford Junior Research Fellow in Politics and Political Thought at St Anne’s. In addition, I’m an Associate Member of the African Studies Centre and the Department of Politics and International Relations.

My research is located at the intersection of Development Studies, Politics, and Political Theory. I also teach Introduction to the Practice of Politics to first years at St Anne’s.  

When did you join St Anne’s and how have you found your time at the College? 

I joined St Anne’s in October 2019. I look back on the six months of in-person College life, before the pandemic started in the Spring, with great fondness. Since then, we’ve (of course) had to get to grips with doing tutorials, College meetings, discussion groups, and even admissions interviews online. Amazingly, none of this seems to have dampened my colleagues’ collegiality or my students’ curiosity.

What is your specialist subject and how did you become interested in this area? 

My research centres on political ideas and how people in different contexts conceive of concepts like accountability, transparency, and the public good.

During my PhD, I became fascinated with the transformation of urban governance in Lagos since 1999: one of the biggest stories of African development in recent decades. Through my fieldwork in southwest Nigeria I became interested in understanding not only how Lagos managed to grow out of step with the rest of Nigeria, but also the deep ideological debates and controversies it sparked as politicians in neighbouring states tried to replicate the ‘Lagos model’ with varying success. My book manuscript – provisionally entitled What Nigeria can teach us about good governance – builds on my doctoral research to argue that Nigerian political practice more broadly can contribute to debates in democratic theory. For example, Nigerian ideas of transparency can help us scrutinise the British government’s coronavirus response

With the ongoing turmoil of the pandemic, I’m increasingly interested in studying ‘new forms’ of privatisation closer to home. I’m devising new research into public-private partnerships and the role of management consultants in government in the UK, Nigeria and elsewhere.

What is your favourite place in Oxford? 

In pre-pandemic times, I spent an evening in the Bear Inn on Alfred Street that was pretty much the definition of good cheer. Otherwise, a cycle down Binsey Lane to the Church of St. Margaret of Antioch is hard to beat.

Have you found any challenges working in academia? If so, how have you overcome them?

At its best, academia offers uniquely rewarding opportunities for community. However, the growing marketisation of higher education, and conversion of students into debt-bearing consumers, is a challenge to making this promise of community real. I am privileged that in Oxford the pressure for speed and quantity over quality are perhaps not quite so sharp. To the extent that I have overcome these challenges it has been through building spaces with colleagues and students where we carve out the space to think differently.

What is your advice for any others looking to pursue academia?

Be prepared for the toll academia can take – whether through loneliness, rejection, stress or precarity – and build networks with people who affirm and inspire you.

Keep going until you find somewhere where you feel like you fit: different sub-disciplines are based on radically different foundational assumptions and methods. What is taken for granted in one sub-discipline might require constant justification in another.

Have you joined St Anne’s from another institution? If so where and how do you find the two places differ?

I joined St Anne’s from the London School of Economics where I completed my PhD and then worked as an LSE Fellow for two and a half years. I was lucky to work with and be mentored by scholars whose insights on the political economy of development and the role of ideas and ideology in the development industry continue to shape my work. Whilst I miss my colleagues and the incredibly diverse and motivated students on LSE’s Development Studies masters programme, LSE overlooks some of central London’s busiest roads and was a building site for most of the time I was there. St Anne’s is a haven of calm by comparison.

What is your favourite way to relax? 

The Thames towpath winds through central Oxford and the surrounding water meadows – I must have walked along the river hundreds of times this past year and it never gets boring.