Funded PhD Opportunity Choosing by Referendum: On the wisdom and folly of the crowds

This opportunity is now closed.

Subject: Social Work and Social Policy


The last five years have witnessed an extraordinary sequence of referendums across Europe which in turn changed the constitutional and political order of the countries holding them. In 2014 Scotland voted against independence from the United Kingdom. In 2015 Greece rejected the bailout conditions for addressing the country’s debt problem, a decision which was quickly reversed by parliament, and Ireland approved same sex marriages. The United Kingdom voted for “Brexit” in 2016. In 2017 Catalonia voted in favour of independence from Spain, a result not recognised by the Spanish parliament and was followed by revoking of Catalonia’s autonomy. In 2018 Ireland voted for the legalisation of abortion, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia voted to adopt the official name of Republic of North Macedonia.

These are examples of the increasing use of referendums across the globe, a trend in sharp contrast to earlier democratic thinking and practice which saw referendums as blatant attempts to legitimise nationalism, bureaucratic socialism, and authoritarianism. Several modern commentators consider referendums as an expression of direct democracy allowing ordinary citizens to participate into the political process without their preferences being distorted by the interests of political intermediaries and their financial backers.

In this connection, referendums are often thought as an application of the ancient democracy of the Greek city–states. Yet, in view of the conceptual differences of the ancient and modern democracies this is far removed from the truth. Rather than supplanting representative democracy modern referendums supplement it. And, as the outcome of a democratic process can only be as good as the inputs into it, a conundrum arises. Are people’s preferences, directly aggregated through a referendum better or worse inputs to the collective decision process in comparison to filtering them through elected party representatives?

A systematic investigation of this issue opens the following interconnected questions which are the subject-matter of the proposed research

(1) Who to include in the “people” whose preferences are counted, which relates to suffrage rights and voter competence.

(2) The role of political parties in referendums and whether referendums are dominated by elites and special interests or taken over by populist groups

(3) The presence or absence of popular deliberation in the referendum process, and consequently, whether voters focus on the issue of the referendum or they treat the referendum as an opportunity to register their preferences and concern about other issues.

(4) The suitability of majoritarian referendums in divided societies and other options including vetoes, power-sharing arrangements and judicial review

(5) The conduct of referendums including framing the question and campaign finance. (6) The ‘demand’ and ‘supply’ factors that explain the growth of referendums in the last thirty years or so.

The research will be based on political economy methodology including theories of the formation of the state, explanations of the emergence of political parties, mechanisms for aggregation of individual preferences, voting rules, accountability of government, checks and balances, and statistical analysis of referendums. It will apply the above lines of inquiry to a single country, or region like Northern Ireland, or an international sample of countries.

Essential Criteria

  • Upper Second Class Honours (2:1) Degree or equivalent from a UK institution (or overseas award deemed to be equivalent via UK NARIC)
  • Research proposal of 2000 words detailing aims, objectives, milestones and methodology of the project

Desirable Criteria

If the University receives a large number of applicants for the project, the following desirable criteria may be applied to shortlist applicants for interview.

  • A comprehensive and articulate personal statement


    Vice Chancellors Research Scholarships (VCRS)

    The scholarships will cover tuition fees and a maintenance award of £15,009 per annum for three years (subject to satisfactory academic performance). Applications are invited from UK, European Union and overseas students.


    The scholarship will cover tuition fees at the Home rate and a maintenance allowance of £15,009 per annum for three years. EU applicants will only be eligible for the fees component of the studentship (no maintenance award is provided).  For Non EU nationals the candidate must be "settled" in the UK.

Other information

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Key Dates

Submission Deadline
Monday 18 February 2019
Interview Date
25 to 27 March 2019


Jordanstown campus

Jordanstown campus
The largest of Ulster's campuses

Contact Supervisor

Professor George Tridimas

Apply online

Visit and quote reference number #344231 when applying for this PhD opportunity