Professor Nigel John Thrift, FBA
Doctor of Laws
Friday 9 July 2010 - Orator: Professor Wendy Larner
We are delighted that the University of Bristol is able to bestow an Honorary Doctor of Laws on Professor Nigel Thrift who is one of the world’s leading human geographers and social scientists. It is also a true honour for me to deliver this oration. You will be able to tell from my accent that I am not originally from these parts. As a student in New Zealand I used to eagerly seek out Professor Thrift’s new publications. Even then he was recognised for his provocative contributions to the discipline of geography in particular, and the social sciences more generally. Never ever did he disappoint me or, I am sure, any of his other readers. His research and writing always offered profound challenges to the representational ways of thinking that still characterise much of the humanities and social sciences. From the early 1980s, at a time when post-structuralist theory was still embryonic in the Anglo-American academy, he was interested in identifying how our knowledge of the world helps constitute that world. It was through his work that many social scientists became familiar with concepts such as performativity, subjectivity and affect. He critically engaged with the ‘cultural turn’ that marked a qualitative transformation in human geography during the 1990s, transformed the terrain of political economy with his account of ‘knowing capitalism’, and pioneered the body of scholarship known internationally as ‘non-representational theory’.
Professor Thrift’s academic contributions were never just theoretical. Indeed, he explicitly resists the tendency of many social scientists to make grand programmatic claims about ‘modernity’, ‘globalisation’ or ‘neoliberalism’. Instead his scholarship is deeply engaged with richly textured historically and geographically specific material. He has worked in arenas that range from the landscapes of war and medieval conceptions of time, to modern international finance and business knowledge. In doing so his research has constantly challenged accepted boundaries of the social sciences and humanities, the economic and cultural, the social and subjective. His cumulative academic output is truly awesome. I am told by my senior colleagues that his University of Bristol doctorate was of formidable length and sophistication. His former supervisor Emeritus Professor Peter Haggett – whom we are very pleased is with us today – observed that trying to ‘supervise’ Nigel’s doctorate was a delightfully impossible task because his mind raced so quickly, and roamed so widely over literatures and debates. He recalled fondly that ‘Where I saw numbers, Nigel saw ideas’. Since then Professor Thrift has been co-author, author or co-editor of over 35 books, and a wide range of journal articles and book chapters. I am sure I am not the only social scientist to have a dedicated Nigel Thrift section in my book case! This work has been recognised with numerous distinguished academic awards, including the Royal Geographical Society Victoria Medal for contributions to geographic research, the Distinguished Scholarship Honours from the Association of American Geographers and the Scottish Geographical Society Gold Medal. He is an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences, and a Fellow of the British Academy.
These extraordinary academic achievements are, however, only part of the story. Professor Thrift’s contributions to university life extend well beyond his intellectual contributions. Throughout his career he has been a visionary academic leader who has both engaged and inspired others. He has served on the Economic and Social Research Council Research Priorities Board, and has long been a member of the Leverhulme Prize Geography Panel. He was a member of the Research Assessment Exercise Geography Panel in 2001, and then chaired Main Panel H of RAE 2008 from 2003-2006. His career has encompassed several institutions, including ANU, Aberystwyth, Lampeter, Bristol and Oxford. While he was at Bristol he served as a highly respected Head of School of Geographical Sciences, and then very successfully oversaw the RAE process in 2001 which culminated in a significant improvement in the university’s research profile. Sadly for us, he then moved to Oxford where he was made Head of the Division of Life and Environmental Sciences, and then became Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research in 2005. Professor Thrift took up his current role as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Warwick in July 2006.
In his role as Vice-Chancellor Professor Thrift continues to bring his formidable intellect and innovative approach to the challenges of his new position. He has begun to reconsider and redefine the role of a British research-led institution in the context of the rapid and sustained internationalisation of higher education. His proposal to set up an international quarter on the Warwick campus that will host overseas research universities by offering them a physical base at the university is an unprecedented initiative in the United Kingdom. This initiative will expose Warwick staff and students to new possibilities for international collaboration, and offers the potential to develop the innovative research questions and novel methodologies that understanding our radically interconnected and globalising present demands. He has also overseen the establishment of the first Warwick Commission – a group of international policymakers backed up by Warwick experts, who are currently examining the global trading system after the Doha Round of trade talks and whose recommendations for action will be presented to world governments. Professor Thrift is someone who truly understands that globalisation is a process still in the making, and in this context he is ensuring that his institution leads the future of British universities.
Last, but by no means least, it was only after I arrived in the United Kingdom five years ago that I began to truly appreciate the remarkable personal role that Professor Thrift has played in fostering intellectual and academic life in this country. He has had an extraordinary number of co-authors and collaborators over the years, encompassing a very diverse range of interests, intellects and personalities. These include fruitful working relationships with many of the leading figures in British geography and international social science, and it is a wonderful reflection on Professor Thrift’s intellectual curiosity, academic generosity and good humour that he has been able to stimulate, support and sustain such wide-ranging contributions. Relatedly, he has edited leading international journals in geography and the social sciences, and has always taken them to new and exciting places through his catholic approach, intellectual breadth and robust engagements. But perhaps most notable is the influence of Professor Thrift’s former postgraduate students. These scholars - many of whom studied here at Bristol - now populate the geography departments of the world and are proud to say that they had the privilege of working with Nigel Thrift. They are now setting their own academic agendas and, in turn, further reshaping the discipline of geography with the integrity, humanity and imagination demonstrated by their former supervisor.
In sum, it is not just his innovative and internationally recognised intellectual and institutional work that encouraged the University of Bristol to offer Professor Thrift an honorary degree. It is also very clear that throughout his career Professor Thrift has been a deeply engaged, humane and generous colleague.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Professor Nigel John Thrift as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.