Dr Alexander Hensby is a Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Social Policy, Social Research at the University of Kent, and a Research Fellow for the University’s Student Success (EDI) Project. He completed his first degree in sociology at the University of York, followed by a Master's at the University of Cambridge. Alex taught sociology at Cambridge and Roehampton universities for four years before moving to the University of Edinburgh, where he received his PhD in 2014.
Alex’s principal research and teaching interests include social movements, political participation, race and ethnicity in higher education, and global social change. He is the author of two books, Participation and Non-Participation in Student Activism (2017), and Theorizing Global Studies (2011, with Darren J. O’Byrne). He is a member of SSPSSR’s Centre for the Study of Social and Political Movements, and Migration, Ethnicity, Religion and Belonging research cluster.
For the past five years, Alex has worked as part of the Student Success (EDI) Project to develop a research programme that will help close the white-BME attainment gap at the University of Kent. In 2017, the Student Success (EDI) Project won the prize for ‘Outstanding Support for Students’ at the Times Higher Education Awards.
Dr Hensby’s research interests focus on three interlinking areas.
- Social movements, political participation and non-participation Why do some people convert their political sympathies and interests into action, when others do not? It is important to consider the sociological processes that shape how individuals – particularly young people – become political actors. Political socialisation via the family and school can provide pathways to participation at an early stage, as well as the social networks individuals belong to. An individual’s personal affinity for a group or movement’s identity and aesthetic can stimulate action, as well as the affective ties and loyalties that develop through sustained participation. Comparable sociological processes can also shape individuals’ non-participation, such as growing up in an apolitical or anti-political household, belonging to ‘counter networks’ that discourage mobilisation, and a social dis-identification with particular groups and cultures.
- Student politics and activism in contemporary society With its foci of political groups, societies, and the student union – as well as its informal, overlapping student social networks – the university campus has for many decades operated as an influential field for increasing youth political engagement, generating campaigns, and influencing public discourse. This is evidenced in recent student-led campaigns about tuition fees, decolonisation, trans rights, and mental health. At the same time, student activism is limited by structural conditions unique to the university field. With undergraduates typically graduating after 3-4 years, activism groups face constant challenges in maintaining organisational and tactical expertise across successive student cohorts. Given these unique opportunities and constraints, what can student activism achieve, and how are we to understand and measure its outcomes? How does contemporary student activism maintain movement memory? How, and in what ways, has social media transformed student activism’s voice and organisational platform?
- Race, capital, and equity in higher education
Universities across the UK have seen a considerable diversification of their undergraduate cohorts over the past two decades. While these trends indicate clear successes for widening participation in higher education, the endurance of a sector-wide attainment gap between white and black and minority ethnic (BME) students indicates that universities have been slow to adjust their learning provision. So-called ‘deficit’ approaches have for many years placed the onus on BME students to unquestioningly learn the ‘rules of the game’, whereas critical race scholars have argued that universities structurally reproduce and uphold cultural norms and practices that disadvantage students of colour.
Since 2014, the Student Success (EDI) Project has sought to address these critiques and develop institutional policy and practice that will help close the attainment gap at the University of Kent. During this time, the Project’s research programme has focused on a number of themes including students’ sense of belonging, access to campus, entry qualifications, and expectations of higher education. Consequently, it has developed strategies and activities to improve the University’s academic and support services, and develop a more inclusive learning environment and curriculum.
Alex currently teaches undergraduate and postgraduate modules on social and political movements, and globalization. He previously taught sociology at the universities of Roehampton, Cambridge and Edinburgh.
Alex is interested in supervising doctoral students with proposals that fall within the areas of his research.