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.
- Associate Board, Sociology
- British Sociological Association
- Political Studies Association
- ‘Outstanding student support’ for Student Success (EDI) Project team, Times Higher Education Awards 2017.
Hensby, A. (2019). Millbank tendency: the strengths and limitations of mediated protest ‘events’ in UK student activism cycles. Current Sociology [Online] 67:960-977. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1177/0011392119865761.
UK students’ desire to create disruptive, media-friendly ‘events’ during the 2010-11 protests against fees and cuts is reflective of wider cycles and processes in student activism history. First, constant cohort turnover restricts students’ ability to convert campaigns into durable movements, necessitating that they must periodically ‘start from scratch’. This informs a second process, namely the need to gain the attention of mainstream media, as this can potentially amplify students’ grievances far beyond their own organisational capacities. Both have shaped student activism over the past fifty years, compelling contemporary students to create protest events that live up to their radical history. These processes were evident in autumn 2010, when an NUS demonstration saw students attack and briefly occupy Conservative Party headquarters at 30 Millbank. The protest’s mass mediation was central to activists’ ‘eventing’ processes, and provided the spark for the radical UK-wide campaign that followed. Yet once the fees bill was passed by Parliament, students’ dependency on mainstream media cycles was quickly exposed. With ‘mediatization’ tendencies having dogged student activism since the sixties, this article argues that creating ‘events’ epitomises students’ longstanding strengths and limitations as society’s ‘incipient intelligentsia’ (Rootes, 1980: 475).
Hensby, A. (2017). Networks of Non-Participation: Comparing ’Supportive’, ’Unsupportive’ and ’Undecided’ Non-Participants in the UK Student Protests against Fees and Cuts. Sociology [Online] 51:957-974. Available at: http://doi.org/10.1177/0038038515608113.
As a topic in its own right, political non-participation is under-studied in the social sciences. While
existing approaches have tended to focus on the gaps between engagement patterns and public
policy, or the rational disincentives to an individual’s participation, less attention has been paid
to the explanatory power of socio-cultural factors. Taking its lead from studies by Oegema and
Klandermans and Norgaard, this article uses recent student protests in the UK as a case study for
exploring non-participation. Drawing on survey and interview data, findings indicate that whereas
network access and collective identification are commonly seen as helping produce and sustain
political participation, networks of collective dis-identification might help to produce and sustain
Hensby, A. (2017). Open networks and secret Facebook groups: exploring cycle effects on activists’ social media use in the 2010/11 UK student protests. Social Movement Studies: Journal of Social, Cultural and Political Protest [Online] 16:466-478. Available at: http://www.dx.doi.org/10.1080/14742837.2016.1201421.
Much has been written in recent years about the growing impact of social media on social movements. While authors have extolled the virtues of Facebook and Twitter as organisational and informational tools for a range of movements from the Arab Spring to Occupy, evidence remains patchy as to under what conditions social media is most effective at engaging and mobilising the wider public. Drawing on the work of Tarrow, this article considers the impact of cycle effects on the effectiveness of social media as a mobilising and organising tool for the 2010/11 U.K. student protests. Although preceding the broader ‘movement of the squares’ contention cycle, the protests made similar use of social media for generating mass participation. Yet, its mobilising power was dependent on a number of temporal factors, including amplification through mainstream media and the urgency of its initial campaign goal. Moreover, towards the end of the cycle, activists were found to be using social media – via ‘secret’ Facebook groups – in ways that reinforced emerging group hierarchies, arguably contradicting their initial commitment to open-access networks and participatory democracy.
Hensby, A. (2014). Networks, counter-networks and political socialisation – paths and barriers to high-cost/risk activism in the 2010/11 student protests against fees and cuts. Contemporary Social Science: Journal of the Academy of Social Sciences [Online] 9:92-105. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21582041.2013.851409.
Why might people sympathetic to the goals of a protest campaign choose not to participate? What distinguishes them sociologically from those who do participate? This paper uses the 2010/11 UK student protests as a case study for understanding how contemporary social movements mobilise individuals for high-cost/risk forms of activism participation. The protests saw large-scale regional and national demonstrations take place, along with the formation of a network of simultaneous campus occupations across the UK, presenting a greater scale and diversity of protest participation opportunities than had been seen for a generation. Nevertheless, students' political background and network access remained significant not only for shaping attitudes towards the efficacy and meaningfulness of protest, but also making protest participation appear an ‘available’ option. This paper uses interviews with participating and non-participating students from four UK universities to explore the range of pathways to mobilisation for national demonstrations and campus occupations.
Hensby, A., Driver, S. and Sibthorpe, J. (2012). The shock of the new? Democratic narratives and political agency. Policy Studies [Online] 33:159-172. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01442872.2011.637327.
Political parties were at the heart of the traditional narrative of British democracy. But parties as agents of political mobilisation are in decline. By contrast, membership of political pressure groups and social movement organisations has grown considerably. This shift in political activism is considered by some, but by no means all, to offer a radical alternative narrative of democratic participation. This article examines the organisational changes taking place behind this shift; and explores the extent to which more traditional models of political agency can be reformed in ways that supports and sustains the political activism at the core of a healthy democratic society.
Hensby, A., Sibthorpe, J. and Driver, S. (2012). Resisting the ‘protest business’: bureaucracy, post-bureaucracy and active membership in social movement organizations. Organization [Online] 19:809-823. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1350508411423697.
Over the past few decades, the legitimacy of membership-based social movement organizations (SMOs) has been called into question (Bosso, 2005; Jordan and Maloney, 1997, 2007; Putnam, 2000). As professionally-run institutions, SMOs have been accused of a preoccupation with maintaining income through membership marketing at the expense of fostering active participation among their members. In a nutshell, SMOs are seen to be self-serving ‘protest businesses’ which contribute little to social movement activism, and civic engagement in general. Our research into student members of a leading SMO takes issue with this assertion. Whilst organizationally SMOs can appear bureaucratic and impersonal in their marketing strategies, it cannot be assumed that this approach is only capable of attracting passive ‘chequebook activists’. Our findings suggest that younger members feel a sense of loyalty and trust towards the SMO as an effective ‘brand leader’ in its field, though this is by no means unrelenting. As reflexive consumers of activism, members have also grown more accustomed to the flexibilities of emerging post-bureaucratic ‘DIY’ activist groups. In sum, SMOs would benefit from a stronger and more consistent ‘feedback loop’ between the organization and its younger and more active members, as this will help provide scope for greater innovation whilst resisting tendencies towards self-serving ‘bureaucratized activism’.
Hensby, A. (2017). Participation and Non-Participation in Student Activism. [Online]. London: Rowman & Littlefield International. Available at: http://www.rowmaninternational.com/books/participation-and-non-participation-in-student-activism.
There is a strong need to understand the changing dynamics of contemporary youth participation: how they engage, what repertoires are considered efficacious, and their motivations to get involved.This book uses the 2010/11 UK student protests against fees and cuts as a case study for analysing some of the key paths and barriers to political participation today. These paths and barriers – which include an individual’s family socialisation, network positioning, and group identification (and dis-identification) – help us explain why some people convert their political sympathies and interests into action, and why others do not. Drawing on an original survey dataset of students, the book shows how and why students responded in the way that they did, whether by occupying buildings, joining marches, signing petitions, or not participating at all. Considering this in the context of other student movements across the globe, the book’s combination of quantitative and qualitative methods, and its theoretical contribution provide a more holistic picture of student protest than is found in existing publications on activism.
Hensby, A. and O’Byrne, D. (2011). Theorizing Global Studies. [Online]. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. Available at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Theorizing-Global-Studies-Darren-OByrne/dp/0230517323.
Hensby, A. and O’Byrne, D. (2018). Global Civil Society and the Cosmopolitan Ideal [Updated]. In: Routledge International Handbook of Cosmopolitanism Studies. London: Routledge, pp. 336-350. Available at: https://www.routledge.com/Routledge-International-Handbook-of-Cosmopolitanism-Studies-2nd-edition/Delanty/p/book/9781138493117.
Hensby, A. (2016). Campaigning for a Movement: Collective identity and Student Solidarity in the 2010/11 UK Protests against Fees and Cuts. In: Student Politics and Protest: International Perspectives. London: Routledge.
Despite its ubiquity as the term, ‘student movements’ are not easy to build or sustain. This is because campus activism typically features a diversity of political views and tactical preferences, and is organisationally restricted by the constant turnover of graduating cohorts. This chapter uses the 2010/11 UK student protests to explore some of the challenges students face in building a wider student movement. United initially by a common grievance of rising tuition fees, students responded quickly with a multi-repertoire mass campaign. Yet its tactical breadth generated diverging collective experiences and identities, and once the fees were passed by Government these identities proved difficult to unite as an overarching movement.
Hensby, A. and O’Byrne, D. (2012). Global Civil Society and the Cosmopolitan Ideal. In: Delanty, G. ed. Routledge Handbook of Cosmopolitanism Studies. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 387-400. Available at: http://www.amazon.com/Routledge-Handbook-Cosmopolitanism-International-Handbooks/dp/0415600812#reader_0415600812.