Dr. Barbara Arneil strives to create 'organic political theory'

Dr. Barbara Arneil loves supporting students as much as she loves political theory.

“I love teaching and … I love the first-year classes. It's a huge transition from high school to university,” said Arneil. “I've tried to design [POLI 100] so that it will challenge students, but also it will make them feel like they have a space where they're welcome.”

During her undergrad at UVic, Arneil took a political theory class and planned to go to law school. But that class changed the trajectory of her career.

“I just got completely absorbed by these deeper kinds of quiet philosophical questions about how we live together. How do we govern ourselves? How do we make decisions?” said Arneil.

This, alongside family stories about hardship and war, forced Arneil to examine how war, in her words, is a “failure of politics.”

“I wanted to study politics to see if there is a different way of organizing or there's a different way to do politics so that we can avoid war.”

From critiquing to creating

Since then, Arneil received her PhD from University College London and has worked as the senior policy advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. In 1996, Arneil joined UBC and has received awards including the UBC Killam Research and Killam Teaching prizes.

In 2023, Arneil was inducted to the Order of Canada for her contributions to political theory and the field of political science.

Arneil said the call she got that told her she was inducted into the Order of Canada is something she’ll never forget.

“It really touched me,” Arneil said choking up. “I thought, well, okay, if it's the people, I hope the work I have done has been of benefit, and will continue to be of benefit to not just the people of Canada, but people.”

Arneil’s work ranges from criticisms of colonialism to examinations of feminism, with the former focusing on John Locke’s natural rights and their implications for Indigenous societies.

With three books already published, Arneil has started working on her fourth, stepping away from critiquing, and instead on a mission to create an “organic political theory.”

“For most of my career, I've been critiquing other theories or critiquing what exists. I thought, ‘Well, you know, I'm getting to the end of my career, could I write a theory that actually tries to posit a positive form of political theory?’”

Arneil argues that in the contemporary world, we’re governed since the English enlightenment by an inorganic political theory that says people are individuals that carry rights with them, and it assumes there is no pre-existing society.

“We're just individuals, we have rights, and we come together, and then we battle out our rights. To me, that's inorganic — it's this very individualistic model,” said Arneil. “What if we switched from that, and thought, instead of individuals not as free-floating in the world, but rather as embedded within ecosystems of various kinds embedded within relationships of various kinds?”

“And then the question is less, ’How do I protect my rights?’ [Rather,] how do we care for these relations? How do we care for all of these organic kinds of connections that will allow all of us to flourish individually and collectively?”

Meaningful mentorship

Besides working on her own research, she has overseen countless master's and PhD theses.

“I feel a huge responsibility that we have is to also launch the next generation,” said Arneil.

Arneil said being in a graduate program can be very isolating, so she makes sure to not just nurture the academic minds of her students.

“I'm a very firm believer that the mind is attached to the body and the soul. For all of us,” said Arneil. “[Mentorship] is also about supporting them as they are … thinking about the whole person.”

Arneil’s contributions to political theory extend to her mentorship and hope for future generations of political scientists.

“I have enormous hope in [the future] generation because I think they are focusing on what matters.”

— Additional reporting by Iman Janmohamed