David Held - in memory
(14 March 2019)
Professor David Held, who died suddenly on 2 March after a short illness, was one of the most influential and individual political theorists of his generation. He was also a gracious, generous and relentlessly curious colleague, and someone whose forward-looking attitude made him an immensely supportive supervisor to his many PhD students and mentor to junior colleagues.
David rarely did things the ‘conventional’ way in academic terms. His first degree was in Management Science and his MSc and PhD came from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including seminars under the supervision of Theda Skocpol that, in David’s telling, sounded hilarious and terrifying in equal measure. He simultaneously ran several activities that would be careers in their own right for many people. David was a founder and Director of Polity Press, he co-founded Global Policy Journal and Global Policy Institute, and he undertook public engagements across a vast range of topics that took him around the world and into venues including the World Economic Forum and into contact with leading European political figures. David’s intellectual and commercial entrepreneurialism meant he was always engaged beyond the seminar room and lecture theatre, bringing his work to public attention, giving it a leverage in policy-making circles that few other political theorists sought or could expect, and, for those who worked with him, providing a rich source of anecdotes about his occasional bushes with the world of the rich and famous. Few political theorists are likely to have been compared favourably as a dancer with Daniel Craig. Similarly, few political theorists are likely to have organised seminars with the military that took place on board the Royal Navy’s flagship or a submarine.
David’s prolific output ranged across three core areas – democracy, where the influence of his lifelong engagement with Frankfurt School critical theory and especially the work of Jurgen Habermas was central; globalisation, where his work during the 1990s set an agenda that continues to be crucial; and institutionalism, with his most recent books on the phenomena he called Gridlock provide potent analysis of the travails facing contemporary efforts to manage fundamental change in the global political economy. He wrote and edited 60 books, many of them collaboratively demonstrating his desire to bring together different perspectives and to fuse new insight across sub-disciplinary boundaries. His career spanned posts at the Open University for most of the 1990s, where he was Professor of Politics and Sociology, and the LSE between 2000 and 2011 as Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science, prior to joining Durham University as Master of University College and Professor in the School of Government and International Affairs in January 2012.
David’s death leaves a rich legacy of intellectual leadership and innovation, a huge cohort of former students and collaborators whose lives have been improved by working with David, and a model of forward-looking commitment to the importance of politics as a profession and an academic activity that we can do little better than to seek to emulate.