If you’re getting ready for an Oxbridge Politics interview, you might be feeling a little nervous about what to expect. To give you a hand, we’ve got two model answers to questions that you may receive in a Politics interview:
What makes this apple that I’m eating mine?
Student: Well…I suppose the fact that you’re eating it.
Interviewer: What if I were to offer you a slice, and you accepted it? Would my apple then be your apple?
Student: No. So an apple doesn’t just belong to whoever ends up enjoying eating it. There must be some other reason, then, that the apple you’re eating is yours.
Top Tip: If you’ve gone wrong, then admit it! Demonstrate to the interviewer that you’re aware!
Interviewer: And what might this be?
Student: Maybe that society recognises that you have a right to it.
Interviewer: Interesting idea. But what do you mean?
Top Tip: Often interviewers will ask what you mean as a way of working out what you understand by certain concepts. A good response will be clear and relate to the discussion.
Student: All I really mean is that if someone were to break into your office and steal your apple, then you could expect the police to charge the thief and return your apple to you.
Interviewer: I notice that you’ve used the words ‘steal’ and ‘thief’. Does this make you realise that perhaps you’ve got things the wrong way round-that society will punish anyone who takes the apple from me just because it belongs to me?
Student: Ah…yes. Anyway, it might be the case that society would punish someone for taking something that wasn’t ever theirs.
Interviewer: Good point. Can you give an example?
Student: Sure. Suppose that I’m a peasant. I’ve harvested my wheat and it’s been requisitioned by the state. If I then try and get it back, then I’ll be sent to a labour camp or something.
Interviewer: Fantastic. But what made the wheat yours in the first place?
Student: The fact that I harvested it. And planted it.
Interviewer: But I didn’t plant or harvest the apple I’m eating.
Student: True. But you did buy it. Presumably.
Interviewer (laughing): Yes, I bought it from a supermarket.
Student: So, you’ve paid whoever it was who grew it. An exchange has taken place, in that this individual has parted with their ownership of the apple in return for your money. Indirectly, via the supermarket.
Interviewer: So do you think that what makes something someone’s property is their having produced it?
Student: Yeah, I reckon that I do.
Interviewer: Can you go a bit further? What is it about production that creates ownership?
Student: I’m not sure.
Top Tip: It’s perfectly fine to admit that you don’t know the answer to a question. The interviewer will push you until you do!
Interviewer: Why don’t you have a think about what goes on in production?
Student: Well…it depends on what’s being produced. Someone might be growing something, like an apple, or someone might be, I don’t know, sewing, or weaving.
Interviewer: Right. And what do these activities have in common?
Interviewer: Exactly. (After a pause:) So, why do you think effort is somehow special, in terms of conferring ownership?
Student: Effort involves making use of time and talent. And these definitely belong to one person. So whatever this person puts effort into is theirs.
Interviewer: Very good. Have you read Locke’s Second Treatise?
Student: No, unfortunately I haven’t.
Top Tip: Don’t pretend to have read something you haven’t. There’s nothing to gain in doing so.
Interviewer: Not to worry. The idea there is very similar to the one you’ve just given me.
Student: Ok, cool.
If you’re stuck, you might try developing the question a bit. You can think, ‘What makes this apple the interviewer’s as opposed to anyone else’s’, or ‘What makes this apple the interviewer’s?’ Hopefully this discrimination brings to mind factors like having had a hand in the apple’s being grown.
Other questions that the interviewer might ask to help out a student include:
- In general, what do you understand by the idea of a right to property?
- Would taking the apple from someone else by force be enough to make it mine?
- If I planted the seed from which the apple grew, would this make me its owner?
- If I own myself, does this mean that I own anything that I make myself?
What the Question is Testing:
The point of the question is to assess how you think. The interviewer wants to see you develop a line of argument-or two, or three.
Extending the Question:
It’s quite likely that the interviewer will then ask you to consider the opposing point of view, time permitting.
The interview might continue as follows:
Interviewer: What do you think might be a problem for an account of property similar to Locke’s?
Student: Well…maybe if two or more people are involved in producing something together. Like if a family of farmers are all involved in growing an apple. Which one of them does it belong to?
Interviewer: Indeed. Any other problems?
Student: Yes. I might put in very little, but still some, effort. So I might water a tree once and then claim to own all the apples it yields.
The interviewer may then ask you to try to overcome the problems you’ve mentioned.
Related topics from university
At Oxford, politics is split into two papers at prelims: ‘Theory of Politics’ and ‘Practice of Politics’. ‘Theory of Politics’ takes one of two ‘routes’, depending on who your tutor is. It can either focus on texts, like Rousseau’s The Social Contract, or on themes, like justice.
The ‘historical’ route starts with Locke, focusing on his theories of consent to governance, self-ownership, and property. But the ‘thematic’ route covers these ideas as well-just with a contemporary twist.
Is there a clear way to distinguish democracies from non-democracies?
Student: No, I don’t think that there is. For there to be a ‘clear’ distinction between democracies and non-democracies, it must be fairly uncontroversial which countries belong to which category. And I don’t think that this is the case for every country in the world. Some, like Russia, are clearly not democracies, but they’re also not obviously non-democracies, because they hold elections.
Interviewer: Ah, so do you take holding elections to be characteristic of democracies?
Student: Yes. Because the word ‘democracy’ refers to a system of government for a state in which every citizen participates. And this can’t be case if representatives are chosen by only a few citizens.
Interviewer: But can elections be held in any old way?
Student: What do you mean?
Interviewer: Well, what about if a country held elections, but only candidates recommended by the ruling party could stand in them? Would this country be democratic?
Student: No, obviously not. Elections can be democratic, but they can also be non-democratic. So merely having leaders chosen in an election doesn’t make a country a democracy.
Interviewer: What do you think does make a country a democracy then?
Student: How about this? Not only having elections, but having elections in which anyone can be a candidate?
Interviewer: Ok. But imagine a country, where elections involving many candidates have taken place. But the current government tips the contents of the ballot box into an industrial shredder and declares that its candidates have won. Is this country democratic?
Student: No. So, elections have to be held, and multiple candidates have to stand in them, and votes have to be counted accurately.
Interviewer: What about if after the votes are counted accurately, the military occupy the government offices and refuse to leave?
Student: Again, this would prevent such a country from being categorised as a democracy. The outcome of an election must be respected, as well as its being conducted freely and fairly.
Interviewer: How might a system trying to divide countries into democracies and non-democracies measure whether or not the outcome of an election is respected?
Student: I guess whether or not whichever party has been elected is allowed to take power.
Interviewer: Aha, the turnover test. Can you tell me why this is so controversial?
Student: Well, I suppose because some countries have transitioned from non-democracy to democracy without there being a change in the party in power. So it’s not clear whether or not this party would give up power were it to lose an election. Which means that it can be very similar to democracies without being included among them.
Interviewer: Very good. Do you know of any real-life cases where this has happened?
Student: I’m afraid not.
Interviewer: Japan used to be such a case. The Liberal Democratic Party was continuously in power from its formation in 1955 until 1993. But Japan was no less democratic in 1992 than it was in 1993, after an alternation in power. Today Botswana is one. Since Botswana’s independence in 1966, its Democratic Party has never lost an election. Some political scientists argue that it is unfair to classify Botswana as a non-democracy just because of this. Would you agree with them?
Student: Yes, because even though I’m no expert about Botswana, I do know that nobody is excluded from voicing their political opinions.
Interviewer: Nobody, really?
Student: As far as I’m aware.
Interviewer: What about the UK? Would you consider everyone there able express their preferences over candidates in elections?
Student: Yes. Nobody is excluded from voting on the basis of gender, or race, or whatever else.
Interviewer: But can sixteen year old vote?
Student: No. No, only people over the age of eighteen can vote.
Interviewer: So some citizens are excluded after all. What other groups of people are excluded?
Student: Well, prisoners, and those from overseas who are residents but lack citizenship.
Interviewer: So is the UK clearly a democracy?
Student: I think it’s pretty close to the democratic ideal, but there are a few imperfections, in that there are certain individuals who should be enfranchised yet aren’t.
Interviewer: Do any countries reach this democratic ideal?
Student: Maybe in future. But not yet.
Interviewer: So there’s no clear distinction between democracies and non-democracies?
Student: Yes. Although I reckon a clear distinction can be drawn between non-democracies and almost-democracies.
Interviewer: And what do you consider an almost-democracy to be?
Student: Well as we were discussing, holding free and fair elections is important for our idea of what democracy consists in, as is giving people the right to vote. So I’d say that a country is almost-democratic just if it holds reasonably free and fair elections in which most people can vote. And the free-er and fairer its elections and the more people who can vote in them, the closer a country gets to democracy. This is the idea that Robert Dahl has had in claiming that the term ‘democracy’ refers to an unattainable ideal, and that we should call countries that possess a government responsive to the preferences of its citizens ‘polyarchies’.
- What makes a way of differentiating democracies and non-democracies a clear one?
- How would you define ‘democracy’?
- Would it work if we allow countries to self-sort themselves into democracies and non-democracies?
What the Question is Testing:
This question is testing several things: an ability to come up with a sensible and interesting way of understanding terms used, such as ‘clear’ and ‘democracy’, an awareness of general political trends across the world, and the skill of arguing persuasively.
Extending the Question:
The interviewer might ask the student to consider such things as:
- How money influences election-and whether countries such as the US are oligarchies because of this.
- The best way to ensure that elections are conducted freely and fairly.
- Whether democracy can be measured on a scale or not (i.e. whether a country is either democratic or non-democratic, in the same way that a woman is either pregnant or not pregnant, or whether democracy admits of degrees).
- Whether democracy is best understood on a ‘thin’ conception or on a ‘thick’ conceptions (that is, as including things such as liberal values).
Related topics from university:
It is likely that you will study ways of defining and measuring democracy when you are focusing on political science and comparative government in your studies of the practice of politics at prelims. You’ll return to these ideas if you choose finals papers in comp. gov. or international relations.
Hopefully, this should have given you some idea of what to expect in an Oxbridge Politics interview. Remember: stay calm, explain your thinking, engage with the tutors, and you might actually enjoy it!