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Democracy & Emergency - POL00072H

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  • Department: Politics
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Matthew Festenstein
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2024-25

Module summary

Sudden and dramatic crises often face political communities and governments assert (or are criticized for failing to establish) extraordinary powers to deal with emergencies. This module explores the nature and justification of emergency powers in crisis government by democracies, including the history of political thinking about these questions and analysing key normative questions raised by recent and current crises.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2024-25

Module aims

This module explores the nature and justification of the use of emergency powers by democratic states. In this module, we will examine the concepts of crisis, emergency and exception, in the history of political thought and in contemporary political and legal debate. In particular, we will critically explore three ways in which emergencies have been folded into constitutionalist thought in democracies, namely, republican, liberal, and decisionist. We will then look at the normative and conceptual questions raised for politics by five forms of emergency: terrorism, economic emergency, colonial emergency, climate emergency and pandemic. In exploring these cases, we will address such questions as: who decides when it is appropriate to declare a state of emergency and when normality has returned? In emergencies, can should states be allowed to do things that are normally wrong? Are emergencies ‘moral black holes’ in which the state is licensed to do anything in the name of security or are there constraints (and if so, what constraints are legitimate)? Is there a tension constitutionalism and effective response to emergencies? How should politics be conducted in emergency conditions? Is emergency or crisis a pervasive and continuing feature of contemporary politics, rather than an exceptional occurrence? To what extent are traditional doctrines of emergency powers able to cope with recent and current forms of financial, health and climate emergency?

Module learning outcomes

Through this module as student should:

  • Have a critical understanding of central assumptions and key features of traditions of thinking about emergency powers in political and legal theory and the debates among them
  • Have conceptual and theoretical tools for understanding, analysing and using concepts of emergency, exception and crisis
  • Have an understanding of normative debates about emergency powers and the capacity to develop, analyse and criticize normative arguments about emergencies and crises in democratic politics


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 3000 words
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
Essay 3000 words
N/A 100

Module feedback

Students will receive written timely feedback on their formative assessment. They will also have the opportunity to discuss their feedback during the module tutor’s feedback and guidance hours.

Students will receive written feedback on their summative assessment no later than 25 working days; and the module tutor will hold a specific session to discuss feedback, which students can also opt to attend. They will also have the opportunity to discuss their feedback during the module tutor’s regular feedback and guidance hours.

Indicative reading

Tom Sorell, Emergencies and Politics: A Sober Hobbesian Approach (Cambridge University Press 2013)

Nomi Claire Lazar, States of Emergency in Liberal Democracies (Cambridge University Press 2009)

John Ferejohn and Pasquale Pasquino, Emergency Powers, in The Oxford Handbook of Political Theory (Oxford University Press, 2008)

Sylvia Walby, Crisis (Polity Press 2015)

John Reynolds, Empire, Emergency and International Law (Cambridge University Press 2017)

David Stasavage, Democracy, Autocracy and Emergency Threats: Lessons for COVID-19 From the Last Thousand Years, International Organization 74 Supplement, December 2020, E1-E17

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.