Making Political Science Relevant

Gerry Stoker

Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis

Some people hold the view that the job of political scientists begins and ends with their description and analysis of politics. Many political scientists view the connection between the discipline and the world of politics as appropriately detached, and themselves as neutral observers of the political world. Yet my position is that a discipline that studies politics but has nothing to say to those involved in politics or who might be involved, is failing. Political science needs to devote more thought and effort to the challenges involved in achieving relevance for its work.

That is why the launch of IGPA’s Blog, The Policy Space, is so important. The Political Science community, of which I am a proud member, should as part of its vocation seek not to pursue an agenda driven by its own theories or methods as if it was in a separate world, sealed off from the concern of its fellow citizens. Rather the problems of the political world as perceived by our fellow citizens should inform most of our research agenda. We should be asking questions to which others outside the profession want to know the answer, and do so with a commitment to rigour in methods of study and analysis. A focus of relevance does not demand a downplaying of developing the best means of investigating politics. Indeed methodological innovation is, if anything, likely to be stimulated rather than hindered by such dealing with the intractable and complex challenges presented by ‘real world’ politics. There is nothing as practical as good theory and theory can find no tougher test than achieving effectiveness in the world of practice.

There are pragmatic reasons to make sure that relevance is not overlooked. Just ask our political science colleagues in the USA where the access to National Sciences Foundation research funding was in part threatened by moves in the US congress in 2012/13 because of perceived lack of relevance of its work. There is nothing wrong with a focus of methodological rigour that has driven American Political Science but it would be wise for political scientists in Australia and elsewhere to keep a sharp focus on relevance as well.

Relevance can be advocated and opposed on different grounds and it would be naïve to imagine there is ever going to be anything other than a plurality of views on the topic. There are reasons to be concerned about an over-emphasis on relevance. What it is good to study should not solely be dictated to by the news agenda of the day. Analytical rigour often demands time and space that may make achieving short-term relevance more difficult. There are challenges in delivering evidence and argument for solutions that go beyond those required to understand problems. But given the threats to democracy, the challenges of globalisation and the scale of environmental and climate change that are emerging in the twenty first century a compelling case can be made for reorganisation toward an external focus. The intellectual doubts about an enterprise of relevance can be addressed, especially if the challenges of new methods and design approach are embraced. We need more work building on that of pioneers that show what a solution-seeking political science could deliver. The challenge rests on a reorientation of the focus of the discipline and then much greater effort in communication. The blockages to relevance have substance but they are far from being insurmountable. Too often in the past political science has constructed for itself a way of working that appears to give little or no credence to the demands of relevance. If political science is therefore judged irrelevant by others, most of the blame rests with the profession.

 

Political science will need to act differently and so I offer a new manifesto for relevance below.

  1. Have confidence in the value of rigorous scientific analysis and do not let relevance compromise high quality investigation but embrace it as a critical friend, providing new challenges for your evidence and argument.
  2.  Develop relevance not as an afterthought in the construction of your research but put it at the heart of what you select to investigate and how you present and share the outputs of your research. Set your agenda in dialogue with others outside the profession and improve your communication skills using traditional and new media.
  3. Offer solutions as well as analysis of problems and take on board some of the arguments for a design orientation in your analysis so that evidence and argument can be applied as thoroughly to the construction of potential answers as well as spelling out the challenges facing desired change.
  4. Support methodological pluralism in the discipline as variety of approaches is most likely to deliver a rich array of relevant work that can reach out to a diverse group of potential users.
  5. Be committed to work in partnership with other disciplines to improve the relevance of your work. Good and innovative work often is cross-disciplinary. Many issues have a “wicked” or multi-dimensional quality so again working across disciplinary boundaries enhances the chances of relevance.
  6. Actively cultivate links with knowledge intermediaries as appropriate – think tanks, journalists, special advisors, political parties, citizens’ organisations and social media networks – in order to boost the relevance of your work.
  7. Celebrate the role of teaching as a means of delivering relevance by encouraging a cadre of critically aware citizens and policymakers.

 


These ideas and the complexities and challenges involved in achieving relevance are further explored by a stellar group of experienced political scientists from around the world in a recently published book The Relevance of Political Science (see: http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/the-relevance-of-political-science-gerry-stoker/?K=9780230201095).

 

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