Political Science and the Critique of Policy Relevance

The disconnect between academic political science and real-world policy is a topic of some concern in current discussions of the purpose and future of political science. Dan Drezner has insisted that even the most technical political science (or narrowly for him, IR) research has pretty clear implications for policy if you take the time to read it. Political scientists could probably do better to reach out—for this purpose, blogs are a tremendous resource—but the point is that there is plenty of policy relevant research out there already.

There is, of course, another view. That is the perspective that political scientists should not reach out to policymakers, because they won’t listen. Or, they will mess it up. Or, they actually just select the research that comports with their views, sometimes even creating intellectual homes to produce the research that contains the ideas that will justify their actions (this is the critique of the Chicago school of economics and the Mercatus Center). In the extreme, it takes the form of beliefs like the RAND Corporation invented game theory as a tool of domination; or less audaciously, that the beliefs nurtured by RAND enabled domination. It’s ultimately a lazy critique, often made from the sidelines, and it contains within it the Simpsonesque implication that the lesson is, never try to engage with the policy community. Because you should never try, you can both be a strong critic of whatever odious thing you think is being done, but you are happily excused from offering any sort of solution.

That critical view is a real barrier to policy engagement among academic political scientists. That said, the idea that policymakers are either ideological, or essentially career-minded, or flitting from one hot academic trend to another, is easy to understand. It is especially clear in the field of development (microfinance experiments for the QJE!). For someone with an academic background, especially a critical one (my college buddy loved to say that he wanted to “subvert the dominant paradigm”), the development industry can be depressing place. But my sense is that the general critique of the development industry greatly underestimates the self-awareness and self-criticism of many who work on the ground. There are plenty of “helicopter consultants,” but there are also of people who are deeply invested in local knowledge and understanding as well. Not just as naive do-gooders (although these exist too), but as real critical thinkers.

Because I don’t see the development industry as simply an instrument of domination, I conclude for those of us who work on basic problems of governance and accountability, thinking in terms of policy relevance is profitable. I have no illusions that our research will shape the policy agenda, but it can be targeted in a way that finds common cause with the sorts of careful and critical thinking that, to me, should help to produce good policy.

That is why I was particularly excited to receive an email from a colleague at AusAID in Jakarta, who reported that he had shared some thoughts with his colleagues about my recent paper on migration and the origins of governance in Java. I quote from his memo:

Pepinsky’s paper is a novel new contribution to the growing literature on the political origins
of comparative economic development – this time at a sub-national level. But is it of any
relevance to us [the aid community]? The answer is in the last paragraph of the paper:

“Understanding local political economies in the post-colonial states that have inherited extractive institutions requires attention to the informal institutions, norms, and practices that supported exchange when modern market relations were first established. Effective strategies to reform local economies, in turn, will depend on the informal institutions that they have inherited from the colonial
era.”

In other words – when working at the local level – it’s good to know a little history!

Know history. Take local context seriously. Think about the political contexts in which market relations were formed, and why that matters. Exactly!

2 thoughts on “Political Science and the Critique of Policy Relevance

  1. Tom, nice to see you raise this issue. As somebody who has already done a bit of consulting, this is something frequently on my mind. I think there are a few other factors at work.

    First, I find that many policymakers have greater respect for political scientists who are also area specialists. I often hear from policymakers that they’re wary of political scientists who prescribe broad solutions without knowledge of local context.

    Also, a lot of policymakers are busy and don’t have much time during their workday to read political science papers, especially technical ones. There are few incentives for them to make that time.

  2. Thanks for reading, Dom! I appreciate the comments.

    It’s interesting that you hear that policymakers are more interested in close area knowledge than in general theoretical contributions. That would, once again, recommend close attention to history, context, area, etc.

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