Engaged Research and Political Relevance in Comparative Politics

At this year’s APSA meeting I’m participating in a roundtable entitled “Whose Research Is It? Notable Ways Political Scientists Impact the Communities They Study,” on the relationship between the work that comparative politics researchers do and the communities in which they do it. It’s being organized by Kristin Michelitch, a member of the editorial board of PS: Political Science, which is organizing a symposium on the topic. The description of the panel below gives you a sense of what will be covered:

As researchers, we “collect” the insights, opinions, and behaviors of those that we study for scholarly publication and teaching outputs. Our audiences, however, are often quite limited to other scholars or students at universities in high-income countries, rather than the communities we study. This symposium highlights the work of comparative politics scholars who are impacting the communities they study in diverse ways.

I’ve written a bit here and here and here about policy relevance and political engagement by political scientists, and a general theme that appears across these pieces is that the common metric of policy relevance is probably wrong. We should focus more on small-bore analytical work, often done by those with real country or area expertise, that is mostly likely to be the input for actual policymaking.

So too with questions of engagement and political relevance. I’ve written up my own commentary on these issues here (PDF) as a preview of my own comments at the roundtable. Perhaps there are large swaths of comparative politics research that is irrelevant or oblivious to real-world politics, but I see lots of ways in which comparative politics work actually does contribute to real-world policy discussions and political debates. This work perhaps flies under the radar because it’s not pitched at the Grand Strategy or Global Paradigms level, but rather engages with politics as a matter of course without making such a big deal about it.

In writing this up, in fact, I actually found myself thinking of the ethical questions that might arise when foreign researchers do make seek to affect politics in the countries that they study. Comments are welcome, especially on this last bit.