Forget ‘policy relevance’. As other sharp scholars have observed, evaluating our work according to whether it contributes to the agenda of policymakers is to use a vacuous and morally concerning measure. Are we so desperate to be advisers to the prince that we’re ready to turn ourselves into the social version of civil engineers? If so, we’re doing ourselves a great professional disservice as well, since down this road lies narrower funding opportunities and the increasing delegitimisation of speculative research that cannot immediately be tortured into spilling out policy recommendations.
In fact, I might go so far as to take a leaf from Kieran Healy’s book: fuck policy relevance.
Let’s all come out for polity relevance.
What does that mean? Well, first, it means staying true to our vocation—to the ethical commitments of being a scholar, of sitting in a position of considerable social privilege and prestige, and of dedicating ourselves to the production of scientific knowledge. As social scientists, we are obliged to produce public facts. We offer up evidence and analysis with a validity beyond partisan commitments, designed to make people into better citizens. Into more thoughtful, self-aware, informed, and empowered members of our community. This is why we teach and this is why we have a right to things like tenure, without which it is basically not possible to perform our important duty to society.
Polity relevance means that we orient our work around the needs of the political community as a whole. Part of this is, without a doubt, helping the government govern better. Government is one of the needs of the political community. But it isn’t the only need, and more significant still, government is an embedded need. Government is part of governance, by which I mean the way power and values interact in practice to organise and regulate the institutions of society. The implication being, of course, ‘polity relevant’ scholarship is attainable for all social scientists, because governance as a theme suffuses our domain of study.
There’s little point in listing examples of polity relevant scholarship. Anything people care about could qualify, by definition. But I can propose a few features or virtues that can increase polity relevance. Polity relevant work should be accessible to the public in some shape. This doesn’t mean everything has to be written for a non-academic audience, but some people in a scholarly conversation should be writing plain-language and open-source reviews covering what scholars are saying and why they’re saying it. Polity relevant work should be critical, in that it should attend to the limits or weaknesses of popular narratives, and provide the facts needed to challenge, reflect upon, and reorganise the status quo. Polity relevant work should be ambitious, produced not in search of incremental epistemic progress but in search of creative perspectives on pressing problems.
Of course, I’m not saying anything new. Much of this is old hat to anyone talking about reflexivity. Plenty of scholars calling for a practical orientation in social science or analytical eclecticism have said similar things. Really, policy relevance, narrowly conceived, is trope that survives despite all the kicking it receives. It’s a horse we failed to slay, and yet remains resilient despite the beatings.
If all I can contribute is a pithy trope of my own, then so be it. Next time you present your interesting, socially engaged work at a conference and someone in the audience questions its ‘policy relevance’, respond with ‘sorry, but aren’t you mispronouncing “polity“?’