The Politics of Engaged Scholarship: Impact, Relevance and Imagination

Matthew Flinders
Matthew Flinders

Matthew Flinders, co-editor of Policy & Politics, discusses his article The Politics of Engaged Scholarship: Impact, Relevance and Imagination from the 40th anniversary issue of the journal. This issue is available free until 30 November.

I promise that I never planned to use the word ‘masturbation’ (offered in the context of methodological debates) three times in my April 2012 opening address to the Political Studies Association annual conference in Belfast. There was no carefully made plan to achieve a record-breaking ‘twitter-spike’ or to create a wide-ranging stir. It just sort of happened. The results of this rhetorical flourish have, however, been largely positive in the sense that it initiated a professional debate about the role of political studies in the twenty-first century. More specifically it initiated both research and discussion into the available evidence that the discipline had become either ‘more’ or ‘less’ visible or influential vis-à-vis the public, social groups, politicians or policy-makers, while at the same time unleashing a more fundamental debate about the meaning and political implications of terms such as ‘impact’, ‘relevance’ or ‘engagement’ when applied to political science.

My simple argument throughout this debate is that political science is kidding itself if it really believes it is visible, engaged or relevant beyond the academy. There are clearly exceptions to this argument. Some sub-disciplines and specialist fields have cultivated and maintained a social relationship that delivers a visibility and level of influence far beyond the lecture theatre and seminar room. There are also a small number of what I might term ‘hyper-engaged’ scholars but these are very much the exception rather than the rule. Several scholars have criticised me for making such arguments and have argued that the discipline has never been so relevant. My response is that if this is the case – and it’s a very big ‘if’ – then a serious perception gap exists (i.e. if high-quality theoretically informed but policy-relevant research is being undertaken by political scientists then it is simply not percolating down into Whitehall and Westminster). Debates about the existence or explanations for this ‘gap’ could form the focus of a hundred books or journal special editions and yet to engage in such an intellectual exercise risks simply reinforcing the view of many social commentators that political science has become ‘self-referential as well as self-reverential, and often unreadable to anyone but a specialist… a narcissistic world of academics writing for each other’.

It is exactly this context that my focus falls not on the ‘tragedy of political science’ (to adopt the title of David Ricci’s wonderful 1984 book) but on the ‘potential of political science’ or what C Wright Mills termed ‘the promise’ of the social sciences. This potential and promise will, I suggest, only be realised once political scientists accept that they possess a professional responsibility to the public in terms of engaging with society in the broadest sense about why their research and writing matters. This argument has absolutely nothing to do with the corporatisation of the universities, with the dumbing-down of scholarship or with ‘clipping-the-wings’ of academic autonomy or independence. I am not interested in producing purely instrumental knowledge or in narrow definitions of ‘impact’ or ‘relevance’ but I do believe that a new model of ‘engaged scholarship’ provides ways of increasing the visibility of the discipline as well as increasing its leverage with potential funding bodies. (Moreover, I’ve said many times before that it is political theorists and political philosophers and not the governance and public policy specialists who have most to gain from the ‘tyranny of relevance’). ‘The promise’ of the social sciences relates to being able to promote an understanding of the world that allows individuals to locate themselves within the bigger picture. There are no simple solutions to complex problems and academics must push back against unrealistic expectations but there is a great public appetite for new ways of understanding the world. Frameworks of understanding, a new marketplace of ideas, novel opportunities to embed ‘impact’ within both teaching and research, clear and direct ways of dealing with the ‘so what?’ question that scholars of all disciplines are increasingly asked …the notion of engaged scholarship provides a way of turning what is frequently interpreted as a threat into an opportunity.

The specific characteristics of this argument and its surrounding debate – as well as an important and novel attempt to tease-apart and tie-down the concepts of ‘impact’, ‘engagement’ and ‘relevance’ – can be found in this article and it is sufficient here for me to sign-off by recalling a famous passage in C Wright Mills The Sociological Imagination (1959) [I make no apologies for its length]

“Just now, amongst social scientists, there is widespread uneasiness, both intellectual and moral, about the direction their chosen studies seem to be taking. This uneasiness, as well as the unfortunate tendencies that contribute to it, is, I suppose, part of a general malaise of contemporary intellectual life. Yet perhaps the malaise is more acute among social scientists, if only because of the larger promise that has guided much earlier work in their fields, the nature of the subjects with which they deal, and the urgent need for significant work today… Not everyone shares this uneasiness, but the fact that many do not is itself a cause for further uneasiness among those who are alert to the promise and honest enough to admit the pretentious mediocrity of much current effort. It is quite frankly my hope to increase this uneasiness, to define some of its sources, to help transform it into a specific urge to realize the promise of social science, to clear the ground for new beginnings… my conception stands opposed to social science as a set of bureaucratic techniques which inhibit social inquiry by ‘methodological’ pretensions, which congest such work by obscurantist conceptions, or which trivialize it by concern with minor problems unconnected with publicly relevant issues. These inhibitions, obscurities and trivialities have created a crisis in the social studies today without suggesting, in the least, a way out of that crisis.”

Over half a century later it is possible to detect a new or continuing ‘widespread uneasiness’ about the direction of the social sciences, in general, and political science in particular. This is also forms part of a wider set of concerns about the state of contemporary intellectual life (the role and future of universities, the impact of the internet and social media, the decline of public intellectuals, etc.) while the Perestroika movement in the United States and the ‘Perestroika-lite’ agenda across much of Western Europe raises both methodological and normative questions that resonate with Mills’ position. The aim, however, of my focus on engaged scholarship is to suggest ‘a way out of that crisis’.

The Politics of Engaged Scholarship: Impact, Relevance and Imagination is part of the 40th anniversary issue of Policy & Politics, available free on Ingenta until the end of November.

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