How well do the UK government’s ‘Areas of Research Interest’ work as boundary objects to facilitate research use in policymaking?

by Annette Boaz and Kathryn Oliver

Articulating the research priorities of government is one way to encourage the production of relevant research to inform policy. We have been working with the Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) produced and published by government departments in the UK. ARIs provide an opportunity to gain insight into what research is of interest to each department. It’s this research that forms the basis of our recent article in Policy & Politics: How well do the UK government’s ‘Areas of Research Interest’ work as boundary objects to facilitate research use in policymaking?

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Can democracy survive?

IMG_3928by Tessa Coombes, PhD Researcher at Bristol University

For the final plenary session of the conference Prof. Andrew Gamble, from Cambridge University, took us back to the issue of democracy and its ability to survive and even thrive. We were reminded that for the first time in the modern state system authoritarian regimes are in retreat and representative democracy, in some form or other, is on the rise.

Representative liberal democracies have been described as the least admirable form of governance not least because of their inability to take difficult decisions and their short term thinking. Despite this, in the 20th century, representative democracy came to be seen as an ideal state. But it now seems we are in a time of transition, where there is a real disengagement and disillusionment with mainstream politics, where the choice is narrowing and where people are indifferent to their right to vote. This crisis of representative politics reflects a crisis of trust in our politics and politicians. Once more, despite this process, representative democracy Continue reading

Research With and For Marginalised Communities

Andrew Ryder
Andrew Ryder

by Andrew Ryder, Fellow at the University of Bristol, Associate Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham, and Visiting Professor at Corvinus University Budapest.

It is my contention that universities are institutions of central importance in maintaining humanist values. Alas we live in age where such a vision seems to be at risk through an audit culture which seems to commodify and tame knowledge production.  I come from a background of service provision and activism, as a teacher and later community organiser working for Gypsy, Traveller and Roma (GTR) communities, and have sought to base this work on emancipatory practice.  Since I started lecturing full time in higher education five years ago, through employment at the Corvinus University Budapest and a series of fellowships at the University of Bristol and Third Sector Research Centre, Birmingham, I have sought to fuse my previous background of emancipatory work with knowledge production. This has primarily been achieved by promoting collaborative research with GTR communities.  There is a growing interest in the co-production of research knowledge involving academics working in partnership with marginalised citizens and communities. However, the concept of community participation in research – certainly as equal partners – has been, and remains, contested. Is the knowledge generated ‘tainted’ by activism and engagement or can it be critical and objective? Continue reading

Local associational life and attitudes towards local government

Jacob Aars and Dag Arne Christensen
Jacob Aars and Dag Arne Christensen

Jacob Aars and Dag Arne Christensen discuss their recent paper in Policy & Politics, which is free to download in September 2014. 

The role of voluntary associations in promoting political capacities and involvement has received a great deal of attention over the last 15-20 years. Extra-parliamentary organizations are assumed to produce a number of positive effects not only for individual members, but also for neighborhoods and local communities at large. They are thought to perform a social role, as the fabric that contributes to uniting society. In turn, associations are supposed to play a political role in fostering citizens’ capacities for taking part in collective action. Continue reading

Pathways of local budgetary reform in the People’s Republic of China

Xiaojun Yan and Ge Xin
Xiaojun Yan and Ge Xin

Xiaojun Yan and Ge Xin from the University of Hong Kong, discuss civic engagement in non-democratic states – the theme of their article now available on fast-track.

Democracies are built on civic participation; their governance depends upon the active engagement of citizens in the political processes that allow them to thrive. Indeed, generations of political scientists have studied the dynamic patterns of civic participation in democratic societies. Unfortunately, there is much less understanding of the process and substance of civic engagement in non-democratic states. This gap must be addressed, especially considering the rise in international influence and the endurance of the authoritarian regime in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Continue reading

Politics to reconnect communities

Matthew Flinders
Matthew Flinders

By Matthew Flinders

Originally posted on the OUP blog on Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

Why does art and culture matter in the twenty-first century? What does it actually deliver in terms of social benefits? An innovative new participatory arts project in South Yorkshire is examining the ‘politics of art’ and the ‘art of politics’ from a number of new angles.

“The general value of arts and culture to society has long been assumed,” a recent report from the Arts Council acknowledges, “while the specifics have just as long been debated.” It is this focus on ‘the specifics’ that is most interesting because in times of relative prosperity there was little pressure from neither public nor private funders to demonstrate the broader social impact or relevance of the arts. In times of austerity, however, the situation is very different. A focus on the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) risks eviscerating the funding for the arts and humanities unless these more creative and less tangible intellectual pursuits can demonstrate their clear social value. The vocabulary of ‘social return’, ‘intellectual productive capacity’, ‘economic generation’ may well grate against the traditional values and assumptions of the arts and culture community but it is a shadow that cannot be ignored.

The publication of The Impact of the Social Sciences (Sage, 2014) provides more than a sophisticated analysis of the value of the social sciences across a range of economic, cultural, and civic dimensions. It provides a political treatise and a strategic piece of evidence-based leverage that may play an important role in future debates over the distribution of diminishing public funds. I have no doubt that the impact of the arts and humanities is equally significant. But the problem is that the systematic creation of an evidence base remains embryonic. My personal belief that the arts and humanities are educationally critical is, in many quarters, meaningless without demonstrable evidence to support these beliefs. The methodological and epistemological challenges of delivering that research are clearly significant but as the Arts Council emphasizes ‘it is something that arts and culture organizations will have to do in order to secure funding from both public and private sources’.

As a political scientist I have always been fascinated with the relationship between art and politics. Though heretical to suggest to the arts community, I have often thought that the role of the professional politician and the professional artist (indeed, with the amateur politician and the amateur artist) were more similar than was often acknowledged. Both seek to express values and visions, to inspire hope and disgust, and both wish to present a message. It is only the medium through which that message is presented that differs (and relationships of co-option, patronage, and dependency are common between these professions). But having (crudely) established a relationship between art and politics, could it be that the true value of the arts lies not in how it responds to the needs of the economy but in how it responds to the rise of ‘disaffected democrats’ and the constellation of concerns that come together in the ‘why we hate politics’ narrative?

In a time of increasing social anomie and political disengagement, especially amongst the young and the poor, can participatory arts projects provide a way of reconnecting communities?

François Matarasso’s Use or Ornament (1997) provides one of the most systematic explorations of this question and concluded that “one of the most important outcomes of [the public’s] involvement in the arts was finding their own voice, or perhaps, the courage to use it.” More recently, the New Economics Foundation’s report Diversity and Integration (2013) suggested that young people who participated in arts programmes were more likely to see themselves as “holding the potential to do anything I want to do” and being “able to influence a group of people to get things done.” Other studies tentatively offer similarly positive conclusions but with little analytical depth in terms of identifying between political reconnection, civic reconnection or personal reconnection (in terms of personal understanding, confidence and aspiration). To return to the Arts Council’s recent report – The Wider Benefits of Art and Culture to Society – the existing research base is light on ‘the specifics’.

It is for exactly this reason that the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics has joined forces with ‘Art in the Park’ as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s ‘Civic Value’ programme. Young people from all across South Yorkshire will be brought together to participate in an eight week arts project that uses music, film making, dance, writing, painting or whatever medium the young people select to explore social and political issues. Artists are embedded in the research and current and former politicians can be brought into the project to facilitate sessions if that is something the young people request. Surveys, focus groups, and interviews will capture how participating in the project affects political attitudes and understandings – positive, negative, political, civic, or personal – with the aim being able to answer if the arts can breathe life back into politics and reconnect communities. Now that really would be a wider benefit for society.

Matthew Flinders is Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield and also Visiting Distinguished Professor in Governance and Public Policy at Murdoch University, Western Australia. He is the author of Defending Politics (2012). He was recently a winner in the ‘This is Democracy’ International Photography Competition – but his wife now claims she took the picture. Malaika Cunningham is the Research Officer for the project discussed in this article.

How to solve the paradoxes of politics? A response to David Blunkett

Matt Wood
Matt Wood

Originally published on the Bernard Crick Centre blog ( on 28 March.

David Blunkett offers some compelling reasons why we should defend our traditional democratic institutions. But are they increasingly distant compared to people’s everyday social and political lives? Matt Wood suggests we need to investigate new forms of participation and ‘everyday politics’ to address the paradoxes of disengagement.

David Blunkett’s Policy & Politics lecture (you can download the full text from this blog post) is a lucid and reflective statement on many of the paradoxes that we find in contemporary politics. As has become somewhat of a mantra for our times in academic circles, he notes that many British people are incredibly disillusioned with and disengaged from traditional democratic institutions. But he goes a bit further than this, noting that people make unrealistic and contradictory demands of government and that these put politicians in an unenviable position of having to ‘please all of the people all of the time’. People want conviction politicians like Tony Benn or Margaret Thatcher, but they also want an end to ‘Punch and Judy’ politics and ‘common sense’ governing where the solutions, apparently, everyone agrees on. This makes things doubly difficult for addressing disengagement because the causes of the problem are often as contradictory and confusing as the various solutions.

What should be done, then? For Blunkett, the first point is not to resort to extremism. He argues passionately that as a society we should resist the temptations of David Graeber’s ‘anarcho-populism’ and the politics of Russell Brand. Simply ‘taking to the streets’ will be destructive and regressive, as any glance at the history of revolutionary politics tells us. Instead, we should all try and be more understanding and less hateful of politics and politicians. Politics, Blunkett notes, is a deeply civilizing and uplifting practice. Politics may not be perfect, but has been necessary to achieve some of the great social advances of the twentieth century (and hopefully will be the same in the twenty-first century). As he rightly notes, establishing and maintaining those formal political institutions that we in Britain take for granted is critically important for consolidating the gains made in the Arab Spring and to avoid the horrific bloodshed in countries like Syria. Blunkett mentions Bernard Crick’s famous book ‘In Defence of Politics’ as a brilliant statement of precisely this point, and Matthew Flinders’ update of the book, ‘Defending Politics’, makes a similar argument for the twenty-first century. The media, the market and meretricious, Brand-esque figures are in danger of doing down the social, economic and cultural benefits that we gain from our stable Parliamentary democracy, despite all its faults.

Is it enough though simply to defend the old system when, as Blunkett mentions towards the end of his speech, people are still often interested and engaged in political issues, they just might act on that interest in different ways? In fact, as a lot of current research shows, we may be seeing a real sea-change in how people engage with and try to solve what they see as the big political issues. Political scientists have a number of words for this type of behaviour, but a good way of summing it up is the term ‘everyday politics’. People doing everyday politics know all the values Crick defended are important, but they also know that new technology can be utilised to drive change outside the formal system. They do politics when they like, where they like and how they like. This might be on the internet, through a local community project, a charity, or boycotting unethical corporate brands (some people see boycotting the BBC by not buying a TV as a political statement!). These people might vote occasionally, when they get time out of their busy lives, but they don’t see voting as the best way to get things done. They’re similarly turned off by party politics, which strikes them as too narrow or obsessed with media spin, or by Parliament, which seems dispiritingly anodyne and idiosyncratically outdated.

There are, of course, a number of paradoxes and inconsistencies here as well. People might ‘act locally and think globally’, but does that really make any difference? Everyday politics is often sporadic, disorganised and consumer-driven. While people might think they can do more by acting ‘closer to home’ rather than with the system, are we in danger of throwing the democratic baby out with our institutional bathwater? Would it really be better if the NHS was organised on a part-time ‘do-it-yourself’ basis? We think not. Traditional democratic institutions clearly do, and should have a place, as Blunkett makes clear. What we do think is these new forms of participation aren’t going to go away soon, and that simply defending the old system isn’t necessarily enough if we’re going to improve politics for the twenty-first century.

The challenge for us at the Crick Centre as we embark on an exciting programme of research is delving into how people live their political lives in the twenty-first century. While there’s already a lot of research out there on alternative forms of participation, we think there needs to be more into how and why there is a disconnection between people’s increasingly busy and congested everyday lives and the slow, churning world of ‘big-P’ Politics. Once we understand this better, we can begin to address how the institutions we should cherish (our national and regional parliaments, political parties and local councils) can evolve and adapt to our paradoxical political world.

Matt is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield Department of Politics, and Deputy Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics. He is currently researching ‘everyday politics’ and solutions to political disengagement in advanced liberal democracies.