Making Academia A Bit More Relevant Requires Making ‘The Real World’ A Bit More Academic

By Matthew Ryan, Politics & International Relations

I have been interested to watch debates unfolding in the US prompted by Nicholas Kristof’s piece in the New York Times some weeks ago. The responses (see for example a recent column by Cass Sunstein) give visibility to important questions about the relevance of academic work (in particular the social sciences).

Academics have gradually become more worried about the lack of policy prescription in top political science journals and the impact of their work more generally; so much so indeed that they have had academic debates about it in academic journals. Now you might think that is a bit facetious. The articles in the linked journal are, I think, quite accessible and you should dabble in them if you get a chance. And that takes me to my modest contribution to the debate. Making academia relevant is as much about allowing more and more so-called ‘real/ordinary people’ to dabble in the ways of the academic as it is about academics, when acting in their capacity as academics, going out into the so-called ‘real world’ looking for trouble.*

The most welcome responses to questions of academic impact and relevance have asked political scientists to communicate more accessibly and appreciate the ways that others understand the problems they are trying to solve. I can’t argue with that. And when we have done a lot of research and come up with some robust and interesting findings, it makes plenty of sense that we ought to tell as many people as possible. But my worry is all parties will still focus too much on communicating the political and not enough on communicating the science.

How do non-academics use academic research? There are two ways that academic researchers can come up with findings and solutions that are valuable to policy-makers, civil society actors, practitioners and citizens. One is to do a heap of robust research and come up with the answers to solutions that the end-user of the research already valued before the research was done. Most of us like research that confirms our worldview. The other is to come to answers to political problems in a way that end-user can appreciate. It is not always easy but social scientists could do a lot more to help those for whom a research finding is relevant and has an impact upon them understand the underlying logics, the methods, and the standards of evidence that make judgements worth listening to.

The real tragedy of social science is that we so often see not only fellow citizens but often those influencing decisions, making public arguments that involve unsystematic comparison; referring to inconsistent reference populations; failing to recognise the bias in the selection of examples (cases and samples) they use; misunderstanding measures; and being unable to recognise and distinguish premises and conclusions. I could go on. I began to appreciate social science in a whole new way only when it forced me to change my mind about what I thought I knew. I didn’t do that until I understood the science part. We have summarily failed to help many of our fellow citizens understand why research and its findings are useful other than as currency to justify one’s own prejudices.

Citizens and those acting with democratically established authority should prescribe policy and academics qua** citizens may engage in this. Academics when acting in their capacity as academics should err on the side of prescribing knowledge first and foremost. Academics may at times have good reasons for being cautious about making policy recommendations and they can engage their peers in abstract jargon-heavy dialogue if they like. However they have no excuse for not improving non-academics understanding of academia and failing to make sure those they engage with understand how they know what they claim to know.

*Note that I did not use the word qua here and it didn’t hurt me much. Qua is the Latin way of saying ‘when acting in the capacity’ of. Academics do like to use a lot of Latin and/or German when writing in English. 

**Note that I used the word qua here and that those of you who read the last footnote know what it means if you did not before. I hope it didn’t hurt you to look at a footnote. The point is sharing between academic and lay language is not that hard.

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