Embracing Impressionism—and Each Other?

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By John Boswell and Jack Corbett. John Boswell is Lecturer in Politics at University of Southampton (@Boswell_JC). Jack Corbett is Research Fellow at Griffith University. You can find more posts by John here.


In an essay set to come out in Critical Policy Studies soon (read it here), we argue that the sort of research we practice—commonly dubbed ‘interpretive’ and famously pioneered by, among others, Soton’s own R.A.W. Rhodes—ought to fess up to, and in fact be proud of, its ‘impressionistic’ nature. The point is not to lob bombs at interpretivism from the outside as not matching up to orthodox standards of what constitutes ‘systematic’ research, but to critique it from within. We argue that in their determination to uphold the validity of interpretivism against the established orthodoxy, key pioneers of this approach have gone too far in clinging defiantly to the notion that such work is equally ‘systematic’. In contrast, many of us who practice interpretive research experience the opposite. To us, and many colleagues we’ve spoken with, doing interpretive research feels more like struggling to arrange a jumble of impressions than it resembles any systematic accretion of insights. As such, we reclaim the label ‘impressionistic’ not as something pejorative but as a more apt descriptor for doing and communicating interpretation. To do so, somewhat awkwardly for a couple of uncouth Antipodeans, we draw out an analogy to impressionist painters to show the affinities between this artistic movement and the interpretive move in politics and policy research.

So far, many readers of this blog will be thinking, so lunatic fringe – and we recognise that some may simply see this as a case of upstarts trying to outflank their interpretive forebears in terms of touchy-feeliness. But we will try and make a case here that the implications of our argument actually bring us closer to the mainstream of political and policy studies (something we have claimed more explicitly in another recent paper, here).

One – the war is over. While any such epistemological war was, it must be said, mainly in the heads of the minority interpretivists, consciously abandoning claims to ‘systemacity’ would signify an end over the battle for the one true way to gaining political insight. Just like impressionist painting, interpretive research could see itself as another way of doing research on politics—one that its practitioners find most interesting and appealing, and which is well equipped to provide unique insights into some things, but equally one that is poorly equipped to provide insights into other things. Importantly, then, impressionistic interpretive research is something that ought to be read, and done, in conjunction with other forms.

Two – we are (sort of) the same. In reflecting on the features we say make interpretive research ‘impressionistic’, we were struck by how many commonalities there are with colleagues’ experiences of actually compiling and analysing data in their more or less positivist research. A dynamic, fluid or unsettled research design; the search for a supportable claim to something novel or counter-intuitive; the selective accentuation of data which support such claims – these are all things that we have discussed at length with econometricians, political behaviouralists and others besides. More reflexive honesty about the impressionistic nature of our work opens up these unexpected affinities.

Three – we all benefit from sunlight. On the back of this last point, the key difference is that while there are widespread calls for more transparency in positivist research, few such calls are being made in interpretive research. Of course, there are some ethical and pragmatic barriers—not all data is openly available, either because it shouldn’t be or because it can’t be. But much more can often be done to open up interpretive research in this way, and allow the impressions of the researchers involved to be contested—we have one such pilot project in the works which we will later report on. For the moment, though, the point is this: impressionistic interpretivists could learn something from mainstream political scientists about making their work at least opaque, letting more sunlight in.

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