By Gerry Stoker, Professor of Governance at University of Southampton and Fellow and Centenary Professor in the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at University of Canberra (Twitter). You can read more posts by Gerry Stoker here.
There are some who hold the view that the job of political scientists begins and ends with their description and analysis of politics. Many political scientists view the connection between the discipline and the world of politics as appropriately detached: they are neutral, observers of the political world. Yet my position is that a discipline that studied politics but had nothing to say to those involved in politics or who might be involved would be failing. Political science needs to devote more thought and effort to the challenges involved in achieving relevance for its work.
Political science should as part of its vocation seek not to pursue an agenda driven by its own theories or methods as if it was in a separate world , sealed off from the concern of its fellow citizens. Rather the problems of the political world as perceived, or at least as can be understood, by our fellow citizens should set the bulk of our agenda. We should be asking questions to which others outside the profession want to know the answer. And do so with a commitment to rigour in methods of study and analysis. A focus of relevance mean does not demand a downplaying of developing the best means of investigating politics. Indeed methodological innovation is, if anything, likely to be simulated rather than hindered by such dealing with the intractable and complex challenges thrown up by ‘real world’ politics. There is nothing as practical as good theory and theory can find no tougher test than achieving effectiveness in the world of practice.
Too often in the past three or four decades political science has constructed for itself a way of working that appears to give little or no credence to the demands of relevance. If political science is therefore judged irrelevant by others, most of the blame though not all rests with the profession. Political science will need to act differently and so I offer a new manifesto for relevance below.
- Have confidence in the value of rigorous scientific analysis and so do not let relevance compromise high quality investigation but embrace it as a critical friend, providing tough and different challenges for your evidence and argument
- Develop relevance not as an afterthought in the construction of your research but put it at the heart of what you select to investigate and how you present and share the outputs of your research. Set your agenda in dialogue with others outside the profession and improve your communication skills using traditional and new media
- Offer solutions as well as analysis of problems and take on board some of the arguments for a design orientation in your analysis so that evidence and argument can be applied as thoroughly to the construction of potential answers as well as spelling out the challenges facing desired change
- Support methodological pluralism in the discipline as that variety of approaches is most likely to deliver a rich array of relevant work that can reach out to a diverse group of potential users
- Be committed to work in partnership with other disciplines to improve the relevance of your work. Good and innovative work often is cross-disciplinary. Many issues have a “wicked” or multi-dimensional quality so again working across disciplinary boundaries enhances the chances of relevance
- Actively cultivate links with intermediaries as appropriate – think tanks, journalists, special advisors, political parties, citizens’ organisations and social media networks- in order to boost the relevance of your work
- Celebrate the role of teaching as a means of delivering relevance by encouraging a cadre of critically aware citizens and policymakers.
These ideas and the complexities and challenges involved in achieving relevance are explored by a stellar group of experienced political scientists from around the world in a recently published book The Relevance of Political Science.