Don’t be fooled, political scientists did see Brexit coming


By Matt Wood, University of Sheffield. This article was originally posted on the Political Studies Association website.


This week the artist Grayson Perry took a swipe at political science in the annual PSA Awards, claiming the profession completely failed to foresee Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. The notion that Brexit was a defeat for political science seems to have become a commonly accepted lesson from the vote on June 23rd this year. For some, this was because the quantitative polling methods that widely predicted a narrow win for Remain were wide of the mark. For others, it was because political science has avoided its professional and ethical duties in defending informed public debate.

In this blog I’m going to challenge this narrative. I’m going to offer some reasons why political scientists in fact did see Brexit coming, in the form of a deep and intractable crisis of legitimacy for the EU. The clickbait-style title of the blog is intended to be provocative. Evidently, most political scientists did not predict the specific outcome of the referendum vote. However, we have long diagnosed democratic weaknesses in the EU’s fuzzy and incoherent governance structures, noted how weak European identity is, and even argued for ‘taking back control’ ourselves. I think we need to reflect on our professional and emotive commitments as a result.

The Democratic Deficit

For decades political scientists have been warning that the European Union has faced a fundamental crisis of democratic legitimacy – what was termed the ‘democratic deficit’. In a widely cited article published ten years ago, Professors Simon Hix and Andreas Follesdal noted with some exhaustion that “The fate of the Constitutional Treaty for Europe after the French and Dutch referendums will no doubt prompt further volumes of academic books and articles on the ‘democratic deficit’ in the European Union (EU). The topic already receives huge attention”. They were right; the ‘democratic deficit’ debate goes back to some of the foundational debates about the EU in the academic ‘literature’. Big, influential scholars, for example Fritz Scharpf, Giandomenico Majone and Vivien Schmidt, have weighed in with ideas of how to alleviate the problem. Majone, one of the doyens of EU scholarship, has even very visibly changed his view on the EU, arguing in a recent book the Union now faces an existential crisis related to the Eurozone.

If anything, political science has moved beyond simplistic arguments that people would support the EU just because it is good for economic growth. In an animation released earlier in the year by the Sir Bernard Crick Centre, dedicated to translating academic research into practice, we highlighted the dangers posed by the democratic deficit to the European project. The media debate, though, was dominated by economists, global figureheads and business leaders who still thought economic arguments would be enough. Our video clearly wasn’t as well watched as we would have hoped! But even it had been, would anyone have noticed?

European identity

The second glaring issue political science got right before the referendum was the clear and consistent finding that British people (and Europeans more generally) simply do not feel European. Recent Eurobarometer findings show just how few citizens of Europe, and Britain especially, actually feel uniquely European, as well as their focus on key challenges like immigration. More broadly political scientists have criticized the notion of European identity, recently arguing for example: “European identity remains a ‘dry, institutional, symbolic conception’ … which has failed to reach the ‘hearts and the guts of the peoples of Europe’”. We’ve also uncovered how those who are most committed to the European project are liberally minded Erasmus students or business people who tend to travel regularly between European countries.

This does not strike me as putting our heads in the sand, or failing to see the ‘Brexistential crisis’ coming. It’s entirely consistent with what most commentators have been saying post-referendum. Perhaps if we’d written more blogs about this identity crisis, the public would have sat up and taken notice? Perhaps if we acted more like think tanks, political talking heads or Sun columnists, we would get more of a hearing?

There may be something to this, but the question though is if political scientists don’t write enough for public audiences, would anyone actually listen to us if we started writing more? Would they be any more likely to listen to us on the benefits of EU membership than, say, the Bank of England, Ryanair or the International Monetary Fund?

Taking back control

The last, perhaps more controversial point, is many prominent political scientists have been arguing in favour of themes used by the Leave campaign for quite some time now. While focused mainly around globalisation, a number of political scientists and political economists have been saying that communities, activists and governments should be challenging globalisation and transnational institutions. They’ve argued these institutions are disastrous, undemocratic and obscure. Politics, they argued, should be about having ‘control’; having collective agency, engaging in deliberation and promoting democratic choice. This is certainly what we think in the Anti-politics specialist group of the PSA. Some of us have been saying talk of ‘globalisation’ disincentivises public engagement and participation. Others have been making the broader argument that we shouldn’t accept the ‘neoliberal’ settlement as inevitable.

All these themes were used to devastating effect by the Leave campaign. They created political engagement in some areas of the country not seen since Tony Blair’s 1997 electoral victory. Put in a mischievous way, if political scientists had hoped for stimulating mass political engagement and challenging ‘anti-politics’, then they have, in many ways succeeded. They just haven’t succeeded in the way they would have hoped.

Critical Friends

Should we conclude Brexit has been a resounding success? Are we all eminently happy with a possible new world order of closed borders and economic uncertainty? Many political scientists would not wish to settle for that. What it does suggest, I think, is we need to look at our own emotive attachments, and whether we do our jobs properly as ‘critical friends’ of the institutions we study. If anything has been surprising, it has been how dismayed many of us claim to be about Brexit, given that political science has been highlighting the limitations of the EU, discontent with globalisation and so on for decades. Could it be, then, we need to reflect on our attachments and orientations as a discipline, rather than the specific ‘research findings’ and how they are ‘communicated’?

Perhaps our feelings of existential crisis have more to do with the funding and culture of universities themselves, than whether our actual research findings are ‘valid’? As the impact agenda has taken hold, we have grown closer to government, European bodies, think tanks, and other ‘elite’ organisations. While we should help out those organisations and fulfil our commitments as advisors and communicators, we should never forget academics need to have the role of ‘critical friends’ in helping these institutions out. That’s what distinguishes our profession. The idea is we take what the best evidence and theory tells us, not being afraid to point out the flaws in the system, as well as being honest about the limitations of our findings.

We are witnessing the crisis of a transnational system that, for all its faults, many political scientists feel an emotive connection to, often due to feelings of solidarity and liberal values of openness and tolerance. At the same time we understand the EU’s inherent weaknesses, the desire of local communities, beset by divisions and inequalities, to ‘take back control’. We understand how deeply undemocratic the project has been, and feel we must be critical.

This creates dilemmas. Many of us balk at the idea of supporting ‘elite’ institutions, but at the same time don’t wish to bias our research to movements campaigning to ‘take back control’ even if we believe there may be merits to this. If anything, maybe this dilemma means we put our heads in the sand about the momentous consequences of the referendum, rather than being short of explanations for why it happened.  Now more than ever, good evidence is needed to improve public policy responses to the great challenges of our time. Governments need political science more than ever. But we should be confident in being critical of mainstream media and public opinion, whether that is as electoral commentators, advisors to government, or wider public speakers.

The rise of the social sciences and what it can offer to policymakers

By Gerry Stoker and Mark Evans. Gerry Stoker is Professor of Governance at University of Southampton (Twitter). You can read more posts by him here.

We are all in this together

The social sciences are more relevant than ever in helping solve the problems of public policy. You might think that there are neat lines to be drawn between science-based disciplines, the social sciences and the humanities (these are traditional ways of expressing divides within the University sector) but in practice those lines are often blurred. There is an overlap in areas of interest and a sharing in methods used.

When engineers move from the laboratory to the field and propose solutions to deal with water management and distribution in developing countries that involve the establishment of complex human institutional devices, are they doing science or social science? When a randomised control trial looks at behaviour in classrooms in the hands of educational studies researchers (normally classified as social scientists) rather than the trialling of a new medicine by medical researchers (usually classified as scientists) is it any less scientific? The distinctions between types of academic study are not without value but they can lead to a false sense of difference that is neither helpful nor justified.

In particular we see no great value in making claims that some subjects are ‘hard’ science – physics, chemistry, mathematics and medicines for example – while others are ‘soft’ science such as the social sciences that would include economics, sociology, political studies, human geography, social policy and range of other disciplines. The ‘hard’ sciences deliver useable knowledge and the ‘soft’ sciences offer mere informed speculation might be the claim that follows the distinction. But such a proposition does more harm than good and overlooks a crucial question for the policymaker and for that matter a citizen. The issue is not how academia draws up its dividing lines but rather about which types of research can contribute to the problems we confront: does the research tell me what we need to know? The core concern is not how you know but what you want to know. If knowledge is going to be useful it has to be knowledge about something we need to know about.

Our argument is that if anything the social sciences has become more relevant because what we as policy makers and citizens need to know more about is how to make human-influenced or human constructed systems work more effectively. There are relatively fewer purely natural systems and increasingly systems that are either human influenced or human dominated. The domain of human dominated systems is that of the social sciences without doubt, but so too to a degree is that of human-influenced systems. The argument is that the social sciences rather than being the poor cousin of the sciences of natural systems has rather an expanding empire.

What can social science deliver? Not laws but insights

But can it deliver? There are many reasons why evidence from social science does not influence policymakers or is ignored in citizen debates. Lack of clarity about what social science research can offer is one stumbling block that could explain why social science might struggle to establish itself. In the nineteenth century and in several periods in the twentieth century, some advocates of social science suggested that what was on offer was either a full-blown or embryonic ‘science of society’. The prospect of generating general laws – true for all time about human behaviour – has now faded but the sense that somehow social science has failed to live up to that unrealistic promise perhaps explains a sense among policymakers and citizens that social science has not delivered. After all no less a citizen than the United Kingdom’s Her Majesty the Queen did feel it necessary to ask after the financial crisis of 2007/8 during a visit to the London School of Economics why economists had not been able to predict it. To offer powerful spot predictions asked of social science something that it was not able to deliver. Indeed research tends to find complexities and variations in behaviour that make the quest for neat and frugal laws of social behaviour a mission impossible.

What social science can offer? It can provide empirical evidence but also conceptual apparatus to challenge and develop existing understandings of issues. Good research may deliver sometimes solutions but it also may often a better debate about potential decisions. That contribution can stretch beyond initial conceptualisation of policy options to the processes of implementation. Although we might have evidence that something works at some place and at one time policymaking stills needs evidence that it will work in other cases or more particularly in the case in hand.

The policy process is best supported by continuous acts of exploring, investigating and yes research. Social scientists, policy makers and citizens should be working alongside one another in these tasks. Problems are more likely to be tackled, subdued and ameliorated. They may go away in one form, only to reappear in another form, at a later time. Learning and discovery are therefore at the heart of good policymaking and its needs to be at the heart of the relationship between social science and policymaking. Discovery captures the sense of exploration, challenge, checking and rechecking that is required for effective policymaking in a complex world. It also engages with the sense that there are many unknowns in any policy decision and that a sense of open investigation is therefore essential.

Come on in. There are plenty of options

For those seeking to use the social sciences a good starting point it is helpful to recognise the breadth of the approaches and methods available. There are new forms of discovery just waiting to be found. We want you to be able to touch base with the latest best practice on the use of Systematic Reviews, Randomised Control Trials, the analysis of Big Data, design thinking, qualitative techniques for comparison using Boolean and fuzzy set logic, citizen social science, the use narrative from policy makers and citizens. Of course some of the methods that we refer to have been on the shelves for a number of decades but we now know better how that to apply the method across a range of policy arenas. Other methods are relatively more novel within social science but again they have been growing examples of their application in the context of policy making.

Our point is that good policy requires good social science and there is richness in methods of research that is not fully appreciated. Of course you also need to think about choosing the right method for the right policy challenge. You also need to be clear and not naïve about how evidence plays into the complexities of the policy process.

Note: These ideas and understandings are expanded further in our recently published book Gerry Stoker and Mark Evans (eds) (2016) Evidence-based policymaking in the social sciences: Methods that matter. Bristol: Policy Press.