Blond’s take on social science

Guess what, I think I’m parked in the red zone!

                                                             Reservoir Dogs

5862495241_72837a4859_mPhillip Blond has posted a provocative piece offering his perspective on the deficiencies of the social sciences and his prescription for rectifying them.

Yesterday ConservativeHome described the piece as “an important article” which touches on how research funds should be spent and from which “the rationale for reallocation is clear”. It might therefore be wise to pay some attention.

Blond’s piece is sure to meet with strong objections from within the British social science community. Indeed, it already has. A number of academics have been spluttering indignation into their smartphones and out into the twitterverse.

In a nutshell, Blond’s argument is that …

And there lies the first problem. Because it isn’t precisely clear what he is arguing. Or rather he offers various lines of argument, not all of which cohere. Indeed, parts of the argument are flat out contradictory.

One strand of the argument is that it would be good if the channels for moving good ideas from the academy into policy were broader and better functioning. I’m not sure you’d find anyone within social science who disagreed with that proposition.

Perhaps we can look at some of the other components of the argument.

Blond’s starting point is that “the brightest ideas in the world of public policy analysis” originate in the US academy. He cites Nudge, Black Swans, the Tipping Point, and Predistribution as examples. In contrast, he argues that while British professors may be world leaders “in terms of public policy they rarely supply the big idea”.

He offers no evidence that the substance lying behind any of these US-bred neologisms has actually had much impact on policy. The terms have certainly circulated around the broadsheet press, the dining tables of polite society, and political debate within the Westminster bubble. There is a presumption that because the various authors have shipped plenty of paperbacks and achieved a degree of celebrity then the ideas must have had an impact.

I’m not saying that the claim to impact is without foundation. You might like to argue, for example, that the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Team has had a major impact. But I will say that most of the non-specialists I have encountered who use the term “nudge” have misunderstood it. And they certainly have little grasp of the behavioural economic concepts that underpin the popularisation.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter that people don’t understand the ideas. The ideas have impact if people grab hold of a new buzzword and wield it in novel ways to change things. It doesn’t matter whether the approach is conceptually coherent. That might be true, but it is hardly social science. The essence of science is disciplined inquiry not wilfully deploying chaotic concepts.

There is a further implicit assumption here that these ideas have not only had an impact but also that that in itself is a good thing. Of course it is perfectly possible to argue that such ideas are in fact distinctly bad for policy. One could, for example, argue that, whatever its merits, the focus on Nudge psychologizes policy problems and therefore throws up a smokescreen around deeper structural causes. But that is most likely the sort of unhelpful critical engagement with the issue that we could do without.

We could also perhaps suggest that a rather broader sample of ideas might be examined to test the robustness of the evidence base. We could, for example, select something like Anthony Giddens’ importation of the Third Way into policy making and argue that it had considerable impact on the first Blair government. So Brits can make a difference. That would cut Blond’s argument off at the knees. But again that is probably just being unhelpfully analytical.

Blond argues that one reason that British academia fails in the mission he suggests it should be trying to fulfil is that Britain lacks the sort of hybrid institutions that straddle academia and policy circles and allow easier transportation of ideas into policy. He then goes on to argue that there is a case for diverting resources from the sort of research activities that are currently funded and into supporting the development of such institutions.

Blond is clear what we don’t have. And he’s not so impressed with what we do have:

When we do have large studies, funded by research councils for example, they are often too big to be useful and too value-free and evidence-biased to make any determinable impact on politics.

It is a struggle to unpack precisely what “too big to be useful” actually means. It certainly is not a complaint often heard in the groves of academe. The opposite complaint – that research is not funded on a scale sufficient to generate properly robust findings – is rather more common.

There is then the criticism that research is too objective and too focused on gathering evidence to be useful for policy. When we’re just emerging from a decade where evidence-based policy was, at the rhetorical level at least, the policy-making method du jour.

While at this stage in his post Blond is not too keen on the whole notion of objectivity, as he moves to his finale he does a bit of an about face:

As to the cultural point, British thinkers must escape from the terrible post-modern apologetics that seem to have descended upon them.

American thinkers can think because they believe they are describing universal truths that can apply across different frames and distinct cultures. Whereas British thinkers pride themselves on particulars where, between endless caveats, they just might – if you are lucky – say something that applies to one tiny circumscribed field.

Now anyone schooled at a relatively rudimentary level in the philosophy of social science will spot that this is almost precisely the opposite criticism to the one above. It is only by assuming that they are recovering objective knowledge of the social world that these American thinkers are willing to offer bold generalisations.

Which is the problem for Mr Blond? Too much objectivity or too little? I’ve really no idea.

Mr Blond is very keen to point up the differences between politics and research. He argues that:

politics is an ideas-based not an evidence-based activity. And evidence only has impact when associated with and organized by transformative ideas. In the absence of such, we simply have descriptions that are too extended and too obvious in implication to break through, or transform, mainstream British politics.

The first part of this statement will come as no surprise to any student of the policy process. One of the major changes in the analysis of policy over the last decade is the rebirth of interest in the independent causal influence of ideas. Equally, we have had a flourishing of interest in the argumentative turn, discourse, rhetoric and other approaches to understanding policy as a social construction. From within this perspective the idea that evidence is a political tool to be deployed to bolster an ideological position is pretty much taken for granted. From within this perspective, evidence is deployed strategically and selectively by political actors to achieve political ends. This practice may be seen as inevitable. But it isn’t necessarily seen as commendable.

That is an analysis of the political game, not a prescription for the role of the researcher. Any researcher consciously selecting the evidence in order to bolster a preconceived idea of what should be the case would be considered by many peers to be deeply methodologically or ethically suspect. The reason that ideas like Nudge have any purchase on policy is because the authors have decades of dedicated academic work – theoretical, empirical and experimental – to back up their arguments. That is what makes them credible. The authors are not simply a different type of political actor, wearing a mortarboard.

The second part of this quote could be supplemented with the observation that it is a very good summary description of the birth of the discipline of social administration in Britain, except the extended descriptions of the social world produced by early scholars turned out to be transformative.

The areas of social sciences in which you will find the type of value-based and value-driven research that Blond seems to prefer is among those committed to participative, collaborative, action or emancipatory research. Much of this work seeks to facilitate the transformation of the social world from below.

Yet, I suspect that Blond would most likely rule this type of research out of bounds for being ideologically suspect. He argues that:

British academics tend not to be culturally suited to politics and policy impact. They are largely segregated from other middle-class professions and have created a mind and value set that, while successful internally, in terms of external politics is both ideological and largely utopic.

This approach cannot key in with politics or policy as it is practised. As a rule (and there are many exceptions) most academics are soft left in orientation and conventional in terms of how they think society should be organized. Their ideas are often little more than the state should spend more or regulate more.

This is of course a cartoonish caricature on so many levels. But it appears to be saying that if academics idea of impact is to offer solutions that look something like those of the soft-left then they are “both ideological and largely utopic”. Presumably if they offered solutions that looked like those favoured by the soft (hard?) right then they would not be at all ideological but would be able to “key in with politics or policy as it is practised”.

I could go on. Every paragraph is ripe for interrogation. Blond seems to be working with a very outmoded understanding of what social scientists are up to. He seems to think that social scientists are stuck with the sort of structuralism popular in the 1970s and all believe that “everything that happens is inevitable and there is no possibility of new ideas or human beings shifting or transforming such vast forces”. This is not at all where the policy literature is currently. Nor does it recognise, for example, the large amount of work going in to rethinking the economics curriculum, and eventually economic research priorities, precisely so that it aligns better with the sort of analytical tools that are needed beyond the academy.

But in order to know that you’d have to bother to take a rather closer interest in what is actually happening. Then, however, you couldn’t offer the sort of sweeping, but hugely inaccurate, narrative that Blond provides.

Blond’s argument is very much about the supply of ideas. In this respect it is half the picture. He says nothing of substance about the demand for those ideas. We are living under a Government of certainties. It is almost impervious to evidence, logic or counter-argument. I sense no great thirst for new ideas or ways of dealing with policy problems. Whatever their failings – and there were many – the Blair-Brown Labour administrations were open to evidence and valued external expertise. It seems that the current Government tends towards favouring academic input when it is aligned with its own pre-determined agenda.

This is not a role that many academics relish. Mostly they are aware when they are simply being used as a pawn in a political game.

And that leads to the more profound question of what social scientific research is for. Is it sufficient simply to try to understand the world, using a variety of methods and theoretical perspectives? Or do we have to apply a more utilitarian calculus to the activity? Unless it generates knowledge that is in some way “useful” to policy, presumably as defined by policy makers, then it is of no value. This is dangerous territory.

One of Foucault’s great contributions was the observation that the power-knowledge relationship is commutative. Not only do we recognise that knowledge is power, but also power is knowledge. When powerful political interests – of whatever stripe – assume the role of dictating what is and isn’t valid research or how researchers should be spending their time then that is a dark day for society at large.

We might think we are a long way from this situation. Yet, if we look over the pond the US – Blond’s favoured source of new ideas for policy – we are witnessing attempts to close down academic enquiry. The anti-intellectual wing of the GOP have pushed to legislate to constrain the National Science Foundation to funding only research that does not question – much less threaten – the existing social order. And if you look below the line on the ConHome post I mentioned earlier there is plenty of support for the call to strip social science research of its funding in the way prescribed by Mr Blond.

Exploration and critique can be uncomfortable for the powerful. They might demand of powerful interests a plausible justification for the existing social order. In a healthy democracy political elites would be willing and able to offer that justification and thereby legitimise the system. In a society where democracy is endangered, in contrast, powerful interests will seek to silence critical inquiry. And, as Flyvbjerg observed, the greater the power, the less the need for rationality.

Image: DECCgovuk via flickr.com under Creative Commons

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2 replies »

  1. As an extension of the “demand side” problem I’ve often characterised the big failure of British politics (notably from Thatcher onwards but on occasion before) as attempting to retrofit American policy solutions onto a small, crowded island. The big problem is entirely too much uncritical listening to American academics, rather than their inherent quality.

    • I also feel compelled to point out that Philip Blond is an excellent example of how “power is knowledge.” The original “Red Tory” flurry from him was incoherent and shoddy, but recent outings have been worse. But he has status…