Governance: An international journal of policy, administration and institutions

The theory-practice gap is in fact a canyon

By Richard D. French. rfrenchStephen Del Rosso’s recent commentary in this journal is full of good sense and respect for professorial sensibilities — but unlikely to change the mutual incomprehension which separates policy-makers and academics. The real world, as we revealingly call it, seems likely to take more direct measures to seek ‘relevance’ from academia.

How sustainable will the current model of professorial autonomy prove to be? At the end of a long career spent mostly outside academic life, I am impressed by the brittle nature of the academy’s proposition to taxpayers, or, for that matter, parents. Does the Government of Ontario, which funds my university, really have the need and the means to continue to employ the 500 or so political scientists currently on its payroll here and elsewhere? The query applies to any state-sponsored university system and to any social science discipline.   Budget-minded governments are taking a new look at post-secondary education.

What will they see in political science?  The forces that push academics away from engagement with the world of political practice are more deeply rooted and powerful than Del Rosso allows.

Del Rosso tells us that “the development of theory [is] the stock and trade of the social sciences.” But theory development in the social sciences is an ever-changing patchwork, subject to cyclical fashions enforced by journal editors, research grant panels, and tenure committees. One of my colleagues told me that there was not a single position in formal theory/public choice available on the North American job market over the last few years. Compare this with fifteen or twenty years ago. The primary cause is not university budgets; it is that public choice’s time has come and gone. But change is not necessarily progress. How seriously then should an informed observer take the quest for theory in the social sciences? How strong is the epistemic claim of the social sciences to the attention of policy makers?

Del Rosso also writes that the discipline, “being a science,” must systematically build and organize “knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions.” This is what they told me as an undergraduate in the sixties. Where are the testable explanations and predictions? Apart from game theory applications in nuclear strategy and license/permit auctions, I can think of none which command the sustained attention of policy makers. As George Steinmetz once described it, “positivism’s . . . zombie-like refusal to stay buried . . . is a kind of trauma from which the human sciences are still trying to recover.

Or consider current favorites like deliberative democracy, ideal theory, or evidence-based policy. Policy makers live in a world of politics, with all its gusts of emotion, information cascades, strategic behavior, unpredictable contingencies, ruthless competition and overweening ambition. What the three darlings of today have in common is the attempt to wish away precisely these enduring characteristics of the policy-making environment. The academics who influence policy are the small minority who have grasped the existential circumstances of public life. Perhaps the corridors of power have room only for the few in any case.

Andrew Abbott concludes that “Specialists in knowledge tend to withdraw into pure work because the complexity of the thing known eventually tends to get in the way of the knowledge system itself. So the object of knowledge is gradually disregarded.” Dealing with people and peoples’ problems insidiously leads to “the purity of professional knowledge [being] sullied.” What this means, if I am correct, is that academics become more attentive to the opinions and ideas of their colleagues, than they are to the phenomena at the centre of the discipline’s ostensible subject. Political science departments harbour many people whose grasp of what the common man understands as politics would not pass muster in any newsroom. This may or may not be a good thing, but it is certainly not a recommendation for influence on practice.

Put another way, many political scientists cherish the illusion, against all the evidence of the last century and a half, that the democracy we see everywhere around us, and unaccountably tolerate, is a mere burlesque of some thus far hidden and far superior essence, whose appearance would be likely if only the political class would be more attentive to the high-minded counsel available in universities. No point in studying what we see, then; let’s imagine a better world, or at least engage with this one at a suitable remove.

However, if one wants a discipline more influential in practice, the only avenue of change is the set of assumptions and behaviors underlying publication, research funding, promotion, and tenure. As long as the departmental powers ape the disciplinary grandees and editorial gatekeepers, and need pay heed to no one outside the department, there will be no change in the gap between the academy and the practice of policy. If the hortatory approach was going to work, it would have done so by now. As long ago as 1931, Harold Laski told the Fabian Society in a pamphlet on “The Limitations of the Expert” that “What can be done is not what the expert thinks ought to be done. What can be done is what the plain man’s scheme of values permits him to consider.” This seems to be a difficult message to assimilate.

If there are means to reach students more efficiently through the electronic media, and if there is skepticism about the socioeconomic contribution of the discipline, will policy-makers not act to change the model? The British have recently tried to tackle the problem by insisting in their research evaluation exercise on the importance of “impact”; this is, I think, despite the obvious conceptual problems, a harbinger of things to come in publicly funded systems. It may well be that the postwar period will have been the heyday of large-scale free enquiry by an essentially unaccountable professoriate.

However, there is comfort for advocates of the traditional model of postwar social science. Governments will always need to identify the clever and the hard-working. The vast majority of political scientists will probably continue to have their greatest impact on policy by forming and grading such people. If the British could rule an empire while training its servants on Aeschylus and Homer, it may not do us too much harm that ours have been subjected to the latest fashions in North American political science.

Richard D. French is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

Citation for this web comment: French, Richard D.  “The theory-practice gap is in fact a canyon,” The Governance Blog, April 20, 2015.

Written by Governance

April 20, 2015 at 3:01 pm

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