Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Intellectual challenge: Concluding on the Applicability of Social research in Public Policy Making.

Any conclusive assertion on the applicability of social research on public policy making would be as unanticipatedly inaccurate as any conclusive explanation of what constitutes credible social research. In line with such an acknowledgement of the limitations of an unequivocal affirmation, I would try and present the myriad perspectives that deal with the question of application of social/ sociological research on the framing and adoption of public policy.

However, before exploring the manifold perspectives on the applicability of social research for public policy formulation, attention needs to be first diverted to the much underrated dimension of the debate surrounding the real motive of undertaking social and sociological research. In this context it is imperative to explore the much debated question of whether resources for sociological research should be diverted towards the pursuit of creating bodies of knowledge or towards policy centric research outputs. The argument exists by virtue of a certain belief that sometimes those that need to be studied might not have policy relevance.

It is problematic therefore to decide the fundamental objective of a social researcher or sociologist, to be able to conclude which is the overriding requirement of initiated social research. This brings us to the crucial question of what constitutes knowledge in the first place. Thus an attempt to explore constituents of the precise definition of knowledge can indeed take us closer to the final objective of clarity of comprehension with regards to the debate on knowledge building research in strict opposition to action oriented policy relevant research.

Contrary to political ideology or religious belief, proof does not appear to be a matter of logic or rationality of an argument alone. It necessitates corroboration by the empirical evidence collected, processed, analyzed and reported to the highest standards. “What qualifies as evidence might vary between styles of research but the need for research to verify its claims with reference to empirical evidence remains constant (Denscombe, 2002, P 197.) Any proof based on evidence can either verify or refute existing knowledge and understanding. It can be found either conforming what we know about a social issue or problem, or it can offer an alternative explanation-a competing form of knowledge or way of knowing.

In “The logic of scientific discovery , Karl Popper argued that research evidence can support knowledge but it can never prove it absolutely since the final stamp of proof can be falsified on attainment of future contradictory evidence. Thus it would not be difficult to propound the theory based on this logic that all knowledge, all theory and all evidence always remains provisional- the best available at that time and place- but always open to refutation by new evidence at a later date.

The important other paradigm that exists in connection with the provisional nature of knowledge is that research should consciously seek to test existing knowledge and theories in contextual situations where they are most likely to be refuted. This takes our attention to a completely novel direction wherein the desirability and acceptability of research is enhanced not by its attempt to validate the policy initiatives or directions but in the active pursuit of evidence that can prove existing research wrong.

Contrary to the most likely conclusion on this kind of research wherein one might be tempted to conclude that such research aims more at falsification of knowledge as opposed to creation and validation it is important to state that any attempt towards falsification is always the first step towards new knowledge creation since the only way to consolidate the authenticity and applicability of new research is by several tests of falsification.

Any commentary on the reality of policy and practice would invariably hint towards very little research being actually directed towards proving existence research evidence invalid thereby losing out on the scope of enhancing the durability, robustness and reliability of such knowledge. Focusing our attention to the crucial question that exists between social researches that furthers the cause of knowledge in strict opposition to the one that drives policy, it will be interesting to explore the propriety of the belief that there exists a tradeoff between the two camps as far as research funding, research manpower and research ideology is concerned.

In the Indian context, we find new streams of sociological research primarily devoted to researching the various factors that perpetuate the hijacking of knowledge about society and its history in the direction that furthers the interest of the dominant class. A case in point in the Indian context is the recent interest in subaltern studies and research furthered by organisations like Centre for Studies in Social sciences headed by subaltern historian and social scientist Partha Chatterjee.

Furthermore emphasis on social research aimed at furthering the enlightenment model of exploring the social reality gives little or no attention to the problem of utilizing the findings of research in specific organizational settings. A case in point is social research outputs in India concerning the migration pattern of Indians to Fiji in the 1800s. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the migration pattern of Indians to Fiji in the 1800s has little or no policy significance, even though it can be a very interesting intellectual and academic initiative.

Social scientists tend to assume their knowledge is tangible simply because it is difficult to inhibit the movement of anything as intangible as an idea. The paradigm of relating social science to social problems invariably invokes a model of the application of physical sciences to problems of the physical universe. The dichotomy between knowledge for understanding and knowledge for action is best represented by the decision of a man with a legal problem who does not want the wisdom of a professor of jurisprudence but the shrewdness of a lawyer who can find loopholes in a confining contract.

The rare combination that it takes to construct the academic social scientist with the appropriate combination of patience, and enthusiasm presupposes an undying conviction in his discipline to be able to effectively participate in the policy process. This presupposition is challenged by reality where the academic social scientist is too aware of the precarious edifice of knowledge on which he is perched.

Having explored the various tradeoff that exists between the academic social researcher who furthers the interest of knowledge creation for his discipline as opposed to policy relevant research, let us direct our attention to the actual desirability of policy being directed and influenced by relevant research in that field. The overriding rationale for the desire to apply social research to policy making is that such an initiative will generate a certain amount of legitimacy to the exact policy making exercise. The hope of legitimizing public policy by using social research output rests on the belief that social research is by far more scientific than the usual political rhetoric that is there behind most policy decisions.

However, in this context there remains a certain danger of social research driven public policy getting transformed into a public policy driven social research. At the outset the difference between social research driven public policy and public policy driven social research might not be that apparent but it becomes prominent on closer inspection. If social research is applied to public policy to legitimize the process, than in effect it is probable for a system to operate where policy decisions are made independent of any available social research on the subject and then selective social research outputs are used to substantiate and legitimize an otherwise unscientific policy decision.

This concern therefore is closely associated with issues of research funding where funds for research chases researchers and social scientists whose research findings are either conforming to the political stances or where the researcher is paid to influence research in a direction that would legitimize an otherwise unscientific policy decision. This also defeats the very purpose of undertaking social research where the researcher, ideally and by definition is unbiased, value free and free from political considerations to the effect that the research methodology used to unravel reality is such that the researcher is as likely to find evidence that supports the hypothesis as much as he is to find those that falsify it. Therefore when the scales of probability with regards to unraveling the truth is tilted towards research which somehow seeks supporting evidence and ignores contradictory ones, the very purpose of undertaking social research stands defeated.

Thus, in the name of making public policy scientific and legitimate, not only is it made more dubious but even social research hitherto considered scientific and independent of political considerations is scrapped of its neutrality with regards to unraveling truth. Additionally, we shall now shift our attention to whether indeed public policy which is essentially a political process needs certification for legitimacy. Modernity in its strictest definition would suggest that indeed the only way to rationalize a political process would necessitate social research evidence to influence public policy in pursuit of legitimacy.

However, the fundamental assumption here remains that a political process shall fail to find legitimacy on just political logic or real world considerations but it essentially needs to be absolved of the various responsibilities associated with its decisions on account of incorporating research evidence into its structure. Herein the ideals of a democratic polity, that of dialogue and democracy is questioned on the grounds that democracy in theory and practice might not be that scientific and that the majority consensus can indeed not be the most reliable and scientific model of undertaking public policy.

This implies that research evidence can at times suggest certain actions over alternatives, wherein the suggestion is against the political necessities of implementation. Therefore the conclusion on whether research should influence public policy or not shall rest on the normative decision of whether empirical evidence or democratic considerations should take precedence in the public policy making mechanism.

Going beyond the philosophical and theoretical propriety of the desire to use social research in public policy there are some real practical inhibitive factors towards the application of social research in public policy. The most important real world hindrance to integration of social research into public policy perhaps is the inability of the researcher to access the decision makers. This implies that there are severe difficulties and hurdles for relevant policy research outputs by individual researchers towards integration into future policy making.

The fundamental assumption that one would need to make in order to satisfactorily conclude on the on the influence that research has on policy and practice is that both policy and practice are influenced in the same way and in the same direction. However, the connection between research and practice are characteristically different. The most significant truth with regards to public policies towards certain utilitarian objectives is that policies most often fail at the level of implementation which leads to subsequent criticism of the policy formulation exercise or the policy document.

Thus a completely social research driven and influenced public policy can fail in its implementation due to acts of inefficient administration which might incorrectly question the credibility of the social research which has influenced the policy. Whether any policy at the level of formulation can be made immune to bad administration is an intellectual challenge. However, common sense shall suggest that it is difficult to factor administrative hurdles of implementation into the policy document irrespective of the credibility of the social research output that may influence a certain policy.

Therefore it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that the real intellectual and political challenge is to be able to define a credible research objectively free from personal or political values. The problem of values driving public policy or the lack of it is an inherent limitation of the very mechanism of public policy. Therefore research can be only used instrumentally to resolve problems where decision makers and researchers use the same set of values. However, objectivity in policy remains an extreme challenge in the public policy field where public policy by its very nature and definition is loaded with political ideology and personal values. Indeed sometimes more and better social research can serve to complicate grassroot realities.

Before concluding on the subject it is imperative to state that there is a lack of conceptual clarity with regards to what exactly we mean by using social research in public policy. Usage of social research in public policy can mean anything from adoption of research recommendations intact, to nudging of decisions in the direction suggested by the research findings or just plain consideration of the research findings without any concrete action. Thus having analyzed the possible debates surrounding the desirability of applying social research to public policy and of the various debates surrounding the real world inhibitive factors, it would be natural to infer that it is hugely problematic to have a universal conclusion on the exact factors that prevent the integration of social research into public policy and the final conclusion over this issue shall largely be a normative conclusion. The question shall always remain- “Would the world be a better, wiser, and more equal place if all policy decisions were taken by social researchers?”

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