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Tightrope walking: The future of political science

Imagine standing at the edge of a precipice. A combination of forces are pushing at your back, biting at your heels and generally forcing you to step into an unknown space. A long thin tightrope without any apparent ending stretches out in front of you and appears to offer your only lifeline. Doing nothing and standing still is not an option. You lift up your left foot and gingerly step out….

Such dramatic prose is rarely associated with the study of politics but it strikes me that the notion of being forced to walk a tightrope is strangely apt at the present time. Having spent the last three weeks travelling around Western Europe and contributing to debates and discussions about the future of political science it seems that, from Manchester to Milan, and from Prague to Porto, the discipline finds itself on the cusp of a distinctive new phase in its history.

Let us, for the sake of simplicity, refer to this as ‘the impact phase’ and define it as being marked by the imposition of external requirements to demonstrate the relevance and direct effects of scholarship beyond the lecture theatre and seminar room. What my recent travels have revealed is that although ‘the impact phase’ has emerged very rapidly and aggressively in the United Kingdom, it is emerging— albeit in a softer, less instrumental, ‘impact-lite’ version — as a key issue in a host of countries. Moreover, those countries are well aware of the UK’s historical role as a testing ground for New Public Management inspired reforms within higher education that frequently ripple-out across the world.

‘Impact’ as one conference attendee suggested to me ‘seems to have emerged as the dominant paradigm and challenge for political science’ and in this regard she was probably correct. This is the brave new world into which political science—and all the social sciences—is being nudged, pushed, and shoved into.

There is, however, little point challenging the unhelpful arguments about academics and their ivory towers. Nowadays many academics would be lucky to have an office, and many sub-fields of the discipline have always been deeply rooted and visible beyond academe. But the tragedy of political science—to paraphrase the title of David Ricci’s very fine book of 1984 —has been that large sections of the discipline did embark upon what might now be termed ‘a road to irrelevance’ founded upon notions of ‘scientization’, ‘professionalization’, ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ that led to the faux depoliticization of political science. Political science not only became inaccessible to a public audience, but the social relevance of its research was also unclear.

But now the public demands accessibility and clarity in relation to two questions – (1) ‘what does a publicly funded political scientist actually do?’ and (2) ‘why does what they do actually matter’?

Now I have heard enough ‘senior professors’ snort and snuffle at the audacity of the public to dare to ask such questions but asking them they certainly are. What we do and why it matters are the questions that have coalesced to form this new ‘impact phase.’ How then can this ‘impact phase’ be conceptualized and understood as part of a disciplinary agenda? My recent discussions offer at least three responses.

 Political science not only became inaccessible to a public audience, but the social relevance of its research was also unclear.

First and foremost, the ‘impact phase’ is not an unknown professional space for political science. From the emergence of political science as a self-standing discipline, many of its leading exponents were public figures who were able to combine their academic duties with public service. If anything, the evolution of mass-marketized higher education squeezed-out any capacity for significant non-academic public service, as the role of a university professor became more internally focused. Even then many sub-fields, notably but not exclusively gender studies, did remain both socially embedded and socially aware. Learning from the past may therefore offer some clues for the future.

Secondly, following on from this, what the impact phase is really (re)introducing within academe is a focus on the professional responsibilities of academics to the public. In this regard Heather Douglas has usefully identified and dissected two types of responsibilities to which scholars are subject: role responsibilities that are specific to a particular profession or discipline, and general responsibilities that extend beyond a professional arena and that benefit the rest of society. In this regard the impact phase is asking academics to balance their role responsibilities with their general responsibilities in a way that achieves a new equilibrium.

And yet I think that political science does face a quite unique challenge in terms of navigating the ‘impact phase’, that revolves around the fact that moves ‘against the tide of depoliticisation’ cannot simply promote a raw or blunt form of politicization. Put differently, political science may well want its research to reach a wider audience and for its relevance to be far clearer, but it does not want it to become politicized in a partisan sense. Political scientists are arguably unique, however, in the sense that their research is likely to be devoured by politicians, candidates, parties, think tanks, pressure groups, etc. as part of the ongoing partisan battle. Research results will rapidly become co-opted, misinterpreted, rejected and denied, and blame games and credit claims will swirl around those academics who dare to suggest their research can help inform a specific debate or way of viewing the world.

This is the challenge of the ‘impact phase’: to set out the political relevance of your work without being politicized; to be ‘political’ in the ‘small ‘p’’ sense of the term without dirtying your hands in the worldly art of politics; to craft a new politics of resistance against the instrumentalization of academe, whereby every new idea and finding must be translated into some dubious new ‘product’ or ‘output’, while acknowledging the need to demonstrate some broader form of social value; and to walk along an ambiguous and increasingly frayed professional tightrope while a multitude of hands reach-up from the ‘big ‘P’ political abyss and attempt to pull you down.

Featured image credit: Balancing act by Quinn Dombrowski. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

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