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May 03, 2011


Dick Pountain

How might such an expert retain epistemological authority in a field that resists – or benefits from resisting – rationalist, scientific objectification?

They can't. Instead they exit from the space of epistemology - it's called post-modernism.

Will Davies

Well that is sort of the claim made in the paper. There are quasi-scientific claims being made, just not traditionally rationalist ones. This also explains why new age type thinking occasionally crops up in management theory.

Dick Pountain

Indeed - Tom Peters very often sounds pretty close to a Ranter...

Kieron Flanagan

Congratulations on the paper, the findings of which resonate with me very much as someone who has spent a decade or so in the position of having to do this stuff but who has also attempted to critically reflect on what is the basis for the advice and prescriptions we offer to policy makers (see e.g.: http://bit.ly/huPWsQ).

The only thing that doesn't ring true for me is your depiction of the policy world, which is slightly predictably caricatured as a rational, linear, bureaucratic one. Describing policy in this way is a bit like relying on Merton's norms to describe how science really works.

In my view, the pressure to simplify/rationalise and provide answers where answers are not possible is as much, if not more, supply-driven than demand-driven. This (policy advice) is an industry we're talking about after all.

Will Davies

Kieron - thanks for this.

This is useful feedback, and I may hopefully still be able to adjust the odd sentence to take this into account, prior to publication. I certainly didn't intend to represent the policy world in this way, indeed I've done interviews with policy-makers in various fields (and encountered policy-making in various ways) which have taught me that there is, inevitably, far more messiness than that rationalist 'caricature' would suggest. Maybe I'm guilty of describing ideal types and rhetorics, not empirical practices. After all, policy-makers very often defend their actions using rationalist models and theories (Christopher Hood's work on blame and gaming addresses this), even if this isn't an accurate reflection of what actually goes on. It's not uncommon for policy-makers in Britain or the European Commission to depict their organisations via their organograms, and to justify their decisions using neo-classical rhetoric. But you're absolutely right to point out that this is not how things 'really work', and I should acknowledge that.

Could I just say in my own defence that there is a degree of self-caricaturing going on amongst experts, and that government officials must at least project a veneer of rationalism, while 'gurus' and some innovation specialists must at least project a veneer of disruptive qualitative insight.

Kieron Flanagan

Certainly, policy makers live in an environment completely shaped by the language and assumptions of welfare economics. As you'll see from the paper I linked to in my previous comment, I'd argue that many innovation policy analysts chose to live in much the same environment, despite protestations to the contrary. And you show very nicely in your paper why that might be.

And I agree completely with your last paragraph!

Heather Sim

Hi Will
I was just sent the link to your paper - and was thrilled to learn what it's about. I have recently found myself thinking a lot about not knowing ... and in particular, about the evidence that young people often seem more comfortable with not knowing. This may be biologically or sociologically natural? I'm no expert, but we are having some success in helping policy-makers and practitioners to reflect on this difference and the value that the young person's capacity for not knowing can bring to a problem or challenge. I'd be delighted to chat to you if this is of interest.

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