Policy implications

Blogging live and direct from the ASAs, Tom Volscho has an interesting thought on disclaiming policy implications of sociological research. According to Tom, many scholars will reply to questions about policy relevance by saying that the situation is too complicated or the analysis too abstracted, to form suggestions for policy. Tom suggests that this response might really reflect that we’re mainly interested in self-preservation. That is, if we were to make policy recommendations, we might actually solve the social problems that some of us study, and would therefore make our own research agendas obsolete. Boundary maintenance being what it is, Tom’s suggestion isn’t too far out in left field, but I think it might give short shrift to those researchers who really are seeking to generate knowledge.

We can unpack the issue a little more by noting that there really are plenty of sociologists whose work speaks directly to policy—if anybody is listening. It is often observed in medical sociology, for instance, that the discipline can be split into the “sociology of medicine” and “sociology in medicine.” The former uses medicine as a vehicle through which to explore sociological issues, while the latter attempts to address medical issues with sociological knowledge. Roughly, the difference is between theoretical and applied sociology. Even in the applied camp, it seems rare on hand for problems to ever actually be “solved;” solutions iterate along and organizations are tinkered with, but problems usually remain, even when work (sociological or otherwise) is focused on resolving them.

So what about saying “it’s too complex” as a way of disavowing policy relevance of one’s work? A couple of years ago, my department hosted a brown bag speaker who does research on colonial regimes, and who had found a number of interesting relationships between colonial and local governments and outcomes of different colonial projects. Someone asked the speaker to extend these results to contemporary dilemmas, Iraq in particular, but the speaker declined, saying that the particulars of the situation are too important to make speculative answers without performing a real analysis.

At the time, it seemed like a dodge to me; the parallels between the situations seemed enormous—surely there was something to say. But thinking about it later, I understood that the speaker’s response was more honest than any speculation could have been; I think it reflected a significant integrity and commitment to discovery, rather than an excuse.

The obvious end of this is to question what this means for public sociology. Well, I don’t know; I haven’t done that research. But I would suggest that it emphasizes the importance of knowing one’s audience and, more critically, doing research appropriate for the ends; if a project has public policy implications, those should be considered in the research design, not jotted down as an afterthought.