The impact agenda and political agency

Matthew Wood

Why should we, as political scientists, ‘bother’ with impact? My answer is that as social actors we cannot avoid ‘impacting’ on society in one way or another, just like any other profession. The question is how we should choose to influence society. As British political scientists our choices are, thankfully, quite broad. Our discipline in this country is eclectic, our research agendas are diverse. Critically, our jobs also allow us significant autonomy to shape our individual identities, practices and relations with the outside world. The crucial thing is how we choose to shape that autonomy. Put in satisfyingly theoretical terms, it’s about how we exercise our political agency. This is why impact appeals to me and why I think it should appeal to others. In this blog I’m going to suggest how we, as researchers, might think about shaping our agency despite some of the problems with the current impact agenda.

The Trouble with Impact

The trouble, as Helen Turton demonstrates, is that there are significant pressures out there that seek to shape our agency as researchers in particular ways, narrow our research agendas and stop us speaking truth to power. Paradoxically, this includes the ‘impact agenda’ itself: everything from the REF’s ‘impact case studies’ to the Lib-Con Coalition’s fetish for behavioural psychology and the suspiciously parochial ‘nudge’. When academics look at this ‘agenda’, they understandably balk about being pushed into a positivistic straight jacket. Though I have yet to come across anyone at conferences who disagrees with the idea of ‘impact’, broadly constituted, many harbour an understandable distaste towards how it is currently being implemented.

So we are faced with a struggle over how to define what we mean by impact – broad or narrow. If we interpret it narrowly, then we risk curtailing our political agency. If we interpret it broadly, then we open up a lot more opportunities. I think we should interpret impact broadly, but the question is how do we do this while still acknowledging there are problems with the existing agenda? There are, I think, two ways we can think about impact, and they involve being reflexive about a few scholarly myths about epistemology and thinking about our communication with the outside world.


Firstly, we should question the myth that ‘positivist’ research, the development of universal laws of politics that can be implemented by policymakers, is somehow the holy grail of ‘impactful’ research. While it is certainly true that policymakers like graphs, stats, and anything that makes a claim to being authoritative, they also prefer research that is easily accessible and straightforwardly communicated, rather than a set of complex regression tables and formulae. The de-funding of political science programmes in the US is evidence enough that a hermetically sealed discipline concerned with establishing causal laws of political life will not wash with a practically focused policy world.

Similarly, we should challenge the myth that post-modern or constructivist research, or theoretically-driven work, is ‘non-impactful’. This clearly isn’t the case. Just take interpretive theory, deliberative theory, postcolonialism, eurocentrism, feminism, etc. These deal with weighty real-world issues of crucial societal importance, and to deny this is to cede ground to those who would cut funding for this kind of work.

The point is we should recognise the value of the full spectrum of political research, and never seek to close down our ontological, epistemological or methodological positions because we think the public will think the findings are less ‘relevant’. The topics we research almost always have connection to relevant societal issues. Often, it’s how we talk about our research to others that matters, and this leads me to the issue of communication.

Lost in Translation?

It’s somewhat of a hackneyed cliché that academics are poor communicators, stuck in an ivory tower talking pretentious gobbledygook. We can easily take umbrage at this, but can also see it as an opportunity for reflecting and improving the language we use. My own doctoral research was on ‘depoliticisation’, a concept with a fairly scholastic lineage, and I find it useful when thinking about communicating my work to do two things.

Firstly, I remind myself that academia has specialist language for a reason. We should cherish our ability to be creative in addressing our research topics, and remember that research starting out in relative theoretical obscurity can become publicly salient. Concepts are also identified with academic career trajectories (if you ‘invent’ a concept then you get a lot of credit for it), and we should never draw an arbitrary barrier at a point where we have ‘enough concepts’ and shut a generation of researchers out from having the potential to be identified with new ideas.

However, as Matt Flinders suggests, the ‘art of translation’ is a good way of thinking about how we can get across the interesting and creative concepts and ideas we come up with to different audiences that speak different languages. So, secondly, I think about how to explain my research in a way that, say, a bus driver or a doctor would understand. This is not me trying to ‘dumb down’ but to reflexively think about how my research would be understood or interpreted by a range of different people. This, I find, is useful not only for getting my research across to the ‘outside world’ on an everyday level, or in blog posts, but also feeding back into my academic work as a fresh perspective. Crucially, if our research is better understood by different audiences, then we have a better chance of getting the insights of our research noticed.

It’s perhaps important to remember that not all the barriers to impact are of our own making. Funding streams, government agendas, etc. are all oriented towards a particular ‘impact’ agenda that is, as Helen and Katie make clear, problematic. The important thing though is that impact is on the agenda, and therefore the potential is there for us as researchers to broaden our capacities for ‘agency’, which we should celebrate and engage with. After all, I began researching Politics because I thought I could change the world for the better by helping our understanding of it. That may be stupidly naïve, but it’s what I keep coming back to.


Matt is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield Department of Politics, and Deputy Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics. He is currently researching ‘everyday politics’ and solutions to political disengagement in advanced liberal democracies.

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