Three problems with the impact agenda

Katherine Tonkiss

In a recent post for the LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog, I argued with Catherine Durose that while the idea of delivering policy relevant research is positive, too often our claims to relevance do not deliver genuine impact. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to revisit this issue when I spoke on the PSA Postgraduate Network impact panel, and here I reflect on some of the themes that emerged.

‘Impact’ is a response to the perception that academic work suffers from a relevance gap – that research is not relevant beyond academia and that therefore we should work to address this problem by producing research which has an impact on the wider world. This claim of a relevance gap has been critiqued on the grounds that it may not be true – many disciplines including feminism, and many policy-relevant academic departments (such as INLOGOV) have long had impact beyond their academic niche.

Despite this critique, the imperative to create impactful research is not necessarily something to be avoided. Not all research has to create impact, but it is a good thing that some research does, and maybe more research should do. Impactful research drives a democratisation of knowledge, enabling wider society to challenge and press for change.

There are, however, three key problems with the impact agenda.

1. Privatisation of knowledge

Impact is intended to democratise academic knowledge – to allow it to reach wider audiences. However, as Martin Eve has argued, the need for impact has arisen because of the privatisation of higher education which is privatising knowledge and therefore giving rise to the need for impact. Discussion at the PSA impact panel centred on how, for many, their biggest impact came from teaching but that this form of impact is, in their view, being curtailed. This is not an argument against impact, but rather the narrow way in which having an impact is understood.

2. Quantifying impact

Yesterday, Kate Dommett described in her blog post the various ways in which the impact of academic work is being measured. The problem with this is that, by demanding that impact must be quantifiable and suited to specific measures, we may miss quite a lot of the benefit and value of our research. Again, this is not an argument against impact, but rather what counts as impact. This is particularly evident in how we treat activities such as blogging and engaging with the media. As I argued with Catherine Durose, too often we count hits and retweets as measures of impact, rather than the less quantifiable and more long term dialogue that is opened up by engaging with these media. As such, we are performing claims to relevance rather than genuinely being relevant.

3. Doing research faster

Patrick Dunleavy has recently stated that research should be ‘shorter, better, faster, and free’, and that this should have implications for how research projects are constructed. Dunleavy wants information available to policymakers as quickly as possible and critiques social scientists still ‘trundling on’ doing three year studies and not getting results to policymakers in time for them to be relevant.

Rethinking how we construct large research projects is to be welcomed. However, the claim that this should mean producing research more quickly potentially undermines the quality and rigour of our academic work, as well as the depth that we are able to reach. Rather than thinking about how to shorten projects and deliver results more quickly, a more fruitful avenue may be to think about how to include those affected by the research in that research as it happens. This means co-designing research projects with participants and working with them closely throughout. In an article we wrote for Political Insight, Kate Dommett and I have described how we have taken this approach in the research project that we are currently working on.

Despite the three problems I have described, I do think that there is value in research which creates impact – that is, where it involves participants in the research process and aims to stimulate dialogue beyond the ivory tower. We need to avoid thinking about impact solely as fast research and performances of claims to relevance, but genuinely impactful research can have a positive effect.


Katherine Tonkiss is a Research Fellow in INLOGOV. She has research interests in normative and empirical questions surrounding migration, citizenship and identity, particularly in the UK. Her first book, Migration and Identity in a Post-National World, was published in 2013. Follow Katherine on Twitter @ktonkiss.

Migration, citizenship and diversity: questioning the boundaries

Katherine Tonkiss and Nando Sigona

In recent decades, a significant transformation in the meanings, practices and experiences of membership in contemporary Western democracies has taken place. These transformations have challenged traditional conceptions of state membership which have typically assumed the existence of a nation-state, with a burgeoning line of scholarship challenging the significance of the nation-state in determining membership and endowing rights. This literature argues that recent trends in globalisation, human rights and multiculturalism have made state borders less important.

In this context, several questions emerge about the interplay between forms of contemporary membership, migration governance, and the politics of belonging:

  • What is the position of the non-citizen in contemporary immigration and emigration states?
  • How can the nexus between human mobility, immigration control and citizenship be best conceived?
  •  How can we resolve the tension in policy and practice between coexisting traditions and regimes of rights; and the intersection of ‘race’ and other social cleavages and legal status?

We invited four speakers to participate in a seminar series at the University of Birmingham earlier this year, to explore these issues through a focus on the boundaries between migration, citizenship and diversity. Each speaker brought a distinctly different perspective, yet some common themes emerged.

Our first speaker was Phillip Cole (University of the West of England). Phillip’s talk was on ‘unreason’ in the UK immigration debate – that is, the reluctance of people to abandon myths about immigration despite the prevalence of evidence that shows these myths to be false. He described how much of the immigration debate is imbued with ‘Heimat’ – a nostalgic idea of belonging to the nation based on an imaginary ideal of the past. Immigration is problematized because it is seen to bring change which pulls us further from this imaginary past.

Phillip’s seminar contributed insights into the politics of belonging and how emotional belonging intersects with the processes of immigration to shape migration governance. Here, such emotional belonging is seen to affect the emergence of different regimes of migration governance as a result of its effects on the political debate.

In her talk, Madeleine Reeves (University of Manchester) explored the boundaries between immigrant ‘legality’ and ‘illegality’ in the context of the territory of the former Soviet Union. Her presentation provided a rich account of migration and immigration governance in what is to date an under researched region in migration studies. By focusing on passports and papers, she drew attention to the hyper-documentation of so called ‘undocumented’ migrants. Her contribution to the debate on ‘illegality’ is especially valuable because it questions assumptions around the significance of legal documents and the role of the state. By shifting the focus, Madeleine reveals the legal and historical production of ‘illegality’ and its significance in the everyday lives of migrants in contemporary Russia.

In her talk, Agnieszka Kubal (University of Oxford) examined the criminalization of migration and migrants and how the incorporation of criminal law into the immigration domain serves to demonstrate government’s firm grip over immigration. But how do migrants respond to this increasing conflation between criminal and immigration domains in the wider social context?  Drawing on in-depth interviews with 270 return migrants, Agnieszka demonstrated how migrants’ responses to the stigmatizing force of criminalisation do not always mean resistance, but quite often are placed on a continuum between the contestation and the reproduction of the stigma.

Sarah Neal (University of Surrey) was the final speaker of the series. Her talk focused on the everyday experience of superdiverstity; specifically, how do people live and negotiate cultural difference? Sarah drew particular attention to the apparent absence of ‘race’ in contemporary discussions of superdiversity, and demonstrated through her own research how race has a continued presence as a construct that shapes social relations.

Drawing on her research on ‘living multicultures’ in different urban contexts, Sarah’s talk explored some of the complexities surrounding the relationship between migration and other social cleavages such as race, and during the discussion we also focused on class as another often absent dynamic in debates about diversity. Challenges may arise when we talk about ‘cohesion’ because this fails to capture the enduring complexities of superdiverse communities.

The talks in this series, jointly organised by the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS) and the School of Government & Society, raised important and timely questions of the changing relationship between migration and citizenship, and between the alien and the citizen. They revealed the power and limitations of the law, the impact of migration myths and the roots of widespread anti-immigration sentiments. They also highlighted the importance of paying attention to national, regional and neighbourhood contexts in order to understand how immigration regimes operate and intersect other spheres of public life at different scales and in different locales.


Katherine Tonkiss is a Research Fellow in INLOGOV. She has research interests in normative and empirical questions surrounding migration, citizenship and identity, particularly in the UK. Her first book, Migration and Identity in a Post-National World, was published in 2013. Follow Katherine on Twitter @ktonkiss.




Nando Sigona is Birmingham Fellow and Lecturer in the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS) and the School of Social Policy at the University of Birmingham. He is Research Associate at the Refugee Studies Centre and Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, both at the University of Oxford. Nando is co-author of Sans Papiers. The social and economic lives of undocumented migrants, Pluto Press 2014 (forthcoming) and co-editor of the Oxford Handbook on Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, Oxford University Press 2014 (forthcoming) and of the special issue of Identities: Global Studies in Power and Culture on ‘Ethnography, diversity and urban space’, 2013. Follow Nando on Twitter @nandosigona and on

Picturing place: citizen participation in the age of social media

Katherine Tonkiss

The INLOGOV blog has featured a number of insightful pieces on citizen participation in recent months. Most recently, Laurens de Graaf reflected on the limited role of citizens in participatory projects, where they typically act as information sources for elected representatives rather than decision-makers themselves. Previously, Catherine Durose argued in favour of alternative modes of citizen participation in order to move away from often empty, ‘tick-box’ consultation processes. Further, Catherine Jackson-Read reflected on whether local government in its current form can work effectively in collaboration with citizens.

What these posts have in common is a consensus that facilitating effective citizen participation is a significant challenge for local government, and that authorities should look to more novel approaches to facilitating participation beyond the traditional meeting in the drafty village hall.

These posts sprang to mind when I came across a campaign being run by Birmingham City Council’s Fair Brum partnership, ‘Place Matters’. The purpose of this project is to facilitate the participation of citizens in shaping Birmingham’s neighbourhood strategy by submitting photographs of their neighbourhood via social media. The focus is on ‘what is distinctive about different neighbourhoods and what local people value in their local environment’.

Photographs should answer one of the following questions:

  1. What do you like about your area?
  2. What makes your area unique or distinctive?
  3. What would you change about your area?

This novel campaign relates to the idea of ‘place’ in two very interesting ways.

First, the campaign involves a notion of place strongly grounded in the neighbourhood. The idea of citizens telling their local authority and its partners about their neighbourhood in terms of what it is like to live there doesn’t just involve relaying information to assist decision-making, but actually resconstructs what place means to the citizen in their immediate locality and how they interact with that place. In doing so, this creates a vision of place from the ways in which people understand and interpret their lived environment.

Secondly, and conversely, the campaign involves a very expansive notion of place. The act of photographing the neighbourhood and uploading it via social media is a clear step away from engaging citizens in that drafty village hall, and rather opens up the ability to convey ideas about place from the home – very much along the lines of the Gov 2.0 model that Tom Barrance wrote about a couple of weeks ago. It also opens up the possibility of participation to those without English language skills, or to those who are otherwise unable to engage in traditional processes of local democracy. Previous research I have been involved in has highlighted how traditional models of citizen participation can further exclude some of the most underrepresented groups, and alternatives such as this offer the opportunity to overcome such barriers.

I acknowledge that it will still exclude those who don’t use social media, however this is part of a raft of engagement activities and so there will, presumably, be other ways of engaging that don’t necessarily rely on having a Twitter account.

The results of this exercise will be insightful for local authorities and academic researchers alike, in terms of whether it does address that all too common issue that participation activities become tokenistic opportunities to obtain information rather than to engage citizens in decision-making processes. It will be important for the partnership to demonstrate a link between these participation activities and meaningful citizen input into the decision-making process about the neighbourhood strategy. If successful, the exercise will offer fascinating insights both into Birmingham as a city and into citizen participation in the neighbourhood.


Katherine Tonkiss is a Research Fellow at INLOGOV.  She is currently working on a three year, ESRC funded project titled Shrinking the State, and is converting her PhD thesis, on the subject of migration and identity, into a book to be published later this year with Palgrave Macmillan.  Her research interests are focused on the changing nature of citizenship and democracy in a globalising world, and the local experience of global transformations.  Follow her Twitter feed here.

The impact factor

Katherine Tonkiss

I completed my PhD thesis in early 2012, under the joint supervision of INLOGOV and the Department of Political Science and International Studies (POLSIS). I sat my viva in April of that year and shortly afterwards was interviewed for and gained a three year research fellowship at INLOGOV, working with Professor Chris Skelcher on the Shrinking the State project. A year into the post, this is a good opportunity to reflect on that transition from PhD to post-doc research.

In many ways, working as a Research Fellow on a three year project is similar to PhD study. I am completing a research project in a specified amount of time, with parameters and methods specified in a detailed research proposal. The goal of delivering the thesis in a timely fashion is replaced by the requirement to produce a set of research outcomes with which to wow the funders on completion of the project, and of course the need to publish, publish, publish never really changes.

Yet the transition from PhD to post-doc has also presented some new opportunities and challenges. One aspect is going from sole-authored thesis-writing to team working with colleagues both on the research project and beyond. While in reality I do have quite a lot of autonomy in my current role and the majority of my time is spent working alone on specific areas of the project, this project involves working with a team of five researchers split across three Universities. This kind of collaboration is now very common in academic research – and while it is step change from PhD research, I was quite pleased to enter a more collaborative environment.

Another challenge of the transition is balancing research priorities. I was told on numerous occasions during my PhD studies that researching and writing a thesis is something to really enjoy, because I would never again have the opportunity to immerse myself in my own research to such an extent. In reality, I have been really fortunate to be provided the time to turn my PhD thesis into a book, as well as having some time to pursue my other research interests separate to the project. However, pre-planning was key in achieving this – I had thought about a book contract before my viva was completed, and the three articles I have had published were all accepted before I started working as a Research Fellow. I also don’t think I would be so fortunate if I had the hefty teaching responsibilities which come with many junior academic roles.

The biggest difference between PhD and post-doc research is, though, the emphasis that is placed on ‘impact’ in the latter – that is, producing research that both advances academic knowledge and has a positive economic and societal impact. This impact agenda, while offering rewarding opportunities to engage in debates beyond academia, was challenging in terms of the transition from PhD to post-doc research – and particularly because my PhD was strongly theoretical.

For example, working on this research project has meant developing and maintaining relationships with partners in government and elsewhere, producing research outputs that are useful to them in their work in addition to being relevant to the overall objectives of the project. My colleagues at INLOGOV are very used to this way of working, but it really was a new experience for me after the PhD. Within a couple of months of starting my job, I found myself presenting to senior civil servants in Whitehall. Experiences such as this have allowed me to engage in discussion and debate far beyond the ivory tower, but they are a far cry from the late-night loneliness of thesis writing that I had become accustomed to.

Impact isn’t just about engaging with policy-makers, though. Throughout my PhD, I felt that I was researching and writing about something that I was really passionate about – which, I hope, is a common experience. This isn’t something that’s gone away now that research has become my day job – and indeed exploring intersections between normative ideas and lived experiences has become one of my core research interests. As much as there is a case for producing policy-relevant research in order to work with partners in government, it should also be recognised that research – in whatever discipline – is a tool with which to challenge dominant ideas and assumptions, and the ability to engage in the policy process and to communicate with different audiences in order to enact change is just as – if not more – important.

With the impact agenda now spanning all areas of academic research, it may be argued that it is more important than ever for PhD students to equip themselves with the skills to develop this kind of dual-facing work. I’m not decided on that – I think there can be excellent research without wider impact and these contributions are to be equally valued. However, the opportunity to see your research have an impact beyond academia can be very rewarding, and to that end developing those skills is really worthwhile.


Katherine Tonkiss completed her PhD in 2012, and is now a Research Fellow at INLOGOV. Her first book, Migration and Identity in a Post-national World, will be published later this year with Palgrave Macmillan. Her research interests are focused on the changing nature of migration, citizenship and democracy in a globalising world, the local experience of such transformations, and the intersection between normative and empirical research. Follow her Twitter feed here.

In favour of the mundane: citizenship testing and participation

Katherine Tonkiss

This weekend saw the announcement that the Government has completed its revisions to the ‘Life in the UK’ citizenship test, refocusing the questions on British culture, history and sport.  According to the Government, there will be no more ‘mundane’ questions about water meters, job interviews, the internet and public transport.  Rather, as immigration minister Nick Harper described, ‘the new book rightly focuses on the values and principles at the heart of being British.  Instead of telling people how to claim benefits, it encourages participation in British life’.

This is just the latest in a series of announcements which have reinforced some notion of a British way of life as a criterion of both immigration and integration, as I have described elsewhere.  Nick Harper’s words draw us again into the vastly questionable argument that migrants are ‘benefits scroungers’, and so rather than telling them how to access those benefits we should instead be expecting them to assimilate to the British way of life.  It is this, we are being told, that holds the key to participation in community life.

The use of the word ‘participation’ is itself more than a little problematic.  Is participation really what is at stake in this debate?  Harper is also quoted as saying that the new citizenship test is ‘just part of our work to help ensure migrants are ready and able to integrate into British society’.  Integrate into.  This claim seems to denote the idea that integration is something that migrants ‘do’ when they come into a country in order to take on the national culture and history, rather than something that a society experiences collectively in order to build social inclusion and cohesion.

None of this sounds much like participation to me.  Casting an eye over the ten sample questions from the new test is similarly illuminating.  Does my knowing which admiral died in 1805 and has a monument in Trafalgar Square help to participate in my local community?  Does my knowing the name of the prehistoric landmark still standing in Wiltshire really help me to play an active role in society?

Actually, what it might do is to further define me as an outsider, whether or not I know the answers.  Much in the same way that Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has suggested that Councils only publish documents in English because ‘translation undermines community cohesion’, the new citizenship test underpins the idea that it is up to migrants to integrate into ‘our’ culture, and that if migrants are unable to do that then they have no right to live in our country, to make use of our services or to participate in the lives of our communities.  It presents an ideal of Britishness which is unattainable beyond a simplistic test, when migrants bring with them their own rich cultural heritages – heritages which have, previously, been celebrated as central to the life of our communities.

And the very notion of ‘our culture’ is itself deeply problematic.  This suggests a one-size-fits-all notion of Britishness that will evade people who were themselves born in Britain.  Arguing that Britishness involves ‘the national love of gardening, the novels of Jane Austen and the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber’ is ignorant not just of diverse ethnicities and cultural heritages, but also of the diversity of genders, class backgrounds and life experiences present within Britain today.

I want to make an argument in favour of the mundane. If we have to have a citizenship test, then surely in a liberal society our citizenship test should be about helping people to access public services and to actually participate in their community through contact with their elected representatives and other important organisations in their area.  We live in a liberal democratic society – citizenship testing should not be about reinforcing a sense of Britishness that is alien even to the most ‘British’ amongst us.  Rather, it should be about making sure that everyone has equal access to services and the equal chance to participate, and that everyone is deserving of equal respect.


Katherine Tonkiss is a Research Fellow in INLOGOV.  She is currently working on a three year, ESRC funded project titled Shrinking the State, and is converting her PhD thesis, on the subject of migration and identity, into a book to be published later this year with Palgrave Macmillan.  Her research interests are focused on the changing nature of citizenship and democracy in a globalising world, and the local experience of global transformations.  Follow her Twitter feed here.