Tag Archives: Academic research

A Stern review for everyone?

The Stern reviewwas commissioned by the government to carry out the review of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) to ensure future university research funding is allocated more efficiently, offers greater rewards for excellent research and reduces the administrative burden on institutions’. In this post, I explain why no single policy can solve these problems uniformly: they affect scholars of different seniority, and different disciplines, very differently. The punchline is at the end.

My initial impression of the Stern review is that it has gone to great lengths to address the unintended consequences of the previous Research Excellence Framework. One of its key aims now is to try to anticipate the potential unintended consequences of its reduction of other unintended consequences! This is remarkably common in policymaking, perhaps summed up by Aaron Wildavsky’s phrase ‘policy as its own cause’: we enter a never-ending process of causing ripple effects when trying to fix previous problems.

The example of non-portability (#sternreview portable)

Take the example of one of the biggest problems:

Problem: there was a large incentive for Universities to ‘game’ the REF towards the end of the cycle: paying for 20% of the time of big name academics, or appointing them at huge salaries, to gain access to their 4 best publications. A policy of rewarding research excellence became a policy to (a) reward big transfers, undermining the efforts of other Universities and reducing their incentive to invest for the long term, and (b) boost the salaries of senior scholars (many of whom were already on 6-figure salaries), often to ridiculous levels.

Solution: non-portability. The idea is that you can move but your former employer gets to use the texts that you published while in your last job. So, there may now be less incentive to buy up the big names in the run up to the next REF.

Unintended consequence: uncertainty for early career researchers (ECRs) or scholars without permanent (open-ended) contracts. Many ECRs have expressed the concern that their incentives may suddenly change, from generating a portfolio of up to 4 excellent publications to secure a permanent post, to perhaps holding back publications and promising their delivery when in post. This could be addressed by the present review (ECRs could be included in the REF but be under no obligation to submit any publications), or perhaps by exempting ECRs since the policy is aimed at senior scholars (but the exemption would also have unintended consequences!).

Interpreting the problem through the lens of precarious positions

We will now enter a phase of debate driven by uncertainty and anxiety about the end result, and a lot of the discussion will be emotionally charged because many people will have spent maybe 8 years in education (and several years in low paid posts after it) and not know what to do next. It is relatively easy for people like me to say that the proposed new system is better, and for senior scholars to look on Stern as a big improvement, because people like me will be rewarded in either system (I will leave it to you to decide what I mean by ‘people like me’). It is more difficult for ECRs who are genuinely uncertain about their prospects.

The punchline: how does this look through the eyes of scholars in different disciplines?

The disciplinary lens is the factor that can often be most important but least discussed, for two key reasons:

  1. The general differences. Scholars operate in different ways. The ‘STEM’ (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects are often described in these terms: you have large teams headed by a senior scholar; there is a hierarchy; you all work on the same research question; you publish many short articles as a team (with senior authors listed at the very start and end of the list of authors); you are increasingly driven by key metrics, such as personal citations and the ‘impact factor’ of journals . The humanities is often described like this: you are a lone scholar; you work on your own research question; you publish single-author work, and the big status symbol is the research monograph (book); these journal or other metrics do not work as well in your discipline. I am verging on caricature here (many ‘STEM’ scholars will work alone, and some humanities or social science scholars will operate laboratory-style teams), but you get the idea.

These differences feed into other practices: only in some subjects can it make sense for a University to ‘poach’ a whole team or unit; only in some subjects do ECRs need to develop their own portfolio of work; in some subjects, a PhD student or ECR effectively works for a senior scholar, while in others the PhD student has a supervisor but can set their own research agenda; in some subjects, it is automatic to include the senior scholar in an article you wrote, in others it would be seen as exploitation of the work of a PhD student or ECR. In some subjects, a CV with your name on team publications is the norm, while in others it would look like you do not have your own ideas.

  1. The REF reinforces these differences. You often find the impression that research exercises and metrics are there for the STEM subjects (or ‘hard sciences’) and not the humanities or social sciences: a process or review for Universities does not take into account the differences in incentives and practices across the disciplines, and some disciplines might lose out.

So, if you follow this debate on twitter, I recommend that you look at the bios of each participant to check their level of seniority and discipline because the Stern review is for all but it will affect us all in very different ways.

See also: James Wilsdon ‘The road to REF 2021: why I welcome Lord Stern’s blueprint for research assessment



Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, UK politics and policy

Research design: Case studies and comparative research

My aim is to tell you about the use and value of comparative research by combining (a) a summary of your POLU9RM course reading, and (b) some examples from my research. Of course, I wouldn’t normally blow my own trumpet, but Dr Margulis insisted that I do so. Here is the podcast (25 minutes) which you can download or stream:

The reading for this session is Halperin and Heath’s chapter 9, which makes the following initial points about comparative research:

  • ‘Comparative’ describes methods to identify and explain differences/ similarities between cases.
  • These cases are often – but need not be – countries (for example, comparisons over time, or by policy area, can be just as illuminating).
  • There are three main approaches: large-N (many cases), small-N (several cases), and single-N (or ‘case studies’).
  • Comparison is not an end in itself. Rather, we need to justify, or clarify the value of, each comparison. This involves identifying a clear theoretical reason for a particular comparison (and, as in all studies, producing a clear research question that can be answered).
  • It helps us avoid what Rose calls ‘false uniqueness’ (assuming rather than demonstrating that a case is exceptional) and ‘false universalism’ (assuming that a finding from one time/ place applies to all times or places).
  • Comparative methods are most frequently used to determine the extent to which a theory generated from one set of cases applies to other cases.

Key issues when you apply theories to new cases

There are two interesting implications of the final bullet point.

First, note the tendency of a small number of countries to dominate academic publication. For example, a lot of the policy theories to which I refer in this ‘1000 words’ series derive from studies of the US. With many theories, you can see interesting developments when scholars apply them outside of the US:

  • The ‘universal’ v ‘territorial’ issue. In my article with Michael Jones (summarised here) on Kingdon’s ‘multiple streams analysis’ we note that it began as a study of health/ transport policy in the US in the 1980s. It then morphed into a theory applied to many regions at many times. A large part of its success comes from the abstract nature of its key concepts, which can be applied at any place and time: for example, a lot of its discussion of agenda setting relates to ‘bounded rationality’ which applies to all people. Yet, there are also ‘territorial’ issues which apply to particular regions or types of government. For example, some studies adapt MSA’s concepts to explain the influence of supranational authorities or to describe the differences between EU and US policymaking.
  • The ‘beyond the West’ issue. In one interesting application of MSA to China, Zhu argues that a key concept is not applicable: policy change in the US requires policy solutions to be technically feasible; in China, they only prompt change if ‘infeasible’. The example highlights the limits to the explanatory power of theories derived from studies of a small number of ‘Western’ countries (I know this description is loaded – what other terms could we use to describe countries like the US and UK?). In such cases, scholars are now exploring the implications in some depth: how well do these policy theories travel?

Second, consider the extent to which we are accumulating knowledge when applying the same theory to many cases. There are now some major reviews or debates of key policy theories, in which the authors highlight the difficulties of systematic research to produce a large number of comparable case studies:

For me, the important common factor in all of these reviews is that many scholars pay insufficient attention to the theory when applying its insights to new cases. Consequently, when you try to review the body of work, you find it difficult to generate an overall sense of developments by comparing many case studies. So, in my humble opinion, we’d be a lot better off if people did a proper review of the literature – and made sure that their concepts were clear and able to be ‘operationalised’ – before jumping into case study analysis. I wrote these blog posts for established scholars and new PhD students, but the argument should also apply to you as an undergraduate: get the basics right (which includes understanding the theory you are applying) to get the comparative research right. This is just as important as your case selection.

From case study to large-N research: choosing between depth and breadth?

Case studies. It is in this context that we might understand Halperin and Heath’s point that case study research (single-N) is comparative. You might be going into much depth to identify key aspects of a single case, but also considering the extent to which it compares meaningfully with other case studies using the same theory. All that we require in such examples is that you justify your case selection. In some examples, you are trying to see if a theory drawn from one country applies to another. Or, you might be interested in how far theories travel, or how applicable they are to cases which seem unusual or ‘deviant’. In some examples, we seek the ‘crucial case study’ that is central to the ‘confirmation or disconfirmation of a theory’ (p207), but don’t make the mistake of concluding that you need a new theory because the old one can only explain so much. Further, although single case studies should not be dismissed, you can only conclude so much from them. So, be careful to spell out and justify any conclusions that you find to be ‘generalisable’ to other cases.

Example 1. In my research, I often use US-origin theories to help explain policymaking by the UK and devolved governments. For example, I used the same approach as Kingdon (documentary analysis and semi-structured interviews) to identify, in great detail, the circumstances under which 4 governments in the UK introduced the same ban on smoking in public places (the take home message: there was more to it than you might think!).

Small-N studies. The systematic comparison of several cases allows you to extend analysis often without compromising on depth. However, there is great potential to bias your outcomes by cherry-picking cases to suit particular theories. So, we look for ways to justify case selection. Halperin and Heath go to some length to identify the problems of ‘selection on the dependent variable’, which can be summed up as: don’t compare cases just because they seem to have the same outcome in common (focus instead on what causes such outcomes). Two well-established approaches are ‘most similar systems design’ (MSSD) and ‘most different systems design’ (MDSD) (p209). With MSSD, you choose cases which share key explanatory factors/ characteristics (e.g. they have the same socio-economic/ political context) so that you can track the effects of one or more difference (perhaps in the spirit of a randomised control trial, but without the substance). With MDSD you choose cases which do not share characteristics so that you can track the effect of a key similarity.

Aside from the problems of case study selection bias, it’s worth noting how difficult it is to produce a clear MSSD or MDSD research design, since you are making value judgements about which shared/ not shared characteristics are crucial (see their discussion of necessary/ sufficient factors).

Example 2. Take the example of a study I did with Karin Ingold and Manuel Fischer recently, comparing ‘fracking’ policy and policymaking in the UK and Switzerland.  We use the same theory (the ACF) and same method (documentary analysis and a survey of key actors) in both countries. We used a survey to allow us to quantify key relationships between actors: to what extent do they share the same beliefs with other actors, and how likely are they to share information frequently with their allies and competitors?

We describe the research design as MDSD because their political systems represent two contrasting political system archetypes – the ‘majoritarian’ UK and ‘consensus’ Switzerland – which Lijphart describes as key factors in their contrasting policymaking processes. Yet, central to our argument is that there are policymaking processes common to policy subsystems despite their system differences. In effect, we try to measure the effect of political system design on subsystem dynamics and find a subtle but important impact.

We also find that, although these differences exist, their policy outcomes are remarkably similar. So, ‘most different’ systems often produce very similar policymaking processes and policy outcomes. Then, we note that if we had our time again we would have extended the analysis to subnational governments in the UK. The ‘most different’ design prompted us to focus on the UK central government and Swiss Cantons (the alleged locus of power in both cases), but maybe we could have started from an assumption that they are not as different as they look. Have a look and you can see the dilemmas that still play out in (what I think is) a well-designed study.

Example 3. I face the same difficulties when comparing policy and policymaking by the UK and Scottish Governments. In some respects, they are ‘most different’: ‘new Scottish politics’ was designed to contrast with ‘old Westminster’ (particularly when it came to elections; the Scottish Parliament is also unicameral). In others, they are similar: the ‘architects of devolution’ introduced a system that seems to be of the Westminster family (particularly the executive-legislative relationships). Further, Scotland remains part of the UK, and the UK Government retains responsibility for many policies affecting Scotland. Overall, it is difficult to say for sure how similar/ different are their systems (which I discuss in a series of lectures). So, the comparison is fraught with difficulty. In such examples, they key solution is to ‘show your working’: describe these problems and state how you work within them (for example, in my case, I try to examine the extent to which policymaking reflects ‘territorial’ context or ‘universal’ drivers’, partly by interviewing policymakers in each government).

Large-N (quantitative) studies.  Halperin and Heath lay out some of the potential benefits of large-N research. For example, it is easier to come to general conclusions about many countries by studying many countries (rather than trying to generalise from a few, which might not be representative). They also highlight the pitfalls, including the problem of meaning: when you ‘operationalise’ a concept such as democracy or populism, can you provide a simple enough definition to allow you to give each system a number (to denote democratic/ undemocratic or X% democratic) that means the same thing in each case? To this problem, I would add the general issue of breadth and depth. With large-N studies you can examine the effects of a small number of variables, to explain a small part of the politics of many systems. With small-N you can study a large number of variables in a few systems. The classic trade-off is between breadth and depth. Of course, if you are doing an undergraduate dissertation the big Q is: what can you reasonably be expected to do? Maybe your highest aim should be to make sense of the studies which already exist.






Filed under Research design

Q. Should PhD students blog? A. Yes.

I wish I could go back and rewrite everything I have published, including my PhD. If I knew then what I know now: I would get to the point quicker and describe its importance to a far wider audience than my supervisor and a few dedicated journal readers. To do so, I would exhibit the skills you develop when you write frequently for an ‘intelligent lay’ audience.

These are the writing traits that I think you develop when just writing for academics:

  1. You assume a specialist audience, familiar with key terms. So, you use jargon as shorthand without explaining its meaning. The downside is that the jargon often doesn’t have a particularly clear meaning. When you blog, you assume a non-specialist audience. You use less jargon, or you explain its meaning and value.
  2. You treat the exercise as a detective novel with a big reveal: a nice, vague opening discussion (passive tense optional), a main body of text to build up the suspense, and finally the big twist at the end. Ta da! Wow, I didn’t see that coming. When you blog, you assume that people will not read your work unless you front-load the reveal. You have a catchy and tweetable title, you provide a hook in the first sentence, and you only have a few hundred words in which to show your work (and encourage people to read the longer report).
  3. Or, you describe your hypotheses in a way that suggests that even you don’t know what will happen. Wow – I confirmed that hypothesis! Who knew? When you blog, it seems more sensible to use the language of hypotheses (or an equivalent) more simply, to explain what factors are most important to your explanation.

You can develop this skill by using a personal blog to describe your research progress and the value of your findings. However, it is also worth blogging in at least two other venues:

  1. Somewhere like the LSE blog, or Democratic Audit, in which the editors will try to summarise your argument in a short opening statement. This is very handy for you: did they summarise the main argument? If so, good. If not, look again to see if you explained it well.
  2. Somewhere like The Conversation, in which the editors will try to mess around with the title (to encourage more traffic) and wording (to make it punchier and quotable). This is a good exercise in which you can think about how far you want to go. Are you confident enough in your research to make such stark statements? Or, do you want to obfuscate and fill the argument with caveats? If the latter, you can think about the extent to which your argument is clear and defendable (it may well be – sometimes caveats and humility can be good!).

I also encourage advanced undergraduates and taught postgraduates to produce a blog post (albeit unpublished) alongside an essay or policy paper, because it is difficult to be concise, and the exercise helps develop a good life skill. Even without the blog exercise, I’d still encourage dissertation students (at the start of their research) to write up their argument/ plan/ work in a half-page document, so that we can see if it adds up to a coherent argument. You can do the same thing with a blog post, with the added (potential) benefit of some feedback from outside sources.

See also: there are resource sites which go into far more aspects of the writing process, such as medium.com/@Write4Research and patthomson.wordpress.com

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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, PhD

These complaints about ignoring science seem biased and naïve – and too easy to dismiss

This is one of two posts on the use of scientific evidence in environmental policy (a broad term which can include climate change, food, land management, and energy policy). In this one I insult some of the people reacting to the Scottish Government’s decision on GM. In the next one, I present preliminary evidence on a systematic review of the use of evidence in environmental policy.

The Scottish Government recently decided to reinforce a moratorium on the use of GM crops in Scotland. It produced a strong response from many individual scientists, and groups representing scientists, which seems predictable enough. That’s what you would expect some scientists to do if you don’t act solely on their advice.

What I didn’t quite expect was a more general, and often hyperbolic, criticism by non-scientist commentators about the failings of policymakers to listen to scientists.

The general problem for non-scientist commentators is that they don’t really know what ‘the evidence’ is. It’s no great insult to predict that most commentators decrying a lack of reliance on ‘the evidence’ have never read any relevant scientific journal article, systematic review, or peer reviewed report on the science in question. In fact, that’s fine – you probably need some training to understand the technical aspects, particularly on method.

What is not fine is a tendency to accept the word of scientists when they tell you that they know the evidence. In general, they don’t. ‘The evidence’ is often remarkably patchy (a point I’ll reinforce in the next post) and highly-disputed within professions, and canny scientific groups or individuals fill those gaps with an appeal to expert-based authority. This practice should be subject to as much critical analysis and scepticism that we afford to politicians. In fact, if you are a good scientist, you welcome the challenge and the debate (with the exception of cases, such as climate change, in which debate may undermine an urgent need to act).

The general problem for the more naïve scientist commentators is that they often read the scientific reports, take a view on what they mean and what should be done, and simply expect policymakers to do the same. They fail to appreciate how scientific evidence fits into the broader picture of politics and policymaking. They fail to articulate what ‘evidence based policy making’ really means, or should mean in practice, when we have equally or more important ways to make decisions – such as representative government (we elect people to state their beliefs and make decisions on our behalf) and participatory/ deliberative democracy (we seek ways to generate a range of perspectives on a policy problem). In effect, they make an appeal to a process in which scientific knowledge or expert beliefs should be privileged above the beliefs of other people (in this case, it is accompanied by a pretentious reference to the Scottish Enlightenment).

In my view*, both of these approaches are counterproductive. The hyperbolic non-scientist criticisms are too easy to dismiss. As soon as you start equating policy decisions with, for example, witch trials (OK – I’ve only seen two people do it), you can be safely ignored as someone with an axe to grind. The narrow scientist criticisms are just as badly off. As soon as you appeal to ‘the evidence’ without showing any appreciation of the policy process or a wider appreciation of policy decisions, you can be safely dismissed as naïve or self-interested.

Update: maybe more than 2 –

Further reading: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/ebpm/

For a pragmatic scientific account see:

Lawton, J. H. (2007) ‘Ecology, politics and policy’, Journal of Applied Ecology, 44,3, 465–74

*These views are my own, they are stated a bit strongly, apologies to Duncan and Euan, etc.


Filed under Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Scottish politics

PhD Students: research is hard and it’s OK to simplify

I’m going to list this under posts for social/ political science PhD students, but it has a broader applicability. The simple message is that: if you are finding it hard to research and write a complicated PhD it’s not all your fault.

There are practical ways to make academic social science research manageable. For example, most of my published work has been an exploration of specific theories, the description of a very specific case study, or a bit of both. The down side to this focus on specific case studies is that it is difficult to produce an overall sense of what is going on in the world (or even one country). It helps to use the same theory as a language with which to consider our accumulated knowledge from many cases, but the policy literature does not have a demonstrably good record on that front: there is a weird mix of detailed case studies in different places/ times/ policy areas, or a collection of large scale comparative studies which focus on a tiny part of the policy process. So, we may find it satisfying to complete a piece of case study research but be frustrated that it is difficult to relate our findings to those of our peers.

With Emily St Denny, I have begun to write a book which aims to do something different: focus on a policy solution – summed up in the terms ‘prevention’ and ‘early intervention’ – that connects many case studies. We are using the same theories and concepts to get a sense of policymaking across 2 governments (UK and Scottish) and many (if not most) government departments. This allows us to identify common practices, policymaking constraints, and lessons that would not be as apparent if the same analysis were conducted by different people at different times, using a range of not-quite-compatible conceptual frameworks (even if we were all aware of, and interested in, each other’s work – which is not as common as we’d like to think).

So, we sort-of solved the problem I described but we also produced a whole set of others, including:

  • With a focused case study or vignette you can limit your analysis to key time periods, decisions, and actors. With our study comes a sense that everything is connected; that every decision to ignore something seems to undermine the analysis arbitrarily.
  • With a case study based on qualitative interviews you can often argue that, by interviewing (say) 20-30 actors you have captured the responses of a large part of the relevant policy making/ influencing ‘population’ (and perhaps much more so than a survey sample in a quantitative project). With our study comes the sense that we are scratching the surface; that our list of interviewees will seem one step up from random.
  • With a detailed case study you can give the sense that you have made sense of a series of important events. With our study comes the temptation to admit that we struggle to make sense of what it going on.
  • You can generally complete case studies on your own. In our case, my sense is that we are only going to achieve some success because we have been funded for two years to work as a team (as part of a far larger team) and, perhaps, because our ESRC funding/ status gives us an ‘in’ with interviewees that I don’t think I enjoyed in the past.
  • If you specialise, you can generate a reputation as an expert in a niche area, and generate some simple lessons from your research. In our case, we either know a little about a lot, or will be tempted to say ‘life is complicated’ or ‘everything is connected’ or tear out our hair while we impart our wisdom (after we say ‘yes, we didn’t know what prevention policy was either’).

This is a very roundabout way of saying that research is hard, and that it is OK to produce a very specific piece of work to make it manageable enough to be completed in a set amount of time (such as a 3-year PhD). It might seem like you are ‘zooming in’ on something fairly unimportant in the grand scheme of things – like a sludgy brown piece of cardboard nothingness in a 10,000 piece jigsaw – but instead you are avoiding the problems that come with too much ‘zooming out’.

See also:

PhD chat

Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words

Comparing Theories of the Policy Process: A Brief Guide for Postgraduates

Paul Cairney (2013) ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: How Do We Combine the Insights of Multiple Theories in Public Policy Studies?’ Policy Studies Journal, 41, 1, 1-21  PDF

Paul Cairney and Michael Jones (2015) ‘Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Approach: What Is the Empirical Impact of this Universal Theory?’ Policy Studies Journal, PDF

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Filed under PhD, public policy

The Art and Skill of Academic Translation: it’s harder when you move beyond English

I have been writing about the idea of ‘translation’ in terms of ‘knowledge transfer’ or ‘diffusion’, which often suggests that there is a linear process of knowledge production and dissemination: knowledge is held by one profession which has to find the right language to pass it on to another. This approach has often been reflected in the strategies of academic and government bodies. Yet, the process is two-way. Both groups offer knowledge and the potential to have a meaningful conversation that suits both parties. If so, ‘translation’ becomes a way for them to engage in a meaningful way, to produce a common language that they can both ‘own’ and use. Examples include: the need for scientists to speak with policymakers about how the policy process works; the need for ‘complexity’ theorists to understand the limits to policymaker action in Westminster systems; the separate languages of institutions which struggle to come together during public service integration (key to local partnership and ‘joined up government’); and, the difference in the language used by service providers and users. We might also worry about the language we use to maintain interdisciplinary discussion (such as when ‘first order change’ means something totally different in physics and politics).

It’s not the same thing, but translating into another language, such as when conversing in English and Japanese, reinforces the point in an immediately visible way. In both directions, English to Japanese, and vice versa, it is clear that the recipient only receives a version of the original statement – even when people use a highly skilled interpreter. Further, if the statement is quite technical, or designed to pass on knowledge, the gap between original intention and the relayed message is wider still.

This point can be made more strongly in a short lecture using interpretation. As academics, many of us have been to conferences in English, and witnessed a presenter trying to cram in too much information in 15 minutes. They give a long introduction for 10, then race through the slides without explaining them, simply say that they can’t explain what they hoped, or keep going until the chair insists they stop. You don’t really get a good sense of the key arguments.

In another language, you have to reduce your time to less than half, to speak slowly and account for translation (simultaneous translation is quicker, but you still have to speak very slowly). You have to minimise the jargon (and the idioms) to allow effective translation. Or, you need to find the time to explain each specialist word. For example, while I would often provide an 8000 word paper to accompany a lecture/ workshop, this one is 1500. There is no visible theory, although theory tends to underpin what you focus on and how you explain it. It took 40 minutes to present, largely because I left a lot of topics for Q&A. I still had a hard time explaining some things. I predicted some (such as the difference between ‘federalism’ and ‘federacy’, and the meaning of ‘poll tax’ and ‘bedroom tax’) but realised, late on, that I’d struggle to explain others (such as ‘fracking’, or the unconventional drilling used to access and extract shale gas).

This sort of exercise is fantastically useful, to force you to think about the essential points in an argument, keep it short without referring to shorthand jargon, and explain them without assuming much prior knowledge in the audience, in the knowledge that things will just mean different things to different audiences. It is a skill like any other, and it forces on you a sense of discipline (one might develop a comparable skill when explaining complex issues to pre-University students).

Indeed, I have now done it so much, alongside writing short blog posts, that I find it hard to go back from Tokyo to jargon city. Each time I read something dense (on, for example, ‘meta-governance’), I ask myself if I could explain it to an audience whose first language is not English. If not, I wonder how useful it is, or if it is ever translated outside of a very small group.

This is increasingly important in the field of policy theory, when we consider the use of theories, developed in English and applied to places such as the US and UK, and applied to countries around the globe (see Using Traditional Policy Theories and Concepts in Untraditional Ways). If you can’t explain them well, how can you work out if the same basic concepts are being used to explain things in different countries?

Further, we don’t know, until we listen to our audience, what they want to know and how they will understand what we say. Let me give you simple examples from my Hokkaido lecture. One panellist was a journalist from Okinawa. He used what I said to argue that we should learn from the Scots; to develop a national identity-based social movement, and to be like Adam Smith (persevering with a regional accent, and a specific view of the world, in the face of snobbishness and initial scepticism; note that I hadn’t mentioned Adam Smith). Another panelist, a journalist from Hokkaido, argued that the main lesson from Scotland is that you have to be tenacious; the Scots faced many obstacles to self-determination, but they persevered and saw the results, and still persevere despite the setback (for some) of the referendum result (I pointed out that ‘the 45%’ are not always described as tenacious!). Another contributor wondered why Thatcherism was so unpopular in Scotland when we can see that, for example, it couldn’t have saved Scottish manufacturing and was perhaps proved correct after not trying to do so. Others use the Scottish experience to highlight a similar sense of central government imposition or aloofness in Japan (from the perspective of the periphery).

In general, this problem of academic translation is difficult enough when you share a common language, but the need to translate, in two ways, brings it to the top of the agenda. In short, if we take the idea of translation seriously, it is not just about a technical process in which words are turned into a direct equivalent in another language and you expect the audience to be informed or do the work to become informed. It is about thinking again about what we think we know, and how much of that knowledge we can share with other people.

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Filed under Academic innovation or navel gazing, Japan, public policy, Scottish independence, Scottish politics

Why would the UK Government take a tough line with the Scottish Government after a Yes or No vote?

Update: so far, the main reaction to the Scottish No vote has been David Cameron’s plan to address the idea of ‘English Votes for English Laws’, plus some wider discussion of how to address the English Question. From what I can tell, no one has yet told politicians in Scotland to get stuffed. Instead, The Vow, coupled with Gordon Brown’s intervention, has kept quick and ‘extensive’ further devolution high on the agenda on Scotland and it remains to be seen if constitutional change for England will get the same attention.

Judging by some of the rhetoric on the Scottish independence referendum, one thing is certain: the UK Government will take a tough line with the Scottish Government. If there is a Yes vote, it will defend UK interests to the hilt. If there is a No vote, and the Scottish Government seeks further devolution, it will assert the rights of the rest of the UK. Why will this happen? Well, because the UK Government acts in the interests of the rest of the UK, and the rest of the UK – and England in particular – is waking up to Scotland’s privileged position within the Union.

At least, that’s what I’ve heard. Beyond this assertion, how can we demonstrate that the rest of the UK is ready to put pressure on the UK Government to take a tough line? I think there are three sources of relevant information, only two of which reinforce this argument.

The first is personal testimony from politicians, either directly in interview, or indirectly through the columns of journalists, including:

  • The decision by George Osborne, Ed Balls and Danny Alexander to rule out a currency union, on the basis that it is against the UK interest (Alexander also argues that it is against the Scottish interest).
  • Boris Johnson’s suggestion that there is no reason to grant the Scottish Parliament more powers in the event of a No vote.
  • Nigel Farage’s suggestion, in a BBC documentary, that a Yes vote would provoke the rest of the UK, and England in particular, to wake up and protect its interests (followed by vox pops making this claim in stronger terms).
  • Archetypal media commentary, such as Adrian Woolridge’s caricature of an English response, describing the opportunity to ‘turn off the tap’ (end subsidies for Scotland) after a Yes vote, or invite the Scots to shut up after a No vote (note that the first three paragraphs are set up to get your attention for a more subtle argument in the remainder).

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The second is quantitative survey research. For example, an IPPR press release in 2012 argues that: ‘The evidence presented here suggests the emergence of what might be called an ‘English political community’, one marked by notable concerns within England about the seeming privileges of Scotland in particular and a growing questioning of the capacity of the current UK-level political institutions to pursue and defend English interests, and one underpinned by a deepening sense of English identity. The full report by Richard Wyn Jones and colleagues suggests that a small majority of people who feel ‘English, not British’ or ‘More English than British’ believe that Scotland gets more than its ‘fair share’ (p27). It is not a majority of the English respondents as a whole – but the 44% response in 2011 is more than double the (21%) response in 2000 (see p116 of the Scottish independence chapter, by John Curtice and Rachel Ormston, in British Social Attitudes 29).

This was followed by a YouGov/ University of Cardiff survey of 3705 English adults which suggests that attitudes towards Scotland have hardened, on several measures. When asked:

  • If Scotland ‘should be able to continue to use the pound’, 53% disagreed and 23% agreed (15% neither, 9% DK).
  • If ‘Levels of public spending in Scotland should be reduced to the levels in the rest of the UK’, 56% agreed and 9% disagreed (21%, 13%).

Respondents were happy enough for the Scottish Parliament to take control over ‘the majority of taxes raised in Scotland’ and the welfare state, but not too keen to help it join international organizations.

The third is a mixture of qualitative and quantitative. In this case, the aim is to allow people to speak for themselves without a questionnaire setting the agenda. In other words, if you ask people , in a questionnaire, if Scots get more than their fair share, many will say ‘yes’ without having given it much thought. You don’t get a brilliant feel for the way in which they prioritise important issues – and you don’t know if they would have articulated this concern in the absence of someone asking them about it. The alternative is to simply raise a broad issue and ask people to say what they think. This approach has been done to great effect by Susan Condor (2010) in the journal article Devolution and national identity: the rules of English (dis)engagement, which draws on ‘1,652 conversational interview transcripts collected between 2000 and 2009’. The argument that is most striking to me is that: ‘most people remain unaware of the policy issues that excite so much interest among the political and intellectual elite’. In other words, politicians and journalists talk as if they represent the will of a population, without providing much evidence that the population knows or cares as much about the issues as they do.

The major caveat to this third argument is that the research took place before surveys started picking up a growing sense of English national identity (and before it started having some sort of impact on electoral behaviour via support for UKIP). Yet, it should still give us pause, to wonder: if Susan Condor repeated this research, would it support or undermine the assertion that there will be an English backlash to Scottish independence or further devolution?



Filed under Scottish independence, Scottish politics, UK politics and policy