Tag Archives: the politics of research

Policy Analysis in 750 words: Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies

Please see the  Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading the summary. The reference to 750 words is increasingly misleading.

Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies 2nd edition (London: Zed Books)

 ‘Whose research is it? Who owns it? Whose interests does it serve? Who will benefit from it? Who has designed its questions and framed its cope? Who will carry it out? Who will write it up? How will its results be disseminated?’ (Smith, 2012: 10; see also 174-7)

Many texts in this series highlight the politics of policy analysis, but few (such as Bacchi) identify the politics of the research that underpins policy analysis.

You can find some discussion of these issues in the brief section on ‘co-production’, in wider studies of co-produced research and policy, and ‘evidence based policymaking’, and in posts on power and knowledge and feminist institutionalism. However, the implications rarely feed into standard policy analysis texts. This omission is important, because the production of knowledge – and the exercise of power to define whose knowledge counts – is as political as it gets.

Smith (2012) demonstrates this point initially by identifying multiple, often hidden, aspects of politics and power that relate to ‘research’ and ‘indigenous peoples’:


  1. The term ‘indigenous peoples’ is contested, and its meaning-in-use can range from
  • positive self-identification, to highlight common international experiences and struggles for self-determination but distinctive traditions; other terms include ‘First Nations’ in Canada or, in New Zealand, ‘Maori’ as opposed to ‘Pakeha’ (the colonizing population) (2012: 6)
  • negative external-identification, including – in some cases – equating ‘indigenous’ (or similar terms) with ‘dirtiness, savagery, rebellion and, since 9/11, terrorism’ (2012: xi-xii).


  1. From the perspective of ‘the colonized’, “the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism” (2012: 1; 21-6). Western research practices (and the European ‘Enlightenment’) reflect and reinforce political practices associated with colonial rule (2012: 2; 23).

To the colonized, the ways in which academic research has been implicated in the throes of imperialism remains a painful memory’ (2012: back cover).

“The word itself, ‘research’, is probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous world’s vocabulary” (2012: xi).


  1. People in indigenous communities describe researchers who exploit ‘their culture, their knowledge, their resources’ (and, in some cases, their bodies) to bolster their own income, career or profession (2012: xi; 91-4; 102-7), in the context of a long history of subjugation and slavery that makes such practices possible (2012: 21-6; 28-9; 176-7), and “justified as being for ‘the good of mankind’” (2012: 26).



  1. Western researchers think – hubristically – that they can produce a general understanding of the practices and cultures of indigenous peoples (e.g. using anthropological methods). Instead, they produce – irresponsibly or maliciously – negative and often dehumanizing images that feed into policies ‘employed to deny the validity of indigenous peoples’ claim to existence’ and solve the ‘indigenous problem’ (2012: 1; 8-9; 26-9; 62-5; 71-2; 81-91; 94-6).

For example, research contributes to a tendency for governments to

  • highlight, within indigenous communities, indicators of inequality (in relation to factors such as health, education, crime, and family life), and relate it to
  • indigenous cultures and low intelligence, rather than
  • the ways in which colonial legacy and current policy contributes to poverty and marginalisation (2012: 4; 12; compare with Social Construction and Policy Design).


  1. Western researchers’ views on how to produce high-quality scientific evidence lead them to ‘see indigenous peoples, their values and practices as political hindrances that get in the way of good research’ (2012: xi; 66-71; compare with ‘hierarchy of evidence’). Similarly, the combination of a state’s formal laws and unwritten rules and assumptions can serve to dismiss indigenous community knowledge as not meeting evidential standards (2012: 44-9).


  1. Many indigenous researchers need to negotiate the practices and expectations of different groups, such as if they are portrayed as:
  • ‘insiders’ in relation to an indigenous community (and, for example, expected by that community to recognise the problems with Western research traditions)
  • ‘outsiders’, by (a) an indigenous community in relation to their ‘Western education’ (2012: 5), or (b) by a colonizing state commissioning insider research
  • less technically proficient or less likely to maintain confidentiality than a ‘non-indigenous researcher’ (2012: 12)

Can policy analysis be informed by a new research agenda?

In that context, Smith (2012: xiii; 111-25) outlines a new agenda built on the recognition that research is political and connected explicitly to political and policy aims (2012: xiii; compare with Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Critical Policy Studies)

At its heart is a commitment to indigenous community ‘self-determination’, ‘survival’, ‘recovery’, and ‘development’, aided by processes such as social movement mobilization and decolonization (2012: 121). This agenda informs the meaning of ethical conduct, signalling that research:

  • serves explicit political goals and requires researchers to reflect on their role as activists in an emancipatory project, in contrast to the disingenuous argument that science or scientists are objective (2012: 138-42; 166-77; 187-8; 193-5; 198-215; 217-26)
  • is not ‘something done only by white researchers to indigenous peoples’ (2012: 122),
  • is not framed so narrowly, in relation to specific methods or training, that it excludes (by definition) most indigenous researchers, community involvement in research design, and methods such as storytelling (2012: 127-38; 141; for examples of methods, see 144-63; 170-1)
  • requires distinctive methods and practices to produce knowledge, reinforced by mutual support during the nurturing of such practices
  • requires a code of respectful conduct that extends ‘beyond issues of individual consent and confidentiality’) (2012: 124; 179-81).

Wider context: informing the ‘steps’ to policy analysis

This project informs directly the ‘steps’ to policy analysis described in Bardach, Weimer and Vining, and Mintrom, including:

Problem definition

Mintrom describes the moral and practical value of engaging with stakeholders to help frame policy problems and design solutions (as part of a similarly-worded aim to transform and improve the world).

However, Smith (2012: 228-32; 13) describes such a profound gulf, in the framing of problems, that cannot be bridged simply via consultation or half-hearted ‘co-production’ exercises.

For example, if a government policy analyst relates poor health to individual and cultural factors in indigenous communities, and people in those communities relate it to colonization, land confiscation, minimal self-determination, and an excessive focus on individuals, what could we realistically expect from set-piece government-led stakeholder analyses built on research that has already set the policy agenda (compare with Bacchi)?

Rather, Smith (2012: 15-16) describes the need, within research practices, for continuous awareness of, and respect for, a community’s ‘cultural protocols, values and behaviours’ as part of ‘an ethical and respectful approach’. Indeed, the latter could have mutual benefits which underpin the long-term development of trust: a community may feel less marginalised by the analysis-to-policy process, and future analysts may be viewed with less suspicion.

Even so, a more respectful policy process is not the same as accepting that some communities may benefit more from writing about their own experiences than contributing to someone else’s story. Writing about the past, present, and future is an exercise of power to provide a dominant perspective with which to represent people and problems (2012: 29-41; 52-9)

Analysing and comparing solutions

Imagine a cost-benefit analysis designed to identify the most efficient outcomes by translating all of the predicted impacts on people into a single unit of analysis (such as a dollar amount, or quality-adjusted-life-years). Assumptions include that we can: (a) assign the same value to a notionally similar experience, and (b) produce winners from policy and compensate losers.

Yet, this calculation hinges on the power to decide how we should understand such experiences and place relative values on outcomes, and to take a calculation of their value to one population and generalise it to others. Smith’s analysis suggests that such processes will not produce outcomes that we can describe honestly as societal improvements. Rather, they feed into a choice to produce winners from policy and fail to compensate losers in an adequate or appropriate manner.

See also:

  1. In relation to policy theories

This post – Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Critical Policy Studies – provides a tentative introduction to the ways in which many important approaches can inform policy theories, such as by

The 2nd edition of Understanding Public Policy summarises these themes as follows:

p49 2nd ed UPPp50 2nd ed UPP

  1. In relation to policy analysis

If you look back to the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview, you will see that a popular way to address policy issues is through the ‘coproduction’ of research and policy, perhaps based on a sincere commitment to widen a definition of useful knowledge/ ways of thinking and avoid simply making policy from the ‘centre’ or ‘top down’.

Yet, the post you are now reading, summarising Decolonizing Methodologies, should prompt us to question the extent to which a process could be described sincerely as ‘coproduction’ if there is such an imbalance of power and incongruence of ideas between participants.

Although many key texts do not discuss ‘policy analysis’ directly, they provide ways to reflect imaginatively on this problem. I hope that I am not distorting their original messages, but please note that the following are my stylized interpretations of key texts.

Audre Lorde (2018*) The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House (Penguin) (*written from 1978-82)

Lorde Masters Tools

One issue with very quick client-oriented policy analysis is that it encourages analysts to (a) work with an already-chosen definition of the policy problem, and (b) use well-worn methods to collect information, including (c) engaging with ideas and people with whom they are already familiar.

Some forms of research and policy analysis may be more conducive to challenging existing frames and encouraging wider stakeholder engagement. Still, compare this mild shift from the status quo with a series of issues and possibilities identified by Lorde (2018):

  • Some people are so marginalised and dismissed that they struggle to communicate – about the ways in which they are oppressed, and how they might contribute to imagining a better world – in ways that would be valued (or even noticed) during stakeholder consultation (2018: 1-5 ‘Poetry is not a luxury’).
  • The ‘european-american male tradition’ only allows for narrowly defined (‘rational’) means of communication (2018: 6-15 ‘Uses of the Erotic’)

A forum can be designed ostensibly to foster communication and inclusivity, only to actually produce the opposite, by signalling to some participants that

  • they are a token afterthought, whose views and experiences are – at best – only relevant to a very limited aspect of a wide discussion, and
  • their differences will be feared, not celebrated, becoming a source of conflict, not mutual nurture or cooperation.

It puts marginalised people in the position of having to work hard simply to be heard. They learn that powerful people are only willing to listen if others do the work for them, because (a) they are ignorant of experiences other than their own, and/or (b) they profess ignorance strategically to suck the energy from people whose views they fear and do not understand. No one should feel immune from such criticism even if they profess to be acting with good intentions (2018: 16-21 ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’).

  • The correct response to racism is anger. Therefore, do not prioritise (a) narrow rules of civility, or the sensibilities of the privileged, if (b) your aim is to encourage conversations with people who are trying to express the ways in which they deal with overwhelming and continuous hatred, violence, and oppression (2018: 22-35, ‘Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism’)

Boaventura de Sousa Santos (2014) Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide (Routledge)

Sousa cover

Imagine global policy processes and policy analysis, in which some countries and international organisations negotiate agreements, influenced (or not) by critical social movements in pursuit of social justice. Santos (2014) identifies a series of obstacles including:

  • A tendency for Western (as part of the Global North) ways of thinking to dominate analysis, at the expense of insights from the Global South (2014: viii), producing
  • A tendency for ‘Western centric’ ideas to inform the sense that some concepts and collective aims – such as human dignity and human rights – can be understood universally, rather than through the lens of struggles that are specific to some regions (2014: 21; 38)
  • A lack of imagination or willingness to imagine different futures and conceptions of social justice (2014: 24)

Consequently, actors may come together to discuss major policy change on ostensibly the same terms, only for some groups to – intentionally and unintentionally – dominate thought and action and reinforce the global inequalities they propose to reduce.

Sarah Ahmed (2017) Living a Feminist Life (Duke University Press)

Ahmed cover.jpg

Why might your potential allies in ‘coproduction’ be suspicious of your motives, or sceptical about the likely outcomes of such an exchange? One theme throughout Smith’s (2012) book is that people often co-opt key terms (such as ‘decolonizing’) to perform the sense that they care about social change, to try to look like they are doing something important, while actually designing ineffective or bad faith processes to protect the status of themselves or their own institution or profession.

Ahmed (2017: 103) describes comparable initiatives – such as to foster ‘equality and diversity’ – as a public relations exercise for organisations, rather than a sincere desire to do the work. Consequently, there is a gap ‘between a symbolic commitment and a lived reality’ (2017: 90). Indeed, the aim may be to project a sense of transformation to hinder that transformation (2017: 90), coupled with a tendency to use a ‘safe’ and non-confrontational language (‘diversity’) to project the sense that we can only push people so far, at the expense of terms such as ‘racism’ that would signal challenge, confrontation, and a commitment to high impact (2017: chapter 4).


Putting these insights together suggests that a stated commitment to co-produced research and policy might begin with good intentions. Even so, a commitment to sincere engagement does not guarantee an audience or prevent you from exacerbating the very problems you profess to solve.


Filed under 750 word policy analysis, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), public policy, Research design, Storytelling