Rethinking Path Dependence In Public Policy Research Paper

Knowledge shapes policy

A range of theories and models of the relationship between academic knowledge and policy were developed by US and UK scholars in the 1970s and 1980s (Blume, 1977; Caplan, 1979; Rein, 1980; Weiss, 1977, 1979). Notably, a number of contributions produced ‘instrumental’ models of knowledge utilisation (see Weiss, 1979 for an overview), according to which knowledge either ‘drives’ policy, or policy problems stimulate research to provide direct solutions (again, see Weiss, 1979). Much of the work undertaken in the 1970s and 1980s demonstrated that while there are occasional examples of research feeding into policy in this manner, such simple models failed to capture the intricacies of the interactions between research and policy (Rein, 1980; Weiss, 1979). Yet, it was precisely these simple, instrumental notions of the role of research in policy that seem to have become increasingly embedded within UK policy, including higher education policy, leading Parsons to reflect that the Labour government’s commitments to ‘evidence-based policymaking’ marked:

not so much a step forward as a step backwards: a return to the quest for a positivist yellow brick road leading to a promised policy dry ground-somewhere, over Charles Lindblom - where we can know ‘what works’ and from which government can exercise strategic guidance. (Parsons, 2002, p 45)

Understandably, official commitments to employing evidence in a direct, linear sense triggered a raft of assessments of the extent to which particular policies do reflect the available evidence. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of these found the government’s use of evidence has been highly selective (e.g., Boswell 2009a, 2009b; Katikireddi et al., 2011; Naughton, 2005; Stevens, 2007) and this, in turn, has triggered renewed interest in two, more complex models of the ways in which research knowledge shapes policy, each of which has very different implications for the research impact agenda.

The first of these approaches seeks to address what is perceived as a ‘gap’ between the research and policy communities. On this account, research has the potential to be highly relevant to policy, but its impact is often reduced by problems of communication. Research may not be disseminated in a form that is relevant or accessible to policy-makers; or officials have insufficient resources to process and apply research findings. For example, Lomas (2000) and Lavis (2006) both underline the importance of achieving shared understandings between researchers and policymakers, arguing that increased interaction between the two groups will improve the use of research in policy. These authors tend to assume that research would be more frequently employed by policymakers if only they could better access and understand the findings and if the findings were of relevance. Thus the focus is on improving the mechanisms of communication, and the levels of trust, between researchers and policymakers. A stronger version of this ‘gap’ account posits that this reflects a deeper cultural gap between researchers and policy actors. Thus Caplan (1979) suggests that these actors should be seen as distinct ‘communities’ guided by different values and beliefs–a notion we discuss further in the fourth set of theories, considered later in the paper.

The weaker version of this ‘gap’ approach, however, suggests that there are various practical steps that can be taken to improve the flow of knowledge from research to policy. Indeed, several reviews of knowledge transfer provide practical recommendations for researchers seeking to influence policy (Contandriopoulos et al., 2010; Innvaer et al., 2002; Mitton et al., 2007; Nutley et al., 2003; Oliver et al., 2013; Walter et al., 2005), suggesting researchers should ensure research is accessible, by providing clear, concise, timely summaries of the research, tailored to appropriate audiences; and develop ongoing, collaborative relationships with potential users to increase levels of trust and shared definitions of policy problems and responses. In structural terms, the findings of these reviews call for improved communication channels, via ‘knowledge broker’ roles and/or knowledge transfer training and sufficiently high incentives for researchers and research users to engage in knowledge exchange. Of the various conceptualisations of the relationship between research knowledge and policy, it is this way of thinking which appears to have had most influence on current approaches to incentivising research impact in the UK. As we shall see, however, the approach is widely criticised by the alternative theories of research-policy relations we explore later in the article.

A second popular theory of how research shapes policy emerges from Weiss’ (1977, 1979) notion of the ‘enlightenment’ function of knowledge in policymaking. This account proposes that knowledge shapes policy through diffuse processes, resulting from the activities of various, overlapping networks, which contribute to broader, incremental and often largely conceptual changes (Hird, 2005; Walt, 1994). Radaelli’s (1995) notion of ‘knowledge creep’ is one of several more recent conceptualisations to build on this idea, and we can find similar assumptions in ideational theories of policy change (Béland, 2009; Hall, 1993; Schmidt, 2008). The implication of these accounts is that research influences policy over long periods through gradual changes in actors’ perceptions and ways of thinking (an idea that is also evident in theories of co-production, as discussed later) rather than through immediate, direct impacts. Whilst this body of work does not discount the possibility that research might contribute to what eventually become significant shifts in policy approaches, it suggests that assessments aiming to trace the impact of research on particular policy outcomes are likely to miss a potentially broader, more diffuse kind of conceptual influence.

The implications of this way of conceptualising the relationship between academic knowledge and policy for ideas about research impact are more challenging (indeed, the ‘enlightenment’ model has been criticised by some scholars seeking to improve the use of evidence in policy for its lack of practical utility (Nutley et al., 2007)). Taking the more conceptual influence of research seriously suggests that incentives for achieving impact ought to shift away from individual researchers and projects to consider how to support the collective diffusion of much more diverse (potentially interdisciplinary) bodies of work. Given that multiple authors are likely to be involved, and that various factors unrelated to the underpinning research (or its communication) are likely to inform when and how knowledge shapes policy, it seems to make little sense to reward individual researchers (or even teams of researchers) for ‘achieving’ research impact. Instead, research impact might be supported by encouraging groups of researchers to work together on developing policy messages from diverse studies on particular policy topics (or, to support knowledge brokers to do this kind of work).

This is a very different model from both the RCUK pathways to impact approach, which encourages individual researchers or research teams to try to achieve research impacts on the back of single studies, and the REF impact case study approach, which encourages single institutions to narrate stories of impact based solely on the work of researchers they employ. Indeed, recent assessments of the REF impact case study approach have specifically highlighted the tendency not to adequately support these kinds of synthesised approaches to achieving impact (Manville et al., 2015; Smith and Stewart, 2016). For the moment, while some of the guidance documents relating to the UK impact agenda do acknowledge conceptual forms of influence, the mechanisms for monitoring and rewarding impact seem preoccupied with ‘instrumental’ research impact achieved on the back of research undertaken by individual researchers or small groups within single institutions.

Politics shapes knowledge

Perhaps the most obvious critique of the ‘knowledge shapes policy’ model reverses this relationship to highlight the various ways in which policies and politics shape knowledge and the use of knowledge. There is a rich body of literature theorising how state-building and modern techniques of governance have shaped the production of social knowledge (Foucault, 1991, Heclo, 1974; Rueschemeyer and Skocpol, 1996), as well as how power relations are implicated in the construction of expert authority (Gramsci, 2009). What these diverse contributions share is the notion that an underlying political project is driving research production and utilisation, whether that project is the production of self-regulating subjects (as some Foucauldian interpretations suggest) or the continuing dominance of ruling elites and ideologies (as Gramscian analyses tend to posit). From this perspective, research utilisation in policymaking is understood as profoundly constrained; whilst those involved in the construction of policy are not necessarily consciously aware of the forces shaping their decisions, any attempt to engage with research must be understood as part of a wider political project. At the very least, such analyses suggest that only research that can be used to support these dominant ideas and interests will be employed in policymaking, while research that challenges dominant ideas will be discounted (see Wright et al., 2007). A stronger interpretation would hold that the research process is itself shaped by the ‘powerful interests’ directing policy agendas (e.g., Navarro, 2004).

The more applied literature concerning the relationship between research and policy also provides examples of this way of thinking about the relationship. In her overview of various ‘models’ of the relationship between research and policy, Weiss, for example, describes what she calls the ‘political model’, where research is deployed to support pre-given policy preferences; as well as a ‘tactical model’, where research is used as a method of delaying the decision-making process, providing policymakers with some ‘breathing space’ (Weiss, 1979). In the first case, the research process itself is not necessarily informed by politics but the decision to employ research (or not) is entirely political. In other words, political ideology and/or more strategic party politics inform the ways in which political actors respond to research evidence (e.g., Bambra, 2013). In the second, the commissioning of research might itself be understood as a political act (or, at least, an act that creates political benefits–see Bailey and Scott‐Jones 1984). In either case, efforts to reward researchers for ‘achieving’ research impact would seem misplaced.

The extent to which politics can shape research is perhaps most overt in research that is directly commissioned by sources with particular political/policy interests; reviews have repeatedly demonstrated that research funded by commercial sources, such as the pharmaceutical (e.g., Lundh et al., 2012) and tobacco industries (e.g., Bero, 2005), is more likely to present findings that are useful to those interests (see also Bailey and Scott‐Jones, 1984). In other contexts, it has been suggested that researchers may struggle to maintain their independence where research is commissioned directly, or indirectly, by government sources (e.g., Barnes, 1996; Smith, 2010). This kind of political influence may be felt both overtly and subtly, with researchers responding to signals from research funders as to what is likely to be funded (and what is not), what they are hoping (or expecting) to be found and what they are not (Knorr-Cetina, 1981; Smith, 2010), as we discuss further in the following section.

A second group of theories which call attention to the way in which politics can shape knowledge focus on the impact of institutions and organisational structures on policymaking and research. Similar to the previous group of theories, such accounts assume that the wider structures in which actors are located are key to explaining policy outcomes. Whilst the more political accounts discussed above highlight the ways in which power relations and elite interests can shape research and its use, these theories focus on organisational and decision-making structures. The most well-known of such theories are the various forms of institutionalism, of which ‘historical institutionalism’ is one of the most widely employed forms (see Immergut, 1998 for an overview). From this perspective, rather than constituting the collective result of individual preferences, policy processes (including efforts to engage with research) are considered to be significantly shaped by the historically constructed institutions and policy procedures within which they are embedded (Immergut, 1998).

Those who have contributed to the development of this genre of work have emphasised that such theories do not suggest that particular policy outcomes are inevitable–and indeed, as we discussed in the previous sections, under certain conditions existing paradigms can be superseded by new ideas, leading to substantial policy change (Hall, 1993). However, such theories do suggest that it becomes increasingly difficult to change the overall direction of a policy trajectory as previous decisions become ever more deeply embedded in institutional structures and ways of thinking (e.g., Kay, 2005). Employing these kinds of theories, Smith (2013b) has demonstrated how the institutionalisation of particular ideas about health and economic policy function as filters to research-based ideas about health inequalities, encouraging those ideas that support existing institutionalised ideas (or ‘policy paradigms’) to move into policy, while blocking or significantly transforming more challenging ideas.

This way of thinking about the relationship between knowledge and policy suggests that research is constantly being influenced by policy and politics and that efforts to bring researchers and policymakers closer together are like to exacerbate this in ways that may not be desirable. At best, from this perspective, the research impact agenda seems likely to reward some academics (and not others) for achieving impacts that had far more to do with political interests and agendas than the research or impact activities of those academics. At worst, the impact agenda will lead to the increasing politicisation of research (and an associated reduction in academic freedom). Indeed, some of the most critical responses to the impact agenda are informed by these kinds of concerns. Cohen (2000) and Hammersley (2005), for example, have warned that the restrictions being placed on publicly-funded research to be ‘useful’ to policy audiences is limiting the potential for academics to promote ideas that are out-of-line with government policies. Likewise, Davey Smith et al., (2001), argue that efforts to achieve evidence-based policy may, in fact, do more to stimulate research that is shaped by policy needs than to encourage better use of research in policy-making.


A third way of theorising research-policy relations has emerged from science and technology studies (STS), and posits a much more complex inter-relationship between knowledge production and governance. This approach is encapsulated in the idea of ‘co-production’: the claim that knowledge and governance are mutually constitutive (Jasanoff, 2004).

Similar to the approaches discussed in the last section, such accounts see knowledge as profoundly shaped by politics. But the notion of co-production focuses not just on the social and political constitution of science. It is also attentive to the other direction of influence: the ways in which governance is itself constituted by scientific knowledge. So rather than limiting its attention to how politics shapes knowledge, the notion of co-production posits that scientific and expert knowledge contribute to the construction of political reality (an idea that is, in some ways, simply a stronger version of Weiss’ (1979) account of the enlightenment function of research, discussed earlier). Knowledge provides the concepts, data and tools that underpin our knowledge of social and policy problems and appropriate modes of steering (Voß and Freeman, 2016). Sheila Jasanoff (2004) is arguably the most influential exponent of this approach. In her book States of Knowledge, she explores how knowledge-making is an inherent part of the practices of state-making and governance. States ‘are made of knowledge, just as knowledge is constituted by states’ (Jasanoff, 2004, p 3). Moreover, STS scholars have shown how science does not just produce knowledge and theories that help define social problems and appropriate responses. It also produces skills, machines, instruments and technologies that are deployed in governance (Pickering, 1995).

An important concept informing this approach is that of performativity. This is the idea that social enquiry and its methods are ‘productive’: rather than simply describing social reality, they help to make or enact the social world (Law and Urry, 2004). Indeed, social science needs to be understood as fundamentally embedded in, produced by, but also productive of the social world (Giddens, 1990). Social science thus has effects–it creates concepts and labels, classifications and distinctions, comparisons and techniques that transform the social world. Such concepts and techniques can also help bring into existence the social objects they describe. Osborne and Rose (1999) illustrate this idea with the case of public opinion, a social phenomenon that was effectively created in the 1930s through the emergence of new methods of polling and survey analysis, and is now thoroughly normalised as an object of social scientific enquiry. Similarly, Donald MacKenzie (2006) has explored the performativity of economic models, showing how the theory of options shaped practices in trading and hedging in the financial sector from the 1970s onwards. Similar ideas have been explored by Colin Hay (2007) in his discussion of political disaffection. He argues that public choice theory has contributed to the ‘marketisation’ of party politics, implying that such theories have been ‘performative’ (although he does not use this term).

Theories of co-production also show how science can produce social problems. Through its various scientific and technical innovations, science does not simply solve governance problems, but it also creates new ones (Jasanoff, 2004). The frantic pace of development and progress in science and technology produce a continuous stream of new problems and solutions, which governments often struggle to keep pace with. So new research does not just offer ways of ordering the social world, but can also destabilise existing structures and modes of governance. In areas of policy that are highly dependent on technology and science–such as energy, health, agriculture or defence - policy develops almost in pursuit of science, in an attempt to catch up with, harness and regulate the new technologies and practices it has produced. Thus science creates the very problems that need to be addressed through political intervention (Beck, 1992). The demand for ever more problem-solving knowledge is effectively built into the structure of policy-research relations.

What implications do these approaches have for defining and measuring impact? First, they suggest that we cannot neatly disentangle processes of knowledge production from those of governance. This is not merely an epistemological question–a challenge of finding the right methods or observational techniques to allow us to separate out how social scientific findings have influenced politics or policy (although this is of course difficult to do). It represents a more fundamental ontological problem, in that social scientific knowledge is co-constitutive of politics. Imagine, for example, trying to chart the ‘impact’ of public choice theories on politics. We would not only face the methodological challenge of charting the subtle and incremental processes through which a wide variety of social actors (including politicians, campaigners, lobbyists and the media) appropriated public choice theories about political agency. We would also need to understand the ongoing feedback effects through which such ideas brought about shifts in the behaviour of these actors, in turn gradually transforming political behaviour. If we accept the possibility of such effects, then we need to also consider how such shifts may in turn validate the theories that originally produced them, enhancing their authority and influence. The relationship between social science and politics in this example is one of continuous mutual influence and reinforcement.

Second, the notion of co-production suggests that social science may itself produce social problems that require political responses. Studies of public opinion offer a good example of this. A survey of public attitudes may ‘discover’ unarticulated claims and preferences, which produce new demands for political action. In 2014, Jeffery et al., (2014) found a strong desire on the part of the English respondents they surveyed for institutions that better represented and articulated ‘English’ views. This could be charted as ‘impact’ insofar as the findings of the survey were picked up by politicians and influenced claims-making about UK constitutional reform (and indeed it was submitted as a case study to REF2014). But the research can also be understood as producing a new set of political problems. It encouraged a number of survey respondents to articulate a set of preferences which may previously have been nascent or unspecified. These preferences were then presented as a collective and coherent political claim, which in turn implied the need for enhanced political representation and constitutional reform. Research thus contributed to the construction of a new social problem requiring a political response. As with the case of public choice theory, we can also posit a feedback effect, whereby the social and political adjustments generated by the research might in turn further validate the findings. As politicians sought to represent and mobilise these preferences, this created further political expectations and demands, thereby substantiating the initial research claim that the English desire their own institutions.

One implication of this account is that REF or HEFCE models do not do justice to the more pervasive (but often subtle) influence of social science on policy. Another is that they overlook the feedback effects described above, whereby the political adjustments enacted through social science in turn validate (or possible discredit) the authority of research findings or methods. And a third is that they may actively encourage forms of interference that create more problems than they solve. Policy impact may not always be benign, as we noted earlier.

Assuming we accept such impacts as desirable, how might these processes of co-production be best captured and accredited? They would require quite resource-intensive methodologies, as well as forms of expertise that are not necessarily available across disciplines. Each case study would effectively be a social scientific project in its own right, explored though a range of qualitative and quantitative methods, such as ethnography (as Baim-Lance and Vindrola-Padros, 2015, argue in more detail) process tracing, discourse analysis, interviews and surveys. It is hard to imagine sufficient resource being available for such indepth enquiry, or, indeed, for buy-in to such models and methodologies from across (non-social science) disciplines.

Autonomous spheres

Our final approach to theorising research-policy relations understands science and politics as distinct spheres, each operating according to a separate logic and system of meaning. As we saw earlier, one version of this account is Caplan’s (1979) ‘two communities’ thesis, which identifies a ‘cultural gap’ between researchers and policymakers. This conceptualisation has been subject to a range of critiques, not least, as Lindquist (1990) points out, the fact that this way of thinking about the relationship excludes a range of potentially important actors, such as journalists, consultants and lobbyists. Despite this, whilst not always referring to Caplan’s (1979) work directly, many contemporary assessments of the limited use of research in policy and practice frequently mirror Caplan’s observations by highlighting perceived ‘gaps’ between researchers, policymakers and/or practitioners as a fundamental barrier to the use of research.

In this section, we focus on a more radical account of this ‘gap’, associated with the systems theory of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (e.g., Luhmann, 1996). On a Luhmannian systems theory account, science and politics are both understood as self-referential or ‘autopoietic’ systems. Although mutually dependent in important ways (they could not survive in a recognisable form without one another), each operates according to its own logic or ‘communicative code’, which determines which communications are relevant to the system. There is no causality or direct influence across systems: rather, operations in one system are selectively perceived and given meaning according to the codes and logics of another system. Thus it does not make sense to conceive of flows, diffusion or causality across systems, and STS concepts such as ‘performativity’ or ‘co-production’ need to be carefully re-specified in terms of how one system ‘models’ and responds to the operations of another.

Luhmann understands the primary building blocks of modern society not as individuals or groups, but as functionally differentiated social systems. Modern societies are increasingly sub-divided into specialised, self-referential systems such as education, health, economy, religion, welfare, science or politics. Each of these systems operates according to its own distinct codes, programmes, logic and mode of inclusion. Unlike on Caplan’s account, these systems are not distinguished in terms of members or institutions. Systems do not consist of discrete groups of people, indeed one person or one organisation can participate in several different systems. However, systems are distinguished in terms of sets of differentiated roles and activities. Each system retains its distinctiveness through developing its own criteria of selection, which help it reduce complexity by only selecting those communications which are relevant to the system.

On this account, science and politics are separate function-systems. Science (including social science) operates according to a binary code of true/false. In other words, it defines relevant communication based on whether it is concerned with establishing truth claims. The system of politics, meanwhile, selects relevant communication on the basis of the binary code of government/opposition. The political system selects and gives meaning to communication based on its relevance to the pursuit of political power and the capacity to adopt collectively binding decisions. At first sight, this seems to be a very narrow way of conceiving social systems. For example, scientists are not just preoccupied with validating truth claims; they are clearly also concerned with winning grants, enhancing their academic reputation, or influencing government policies. But these preoccupations are characterised as participating in different systems. For example, a public funding decision has a distinct meaning and relevance in the systems of science, politics and the economy.

From this perspective, there can be no overarching causality operating between two systems, although it is easy to see how appealing such causal attributions might be to observers. To be sure, one event can have effects across different systems. A government research grant has meaning for both the system of politics and that of science. Yet As Luhmann puts it, the ‘preconditions and consequences of events differ completely according to system reference’, and observers should not ‘cross-identify events over boundaries’ (Luhmann, 1991, p 1438). Instead, Luhmann conceives of the relationship as highly selective connections between systems and their environments. Systems that are reliant on other systems in their environment develop models, or assumed regularities, to help them keep tabs on the other system. For example, science will develop a certain way of observing and anticipating political decision-making relevant to science: a set of beliefs about how and when decisions are produced, what drives them, and what effects they may have on science funding or regulation. These models can be understood as internally constructed filters to help select what is relevant from what is noise or redundancy. They help the system to sort through what is expected and what is unpredicted, what is a relevant signal and what is an irritation (Luhmann, 1991, p 1432).

Improving the understanding of the politics of sustainable energy transitions has become a major focus for research. This paper builds on recent interest in institutionalist approaches to consider in some depth the agenda arising from a historical institutionalist perspective on such transitions. It is argued that historical institutionalism is a valuable complement to socio-technical systems approaches, offering tools for the explicit analysis of institutional dynamics that are present but implicit in the latter framework, opening up new questions and providing useful empirical material relevant for the study of the wider political contexts within which transitions are emerging. Deploying a number of core concepts including veto players, power, unintended consequences, and positive and negative feedback in a variety of ways, the paper explores research agendas in two broad areas: understanding diversity in transition outcomes in terms of the effects of different institutional arrangements, and the understanding of transitions in terms of institutional development and change. A range of issues are explored, including: the roles of electoral and political institutions, regulatory agencies, the creation of politically credible commitment to transition policies, power and incumbency, institutional systems and varieties of capitalism, sources of regime stability and instability, policy feedback effects, and types of gradual institutional change. The paper concludes with some observations on the potential and limitations of historical institutionalism, and briefly considers the question of whether there may be specific institutional configurations that would facilitate more rapid sustainable energy transitions.

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