The agency paradox

Or: Why development researchers cannot tell policy-makers what to do, only how to think about what they do

The promise of policy-relevant research is the ability to influence policy-making through the supply of evidence for or against specific interventions. Development studies as an academic community is a perfect illustration of this aspiration: a significant part of its research is directly or indirectly funded by government, many of its researchers have also worked in policy as consultants or civil servants, and the field itself is organized around policy issues and not intellectual boundaries, attracting scholars from economics, political science, or sociology who are more interested in practical problems that disciplinary agendas.

But there is a fundamental conceptual obstacle between what policy researchers can offer and what policy-makers often demand: agency, understood as the ability of purposeful actors to change the world that they live in. Social science research –of the kind that development studies pursue- does not deal very well with purpose. For the most part it does not know what to do with change, either. No matter what the ontological, epistemological or methodological school a researcher may adhere to, the vagaries of social research are likely to push her towards trend, not exception, and towards stasis, not change. Continue reading The agency paradox