As with many things in our Western consumer culture, research use may be conceived as an act of consumption. Correspondingly, research is often treated by its users as they would a consumer object, much like a coffee maker or television. In the case of educational policy making the research ‘consumer object’ seems to represent one of two perspectives; it is either viewed as a luxury item – with high use value and prestige, or its use is limited and it is primarily employed, much as we employ sparkly trinkets, to distract attention.
The first of these types, research as a luxury good, represents what is traditionally aspired to when we think of ‘evidence-informed’ policy making. This is because its consumption implies one or more of the following: 1) that evidence can and should address a policy issue; 2) the more evidence that can address a policy issue, the better it must be; 3) similarly, the more evidence there is to address an issue then the closer it will be to providing the best available evidence; and/or 4) that those who are high status providers of evidence are in this position because they provide the best (i.e. most convincing and well argued) evidence.
But research might also be thought of as an ornament. For example, within policy-making, notions as to the prestige of being evidence-informed, the value which such prestige adds to the policy debate or, importantly, the fact that someone regarded as a preeminent researcher or expert is supporting a particular position can often and in many ways be more important (i.e. can be more likely to drive consumption) than the use value of the research. So policy-makers may simply reach for any acceptable evidence so that it may be claimed that a policy is evidence-informed.
In such instances policy does not develop in relation to the strength/quality of the argument, but in relation to the perpetuation of a given ideology: i.e. in order to ensure that the political party in power, is re-elected. As such, the role of evidence reverts to that of providing support or to banging a drum in aid of a given course of action. In these types of instances, the main benefit of consuming research, despite any claims of its users, is its ability to support a given perspective or point of view, not to maximise the optimality of policy. In other words evidence is not consumed to help identify some ‘truth’ about the social world, it is there to provide ammunition in an ongoing political war of words between government and others.
So why do I bring this up? As anybody with an interest in the Scottish referendum will attest, as we run up to a crunch point – a time when we need to make a key decision – evidence backing one view or another comes more and more to the fore. For example, currently in Scotland evidence is used by both sides to argue both that ‘there is lots of oil’ and ‘there is not much oil’; that there will be ‘great’ economic turmoil or only a little. There is also a general election looming so we can expect to see much of the same in other policy areas and in particular in education.
So what is to be done? As we move to the election, educational researchers (and indeed social scientists more broadly) need to act as the catalysts for creating and mobilising alternatives discourses. Or in the parlance of consumerism, get our marketing act together more effectively: working to show up the weaknesses of ornamental uses of evidence and to promote full blown luxury research consumption. Now is our time to start selling what we believe in!
Dr Chris Brown’s book, Making Evidence Matter, published by IOE Press, is out now.