Against Policy Relevance: A Polemic

6 September 2015, 1155 EDT


Over on my Facebook feed, there’s a good discussion going on about Adam Elkus’ “The Problem of Bridging the Gap.” Elkus’ post amounts to, quite deliberately, a medium-length polemic against “policy relevance.” That is, he aims to provoke.

For example, Elkus argues that:

It judges the value of academic inquiry from the perspective of whether or not it concords with the values, aims, preferences, and policy concerns and goals of a few powerful elites. Why, if anything, do we judge “policy relevance” by whether or not it helps governmentpolicy elites? Surely governmental elites, politicians, think-tankers, etc aren’t the only people who care about policy! The “policy relevance” model is simply a normatively unjustified statement that political scientists and social scientists in general ought to cater to the desires and whims of elite governmental policymakers.


It demands that academic inquiry ought to be formulated around the whims and desires of the people being studied. One does not see this demand outside of the political science policy relevance wars. No one asks psychologists whether experiments are “relevant” to lab rats because it would be absurd to base research around what the experimental subject wants. Psychologists also do not care whether or not the college students that are paid to populate their experiments find their research “relevant” or understandable. Nor do neuroscientists inquire about the preferences of neuronal populations or biologists the opinions of ant colonies. Yet political scientists ought to cater to a narrow set of policy elites that they (partly) study?

You should go read the whole thing.

Over on my feed, people have made a number of important points:

  1. Whether the “policy relevance” discussion is really about relevance in the broader sense, rather than simply about serving the needs of officials and other elites.
  2. The role of large government and EU grants in driving international-relations research in Europe.
  3. That alternative conceptions of policy relevance might escape Elkus’ criticisms.
  4. If arguments about “policy relevance” are, at least within the field of international relations,  rarely really about “policy relevance.” Indeed, my own view is that people use policy relevance to advance their particular vision of what the field should look like in terms of methods, methodologies, and the prestige associated with studying particular topics.

Anyway, thought the broader Duck of Minerva readership might find this interesting.

(image source, attribution, and license information at the link).