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On Inconvenient Findings

January 5, 2021

This post was written by Marie Berry and Milli Lake, co-founders and principal investigators of the Women’s Rights After War Project. Dr. Berry is Associate Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and a member of Bridging the Gap’s current International Policy Summer Institute cohort. Dr. Lake is Associate Professor in the International Relations Department at the London School of Economics and a co-founder of the Advancing Research on Conflict Consortium.

What happens when research findings challenge the work that policy makers are invested in promoting?

In recent years, a strong, ongoing initiative to “Bridge the Gap” between academic research and policy makers has gained salience in academic circles. For several years now, and with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and other funders, scholars of international affairs have doubled down on efforts to write for public audiences, engage with various actors in policy processes, and even work to revise tenure and promotion standards to increase the value of policy-relevant work. Through the Women’s Rights After War project and other work, we have been eager participants in these efforts. We view engaged scholarship as part of our commitment to democratizing knowledge more generally.

But what happens when the results of research challenge the status quo policymakers are invested in defending? When research findings fail to reinforce policy priorities—whether they are political, economic, social, or otherwise—such efforts to “bridge the gap” stumble. This tension was recently brought dramatically to our attention when a policy brief we prepared was deemed unsuitable for publication by the organization that commissioned it, because our findings were neither positive nor politically convenient. Our experience, and those of others, raises questions about what happens when researchers generate findings that prove inconvenient to particular policy communities and knowledge gatekeepers. For us, this experience also raised questions about whether pressure to make research findings legible and accessible to policy audiences can inadvertently marginalize research that poses the most obvious challenges to status quo paradigms. 

Our brief summarized our research on how gender quotas and gender-sensitive transitional justice initiatives can create new forms of inequality and harm in postwar contexts. In investigating the laws and opportunities that are frequently extended to women in the aftermath of war across our 10 country study, we find that gender reforms in postwar environments too often create opportunities for a limited subset of women while systematically disadvantaging others. Importantly, these patterns of inclusion and exclusion are rarely divorced from the politics of the war. Indeed, we found that the implementation of gender quotas has, in some instances, created new arenas for actors to pursue their war-related agendas by ushering women into politics who are affiliated with victorious parties or dominant ethnic/racial/religious/caste groups. In many instances, these dynamics have permitted powerful actors to strategically instrumentalize women’s electoral representation to consolidate their own political power. We also trace how narrowly-defined arenas for justice have created hierarchies of victimhood, often based on women’s differing identities during war. Troublingly, across cases ranging from Nepal to Rwanda to Colombia to Sri Lanka, we find that empowerment projects that are not attentive to these dynamics can fracture women’s organizing and thwart the possibilities for building grassroots movements that cut across social and other identity-based fissures. While we recognize and support the need to advance women’s political representation worldwide, we also believe it is important to identify when efforts at women’s inclusion mask other forms of exclusionary politics.

We have met considerable resistance to these findings among policy makers, and especially among champions of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda. Many have been dismissive of the stories and experiences of the hundreds of women showcased in our research whose experiences of efforts to bolster women’s representation have not been positive. We have frequently been told that while there are limits to these efforts, getting some women into politics helps all women get ahead, or that these limits are a necessary cost of changing deeply patriarchal political structures that will subside once more progress has been made. As a result, the question of which women benefit from gender-progressive structures rarely receives the traction it deserves. The strong resistance to airing the perspectives of women who are systematically locked out of postwar women’s empowerment initiatives ensures that more dominant approaches to pursuing gender equality continue to set the terms of the debate. 

Our experience is specific to Women, Peace, and Security circles and to women’s rights champions more generally. But we contend that this pattern echoes a broader critique long advanced by radical feministpost-colonial, and abolitionistscholars: that reformist approaches focused only on adding certain excluded groups into existing institutions will ultimately reinforce the same patriarchal, capitalist, and militarist logics of hierarchy and exclusion that denied those groups access to power in the first place. Put differently, in promoting women’s inclusion in peace processes, justice initiatives, politics, and security sector reform, the architecture of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda remains blindto the mutually reinforcing structures of power and dominance that facilitate women’s continued gendered oppression. When research that similarly challenges dominant policy priorities is sidelined or deemphasized in policy circles, those pursuing more radical, alternative or non-status quo reinforcing research agendas lose out. These trends may be compounded the more we stress the need for policy relevance and engagement.

Policy organizations have every right to ignore findings that are incorrect, biased, or rooted in flawed data or methodology. But ignoring findings that are inconvenient displays a worrisome disregard for research. And, privileging institutional approval over rigor seems particularly egregious when the stakes—as we’ve shown in our research—are high. Moreover, overlooking the perspectives of those who do not systematically benefit from existing structures serves to delegitimize alternative forms of expertise and reifies harmful, antiquated and colonial systems of knowledge production.

If practitioners, policy-makers and governments are serious about encouraging more policy-relevant research by scholars, then we should strive towards a mutual commitment to remain receptive to critique. It is disingenuous—and dangerous—to shine light only on research that supports what policy-makers want to hear. Instead, both academics and policymakers should commit to cutting-edge, rigorous, evidence-based research underpinned by the highest ethical standards. We should strive towards a shared goal of shining light on policy that isn’t working as intended and innovating as needed.

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Bridging the Gap promotes scholarly contributions to public debate and decision making on global challenges and U.S. foreign policy. BtG equips professors and doctoral students with the skills they need to produce influential policy-relevant research and theoretically grounded policy work. They also spearhead cutting-edge research on problems of concrete importance to governments, think tanks, international institutions, non-governmental organizations, and global firms. Within the academy, BtG is driving changes in university culture and processes designed to incentivize public and policy engagement.