Recognition that impact and the academic profession go hand-in-hand is welcome, argue Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs, but this imperative is nothing new. Feminist scholars have been engaging in impact long before it became fashionable. The challenges and opportunities faced by feminist researchers may help to identify how to incorporate and institutionalise impactful practice.

Matthew Flinders and Peter John’s high-profile debate asks ‘how relevant is UK political science?’ The opposition between them is largely false; both agree that political science must be engaged in public life. Whether there was once a golden age of academic engagement or whether we are now at the high point, does not really matter. What matters more is that political scientists should be engaging with, and responsive to, public debate.

Flinders’ criticism of the failure of political science to leave the ivory tower and John’s point that the political elite are not listening are not mutually exclusive. We do need to adopt a language that can be readily understood, even when it is underpinned by sophisticated statistical or theoretical work. Flinders is on to something too when he argues that political science ought to be a pleasure to read. But there is an imperative to keep the science in political science. Methodological masturbation and theory fetishism (Shapiro 2012) can both be pleasurable and add to the toolkit of empirical research, but too often they displace the very subject matter of politics that ignited our interest in the first place. And like John, we are confident that the direction of travel is to greater impact; a more open and less hierarchical mode of academic engagement should allow many more of us to engage actively, rather than be represented by a small elite of ‘very able individuals’.

Dissemination, engagement and impact is now part of the job description, in our view for the good. But let us be honest, it probably was always the case that this mattered: does any university bemoan their professors parading on the public stage? Both Flinders and John have hardly been wallflowers about publicising the findings of their own research (and quite right too). And in the era of social media public engagement is even easier, as John rightly notes. Often we do not even have to leave our homes. Flinders’ triple writing should become mainstream practice. We are most definitely not arguing that politicians should tell us what to research – research independence is non-negotiable – and we do have sympathy with critics of the marketisation of the university. But in our view there is little point continuing with the masses of research produced every year by UK political science if it is only shared between ourselves, and even then not very widely.  Arguably, we should now all ‘get out more’.

Flinders describes political science as a discipline in desperate search for its soul. Feminist political science suffers from no such longing. The ‘ivory tower’ never accurately captured what many feminist scholars were, and are, doing. Following the second wave universities became an important site for feminism. And many feminist political scientists continue to be members of feminist organisations and are engaged in a wide variety of campaigns, regularly interacting with, or acting as formal and informal consultants to, civil society groups. Feminist researchers often engage with practitioners and the subjects of their research at an early stage, allowing for genuine knowledge exchange. This approach fits well with feminist perspectives on the researcher–research subject relationship, which challenges the sometimes hierarchical power relations that position the researcher above the researched. However, we must acknowledge that the subjects of political research can often be very powerful in their own right and the empathetic methods recommended by some feminist researchers might not always be suitable.

Feminist researchers are motivated to undertake impact activities because of their feminism. We want to change, as well as observe, the world. Hence the requests that come with a 24-hour turnaround, or when there are other deadlines, such as exam scripts, or when the children just will not go to sleep, are rarely rejected. As feminist scholars were engaging in impact long before it became fashionable they have recognised both opportunities and constraints. Feminist research, because of its politics, risks deliberate misrepresentations and may even generate an anti-feminist backlash. Access may be difficult as journalists and politicians too often rely on the ‘male’/‘usual suspects’ roller deck. And then there is the question of gendered circumspection leaving the public sphere overly dominated by men who may not feel the same reticence. Like some other political scientists, the feminist researcher can end up wearing two hats, the activist’s and the academic’s. It is very important to learn which to wear when. Academic professionalism must always trump activism. If you want to have an impact, there is often the issue of work–life balance. Because we do not want to be accused of ‘chronic whinger syndrome’ and because we believe that the impact agenda is a positive turn, it must be fully incorporated into workload models and promotion if it is to have an equitable effect on researchers with caring responsibilities, or even just ‘lives’ outside the academy.

The impact imperative is clear. There are opportunities out there for the profession as a whole and for the individual academic. What matters next is how we institutionalise and normalise good practice.

This article is cross-posted on the PSA website.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics.  

About the Authors

Dr. Rosie Campbell is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck University of London. She has research interests in British politics, particularly voting behaviour, political participation, representation, political careers and women and politics. Her book ‘Gender and the Vote in Britain’ was published in 2006 and she has recently written on the politics of diversity, women voters and their responses to public spending cuts and what voters want from their parliamentary candidates. She can be found on twitter @Rosiecampb

Professor Sarah Childs is Professor of Politics and Gender at Bristol University and a special advisor to the Speaker in the House of Commons. Her latest book is Women and British Party Politics (Routledge, 2008).

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