Articles Flying kites for evidence

Flying kites for evidence

 

In this guest blog, Professor Huw Davies from the University of St. Andrews, asks what counts as good (enough) evidence?

What matters is what works, goes the orthodoxy for ideology-free government. But what counts as good (enough) evidence to settle the matter? A new Provocation Paper for the Alliance for Useful Evidence tackles this ticklish question.

Should a new body – ‘a social policy Nice’ – be set up to ‘kite mark’ chunks of evidence that pass the good-enough test? Leaving aside that ‘kitemarking’ would be a new high-water mark in the ugly verbification of the English language, the Briefing Paper suggests that such ambitious hopes are destined for disappointment.

Seeing the role of research as merely the confirmation of what works is a significant part of the problem. In order to understand the social world – and the potential of policy and practice to effect beneficial change in that world – we need research to do so much more. We need it to help us to understand, to theorise, to reframe and to re-problematise. ‘What works?’ evaluations – especially evaluations without theory – provide a narrow and impoverished view on such complexities.

We also need to find better ways to integrate knowledge from many different sources: from theory, from the experiences of many different groups, and from systematic empirical study. But conflict across these is inevitable, and none of these has the right to a knockout punch. Expecting ‘evidence’ – whose credentials have been conferred elsewhere – to settle the matter here is seriously underestimating the social and political contexts of knowing.

What counts as ‘evidence’ depends on what we want to know, for what purposes, and in what circumstances. Research data only really become information when they have the power to change views, and they only really become evidence when they attract advocates for the messages they contain. Thus endorsements of research data as ‘evidence’ reflect judgements that are socially and politically situated. Kitemarks may travel well on physical artefacts; but they don’t stick so well to dynamic social constructions.

Much effort has been expended in clarifying standards of evidence and their application. And the Provocation Paper explores these. Such work has highlighted a wide range of issues: theoretical, methodological and contextual. The debates around these are undoubtedly helpful in deepening the engagement around evidence for social policy. But expecting convergence of these debates and a clear way forward hints at a Holy Grail quest.

 

The views are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of the Alliance for Useful Evidence.