Wednesday, 18 May 2016

What is housing studies for and what impact does it have?

This post is copyright and is not covered by the CC licence on the right.

My latest book review was of two books, and a bit more like a review essay, where I consider what the "impact" of research might be by considering two contrasting books. If your library has a subscription to Housing Studies, please be well behaved and download here. For the rest of you, enjoy:

What is housing studies for and what impact does it have?

Bastow, S., P. Dunleavy and J. Tinkler (2014). The Impact of the Social Sciences: How Academics and their Research Make a Difference. London, Sage.
Paperback £20.99
ISBN: 9781446275108

Collini, S. (2012). What are Universities For? London, Penguin. 
Paperback: £9.99
ISBN: 9781846144820

In a plenary speech to the 2014 European Network for Housing Research Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, Professor Duncan Maclennan argued that housing research had to make itself more relevant and engage with policy-makers. This is a well-rehearsed argument across academia (see Nutley et al. 2007 for an excellent overview of this work in the policy studies literature). However these debates seem to be arising with increased regularity, urgency and emotion. This is due to diverse factors including the auditing of the wider “impact” of academic research through processes such as the Research Excellence Framework, the increased marketization of higher education, and the political pressure to demonstrate that taxpayer investment in higher education is worthwhile.

Academics have responded in quite different ways to these debates – some hunker down and fight back, arguing the changes reflect the imposition of global capitalism on a sphere of life where it is not welcome (Slater 2012). Others seek to work within the system as it changes and mould it to progressive ends, delivering change they want to see in the world (Pain et al, 2011). Others hark back to a “golden age” of the university – which in the UK context seems to be around 1970 (when many of these people were starting their academic careers) – and want to return to world of the Platonic expert guardian (Bastow et al, 2014, p. 27).

In this review, I discuss two books that engage in different ways with this debate, and consider the implications of these contributions for housing studies. Bastow et al and Collini provide us with evidence in different ways – from the social sciences and the humanities respectively. In chapter 3 of What Are Universities For?, Collini considers that many critics of the contemporary university justify their arguments using the essay The Idea of a University, written by John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman in 1852. As a historian, Collini masterfully handles the evidence and rhetoric to demonstrate why this is wrong: Cardinal Newman was making an argument for the development of a new university in Ireland, in a manner that would now be considered to reflect a colonialist agenda. As he shows in chapter 2, the university has always been a social institution. To attempt to argue that it should somehow sit above, or outside of the society which created it is to ignore the history of academia, from the founding of institutions as an extension of church and state in the medieval period, through to the growing utilitarianism of the university from the nineteenth century. Even in his day, Cardinal Newman’s views were anachronistic. Shortly after his essay was published, the UK Government began reforming Oxford and Cambridge universities in the 1870s so they were delivering the educated civil servants the British Empire required.

Bastow et al use the armoury of social science methods, well-established and new, to gather their evidence. The data analysed through the book includes a survey; semi-structured interviews with academics, business executives, policy-makers and voluntary sector workers; and non-invasive evidence collection from a vast range of websites and online databases. As Savage (2010) highlights, the growth and refinement of many of these methods was linked with the growth of the welfare state after 1945 and the demands of knowledge for policy-making. Therefore, to return to Collini’s argument, the development of social sciences in the university  is closely tied to what the state expects university’s to provide. However, citing Savage and Burrows (2007), Bastow et al also suggest that one of the greatest challenges to social science is the growth of privately held datasets being analysed by social scientists and other data professionals: what is the point in national population surveys when supermarket chains, Google and Facebook know so much about our populations? Thus, Bastow et al seek to demonstrate the economic and social value of the social sciences as practiced within British universities.

They structure their book in the way many studies of evidence-based policy-making are structured: first looking at the supply of social science; second, the demand for evidence; and third, the interface between the two. In the first section, they use non-invasive surveys of web resources of a sample of 270 social science and 100 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) academics to demonstrate the impact of academics in academia, policy-making and the media – the ‘supply’.

This evidence is variously interesting: academics in STEM subjects are much more likely to be one of multiple authors on papers and citations rates are higher; multiple authored papers in the social sciences are more likely to be cited; book chapters are less frequently cited than other publications; social scientists easily surpass their STEM colleagues in having an impact in policy-making; academics from STEM subjects are much more likely to have media appearances, in the model of the lone scientist. Pulling this evidence together into a set of regression models, the authors almost come up with a recipe for being an “impactful” scholar in the UK: you have to have a completed a PhD a long time ago at a Russell Group university; be a professor working in London; have published and been cited a lot; and be quite old. The model of academics as either ‘invisibles’, ‘applied researchers’, ‘publishers’, ‘communicators’, ‘influentials’ or part of the ’solid middle’ (p. 61) who do it all is particularly useful and should hearten managers and academics trying to be all things to all people.

The section on ‘demand‘ is also excellent, using interviews with academics and people from business, government and the voluntary sector. While this section demonstrates strong demand for evidence from government (the research must have been carried out while the UK Government were still commissioning social science research) and the voluntary sector. The business community was largely alien to social science evidence, a point I will return to below. In this research, the voluntary sector found social science most useful, and the story of housing organisations and housing researchers in the UK mirrors what is described here. These organisations described how they particularly valued the objectivity afforded by quoting academic evidence in policy-relevant discussions.
Overall, Bastow et al make a tub-thumping argument in favour of what they calculate to be the estimated £539 million annual investment in social science in the UK. According to their conservative economic modelling, contributes £4.8 billion to the economy in total. In framing their argument in this way, the authors very much use the language of managerialism – if the government wants to make the argument that social sciences are irrelevant and economically inefficient, then we shall determinedly show the very opposite, using social science techniques.

It is on this point that Collini and Bastow et al differ most. As already discussed, Collini dismisses nostalgic harking back to a glorious past of academe, with minimal government intrusion and audit, as unrealistic and ahistorical. However, he does not (as the reader might initially expect) accept that governments can have desired outcomes from higher education and then consider how the humanities might deliver these. Instead, he argues for a rejection of the terms of argument posed by successive governments as doing so: “involves, at least in part… employing categories and descriptions which we know, or ought to know, misrepresent the true purpose and value of much of what is done in universities“ (pp.94-5). The argument being made is that universities should solely be centres for advanced critical thought. That research outputs could be applied practically in society, or consideration could be given to how they might be applied, seems to sully Collini’s idea of what knowledge is. Given Collini’s historical account, I confess to finding his logic slightly baffling: if government has always told universities what they ought to do, if they are social institutions, surely universities should continue to adapt to contemporary contexts as they have done for nearly two millennia? Further, as Bastow et al suggest, the university no longer has its historic monopoly on advanced thought in an information-rich society.

To return to the challenge posed by Professor Maclennan – what do these books offer that might help us understand and ensure the impact of housing studies? The evidence marshalled by Bastow et al suggest that, to an extent, Collini is correct. The large-scale, or bigger picture theoretically-informed social science research done by many housing studies academics is useful. The quick impact of it cannot easily be quantified, but it adds to what Bastow et al call the ‘dynamic knowledge inventory’ (DKI)(chapter 9). This is increasingly online, mediated through a range of technologies, and accessible to a wide range of social science qualified intermediaries. Social scientists in universities – including housing studies researchers – must provide the highest quality evidence that is theoretically informed, and uses robust methods, to be a core of the DKI.
There is also a key role for academics to be in policy-making networks having impact with applied research – section 2 of Bastow et al reiterates the frustration of many outside academia that this does not happen enough. Readers from the UK may agree with this, but be disheartened. The current UK Government seems immune to even the most straightforward evidence-based criticism of their housing policies. Even evidence from housing economists on how to increase the supply of housing is ignored and policies put in place that stoke housing demand in an over-inflated market. Bastow et al offer useful advice here in their chapter on engagement with business (chapter 5). They highlight that social science does not ordinarily produce marketable Intellectual Property. However, interviewees from the private sector wanted engagement with social scientists for the questions only social scientists could answer. In the current UK context this suggests a role for housing studies researchers to work with private property developers to better understand their market context and barriers to delivering new housing; such as negotiating with anti-housing “NIMBY” pressure groups; or working in partnership with local authorities, communities and land-owners to bring forward sites for development.

To conclude, this review was written in the aftermath of the UK Comprehensive Spending Review and a government review into research funding at UK universities. Many naysayers feared that these developments would result in substantial reductions to research funding, and the prioritisation of STEM research. The outcome of these policy changes in the UK has, to date, not been this dire. As Bastow et al make explicit in their conclusion, and what Collini in his aversion to the application of research seems to discount, is that many of the major global challenges we face need the insights of the social sciences and humanities – STEM cannot do it alone. In this context, Bastow et al’s approach of accepting a framing of “impact” and demonstrating how we deliver it, is probably the most appropriate. Our response as housing researchers, and social scientists, must first and foremost be to continue to undertake excellent research. Second, we must endeavour to find better ways to communicate our findings and produce greater social impact, but collectively beating ourselves up because we are not all always able to write the perfect policy briefing at the perfect policy window is unlikely to pay dividends.

Dr Peter Matthews
School of Social Sciences, Stirling University

Nutley, S. M., I. Walter and H. T. O. Davies (2007). Using Evidence: How research can inform public services. Bristol, Policy Press.

Pain, R., M. Kesby and K. Askins (2011). "Geographies of impact: power, participation and potential." Area 43(2): 183-188.

Savage, M. (2010). Identities and Social Change in Britain Since 1940: the Politics of Method. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Savage, M. and R. Burrows (2007). "The Coming Crisis of Empirical Sociology." Sociology 41(5): 885-899.

Slater, T. (2012). "Impacted geographers: a response to Pain, Kesby and Askins." Area 44(1): 117-119.

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