Academic Work: Arguments or Policy Advocacy?

Stanley Fish, the American literary theorist and legal scholar, argues that academic work is not policy advising.  The kind of questions that are raised in academic work may appear as policy relevant, but the driving force is not to seek solution to policy problems.  Rather, it is to wrestle with theoretical puzzles. Using a recent conference as an illustration, he says the questions raised there were not:

“Won’t the economy implode if we do this?” or “Wouldn’t free expression rights be eroded if we went down that path?”, but “Would you be willing to follow your argument to its logical conclusion?” or “Doesn’t that amount to just making up the law as you go along?”

He goes on to say that:

These questions were continuations of a philosophical conversation that stretches back at least to the beginning of the republic; and while they were illustrated by real-world topics (the pardon power, habeas corpus, the electoral college), the focus was always on the theoretical puzzles of which those topics were disposable examples; they were never the main show. [Read the full article here].

This view of academic work sounds different from the one that I referred to in an earlier post while alluding to Mary Furner’s history of the Social Sciences in the United States.

Different ideas about what academic work is all about are worth discussing.  Academic work is also influenced by the direction set by the money. If funding for academic departments becomes contingent on their contributions to policy, than that is what one would see happening under the label of academic work.  In countries like Pakistan, the ‘academic’ departments are also responding to funds from aid agencies, which may also have a defining influence on their work. The question that may be worth asking is: “What is the historically specific nature of academic work being done in the higher education institutions in the so called post-colonial and developing contexts?”

About Irfan

I am an independent researcher and blogger interested in everything under the sun, but more so in the philosophy and history of education and education reform generally, and specifically in the so-called post colonial contexts

4 Responses to “Academic Work: Arguments or Policy Advocacy?”

  1. Hi Irfan,
    A difficult topic…have spent a long time doing both. I find that it is not just the nature of questions but the frame with which one approaches a problem and the audience that one is trying to address that also determine the difference between academic work and policy work. So, for university faculty the idea is to a) publish is academic journals for promotion and/or to address a group of peers and build reputation in that group…which is usually narrowly defined. For policy work the issue is diagnosis and/or solutions which are applicable and the audience is usually much broader.
    I am not saying this is the only difference…but another one.
    So, for as long as I was in an academic environment any policy work I did, I did almost despite the pressures from the university to respond to incentives they had set for me for academic work. And there was of course no credit for policy work for me professionally (in the profession)
    Which is why I also feel that policy work is better situated outside universities.

  2. Hi Faisal, Thanks for an insightful comment. So there are pressures of different sorts. The other day I was reading a piece by E Said. I probably might have sent it around to friends as well. Said said that he was constantly asked the questions of the type, “given…what should America do?” AND he persistently refused to answer such questions. Fish as well as Said are suggesting a certain joy in argumentation. Won’t be too far fetched to say that to them academic work is akin to a kind of sport. Of this perhaps Sen also says something in his book The Argumentative Indian. Also, the academic work [in social sciences] that Mary Furner describes in her book [I referred to her in an earlier post] in early 19th century was closer to advocacy. This then suggests that ‘academic work’ has no essential nature. Perhaps, one needs to look at it in its historical specificity and describe how it hangs together in particular societies under particular historical circumstances.

  3. Hi Irfan thank you for raising such an interesting and if I may say an “ever green” question. The nature of work of an academic is changing or has changed to include not just academic work but development projects and policy advocacy also. There are several imperatives including the source of funding which is increasingly being made available by various development agencies. It is not unusual to see funds being made available to universities for large projects for “Research and Development”. The criteria for a successful bid include among other things emphasis on “Communication strategy” and “Policy Advocacy”. There is an expectation that the academics would engage with the policy makers to ensure/enable user engagement of research.

    Boyer’s seminal work “Scholarship Reconsidered” recognised that the richness, complexity, and, range of work of academic needs a broader and inclusive framework He made a case for four classifications of scholarship: discovery, integration, application, and teaching. Discovery is the pure research that was at the time of writing, and still is, considered equal to the scholarship label. Integration is working across fields and application and teaching. A dilemma is that in spite of the recognition of the changing and/or complex nature of an academic’s work the nature of evaluation of a university and by implication the work of an academic has not changed. It reflects the traditional perspective of “publish or perish”. For example see the university ranking criteria internationally and that proposed by HEC in Pakistan.


  1. Tweets that mention Academic Work: Arguments or Policy Advocacy? | Just questions! -- - 10/02/2011

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