What determines societal relevance? by Roy Huijsmans and Elyse Mills

An external committee found that the ISS’s research is highly societally relevant, but what does that really mean, and what determines it? Here four broad questions guide us toward a better understanding of societal relevance and impact to contribute toward an ongoing conversation on the topic within the ISS community. We find that the complexity and contingencies of societal relevance in relation to research must be appreciated before attempting to develop a methodological framework for measuring it.


In 2017, the ISS’s efforts to make its research societally relevant were assessed as ‘excellent/world-class’ by an international peer review committee. In their final report, the committee defined societal relevance as occurring at three levels: globally (themes with an international scope); nationally (in the countries in which ISS researchers are doing their work); and locally in Dutch society (where ISS is increasingly providing comparative insights on key domestic issues).

Despite this high score, within the ISS community understandings of societal relevance and impact, and its importance in current and future ISS research is not so easily delineated. This blog post aims to present a number of different takes on the question of societal relevance and impact with the aim of stimulating debate on the topic as the ISS seeks develop a stronger methodological framework to assess whether ISS research is indeed societally relevant per one of the recommendations of the abovementioned committee.

The very nature of social science research is to engage with questions about the social. This means that social science research is well-placed to respond to matters relevant to society. Yet this is not to say that all social science research is by definition societally relevant, or should be. Rather, it is perhaps the task of social scientists to think through what it means to claim that research is societally relevant or has a societal impact especially in times in which research is increasingly evaluated in such terms. In this post we put forward four broad questions around how one might understand societal relevance and impact.

 Societal relevance or societal impact?

First, what is the difference between societal relevance and impact? Do they always go hand-in-hand, or can research be societally relevant without making an impact, and vice versa? These two terms are often used interchangeably, but can have very different contextual connotations. While relevance refers to ‘the quality or state of being closely connected or appropriate,’ to make an impact means to have a ‘noticeable effect or influence’. For example, the review committee considers ISS research to be societally relevant because of the topics it addresses, how it is used by others, and how it contributes to more inclusive and equitable ways of knowing. As a result of its relevance, they believe the societal impact of the research will be broader and more sustainable. But could a particular piece of research address a burning issue in today’s society, such as immigration, without having any impact on real-life processes, such as ways of managing immigration? And if so, does this mean this piece of research is less relevant?

Is societal relevance time/space-specific?

Second, is what is deemed societally relevant time and context-specific, and therefore subject to change? This means that rather than research being societally relevant while it is being done, it can become societally relevant (in both expected and unexpected ways) after the fact. Consider the hypothetical example of having a specialist at ISS who is researching Northern Thai caves. Her/his research would probably have been entirely absent from any ISS inventory on societally relevant research up until July 2018 when such research, regardless of its academic quality, would have become highly popular among all sorts of societal actors in the context of the rescue operation of the young football players in Tham Luang Nang Non. Even if this research only receives a flood of readers for a few weeks, can it still be considered relevant?

Societal relevance to whom, when, and why?

Third, in which societies – which are unequal, conflicted, and full of contradictions – or segments of society, is/should our research be (most) relevant, and why does this matter? This can be illustrated by Oscar Salemink’s historical work on the relations between ethnographic representations of Vietnam’s Central Highlanders and the shifts in historical context in which such research was produced and consumed. Salemink refers to the work of the French anthropologist Georges Condominas, whom Salemink describes as ‘developing into a critic of colonialism’, when his 1957 publication Nous avons mangé la forêt came out. In 1962, the US government illegally translated this French language publication into English and distributed it to their Special Forces active in what is known in Vietnam as the American War. This example shows that the relevance of social science research may well be understood and acted upon very differently between those producing and those consuming research. Similarly, various actors differ significantly in their capacities and interest in making research relevant to certain societal interests rather than others.

What is a scholar-activist approach to societal relevance?

Fourth, how does an engaged or scholar-activist approach to research understand and interact with societal relevance? As a social science methodology, this approach has received both increasing recognition and critique in recent years due to its interest in blending social and political commitments with scholarly research. Charles Hale (2006) notes that this approach stems from ‘rebellion against the complete “academicization” of social science’ and demands for more research relevance that emerged in the 1960s. This relevance is not just about reaching a broader public, but about heeding calls to do social science in a way that engages more with non-social scientists. He defines activist research as an approach that attempts to embrace a dual loyalty to both critical scholarly spaces, and to struggles occurring outside of academia. These dual commitments transform research methods from the very beginning of a project to the end.

David Mosse’s (2004) conceptualisation of the relation between development policy and development practice further complicates how we go about claiming societal relevance in development research. In contrast to linear models of theories of change typically propagated by development organisations, Mosse asks ‘what if…practices produce policy, in the sense that actors in development devote their energies to maintaining coherent representations regardless of events’. When ISS researchers act on calls from the development industry to provide ‘capacity building’, training, conduct commissioned research, give lectures, or sit on their advisory board, this is counted as evidence of ‘societal relevance’ in our current accounting system. Mosse’s claim pushes us to think yet one step further by reflecting on whether such activities go beyond merely contributing to the legitimacy of the organisations and its practices.

A framework for assessing whether ISS research is indeed societally relevant, requires mapping out how we understand this notion in the first place. It also requires accepting that any answer will be historically and contextually contingent, and that whether and how social science research is made relevant, and to what end, is something that researchers, at best, only have limited control over.


Image Credit: Illustration by Lorenzo Petrantoni


About the authors:

emills

 

Elyse Mills is a PhD researcher in the Political Ecology Research Group at the ISS, and co-coordinates the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative (ERPI) secretariat.

 

 

Color 2 Roy Huijsmans

Roy Huijsmans is a teacher/researcher at the ISS.

 

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1 Comment
  • fmukhtarov
    January 10, 2019

    An excellent blog post by colleagues at ISS. One thing they don’t mention is that ethnographic research of Condominas led to Americans able to identify and torture one of the informants in Highlands of Vietnam, as described by Fujii in her 2012 piece (Research Ethics 101). However, that example does not really mean that we should stop producing ethnographies, we just need to interrogate ethics much more strictly. As for the argument that knowledge we produce may be put to evil uses, this is outside of the control of researchers and thus no good reason not to research and write.