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Building a new concept: Political Knowledge Regimes

[Editor’s note: This post presents Adolfo Garcé’s paper Political-Knowledge Regimes. It follows a previous post that gives an overview of the concept of knowledge regimes]

Knowledge Regimes (KM), a concept developed by Campbell and Pedersen, is a main step forward in creating a theory about the use of research in policy debates. In this paper, I apply the concept of KR to three public policy debates in Uruguay to explore how it fits with reality in developing countries. Based on these analyses, the paper identifies some weaknesses in the concept and suggests a different dimension of analysis.

The two main identified weaknesses are:

  • The KR does not account for the demand side. The three analyzed policies show that demand is a decisive factor in the use of social research. The type of leadership in place, the strategies leaders use, the political capital they can gain or lose from a decision, and the ideology of those in power are some of the dimensions that need to be analyzed. The KR does not illuminate a central dimension in the dynamics of specialised knowledge. The demand for research and its protagonists (officials and political parties) are left in shadow. To understand how any market works, including the market of ideas, we must focus both on the characteristics of the supply and demand.
  • The variety of capitalism, a dimension prioritized by Campbell and Pedersen, does not seem to be crucial in understanding the dynamics of social research. In the original concept of KR, the way capitalism works, whether it is a ‘liberal market’ or a ‘coordinated market’ has a direct impact on the knowledge regimes. These differences, however, do not provide any relevant difference to understand what matters the most in social research dynamics.

The analysis of the cases suggests that the dimension that is missing in the KR is the status of science in society. If a society has admitted that scientific knowledge has special status, it will probably consider it legitimate that consensus be built on public policy through scientific research. That is why it will most likely generate institutions capable of producing this knowledge to “rationally” regulate the market.

Based on these findings, a new concept is proposed: the political knowledge regimes.

The policy making regime helps to understand the dynamics of social research. Pluralism facilitates the formation of an open market and an adversarial use. But it is not enough. Some countries have the same type of policy making regime and notorious differences in the dynamics of research. The discussion in the previous section suggests that in order to take these differences into consideration we must leave aside the variety of capitalism and incorporate a variable that does not appear in Campbell and Pedersen’s discussion: the degree of confidence in the power of reason and science in each society.

I will call the concept that results from combining the policy making regime and the social valuation of science Political Knowledge Regimes. The policy making regime strongly influences both the characteristics of the supply as well as those of the demand side. As Campbell and Pedersen have shown, a pluralist policy making regime favors the formation of an open market of ideas and an intense competition between different knowledge. Meanwhile, a centralized policy making regime generates a more closed market of ideas. The social valuation of science also leaves a profound mark on the supply and the demand of research. In the countries where a more rationalist culture predominates, the demand for research tends to be more intense and accepts that science can be neutral. In countries that are characterized by political cultures that are suspicious of the knowledge of experts, the demand for scientific knowledge will be lower and there will be an instrumental use of knowledge.

From these variables we can draw the following typology:

General valuation of knowledge(Predominant traditional culture)
RationalismEnlightenment PragmatismAnti-intellectualism
Type of policymaking regime Centralized ITechnocracy IIIPlebeian majority.
Decentralized IITechnocratic pluralism IVPlebeian pluralism

It must be made clear, before we move on, that in this discussion a normative bias must not be looked for. Having made this point, let’s look at each of the quadrants.

TYPE I. TECHNOCRACY. The combination of centralization and rationalism generates the intense use of social research by the state. Political parties appeal frequently to experts and tend to delegate important responsibilities in the definition of public policy. Academic knowledge is very important as a stepping stone for political careers and it is a sine qua non condition to occupy positions in government. A clear example of this type in our region is Chile, which seems to have inherited a high valuation for science from the German influence.

TYPE II. TECHNOCRATIC PLURALISM. The combination of pluralism and rationalism generates an open market of ideas in which alternate political paradigms compete. The high valuation of science generates an important development of social science and of research applied to public policy. As in type I (technocracy), there are state structures that favor the use of knowledge in policy. University training and academic merit are important for government positions. Brazil could be a good example.

TYPE III. PLEBEIAN MAJORITY. The combination of centralization and anti-intellectualism does not help the formation of an open and demanding market of ideas. The use of research, in any case, does not have to be low. But it is strictly subordinate to strategic politics of predominant actors that appeal to experts fundamentally to legitimize decisions and impose their hegemony. An example of this type could be the case of Argentina.

TYPE IV. PLEBEIAN PLURALISM. The combination of pluralism and anti-intellectualism generates a comparatively low and essentially instrumentalist use of specialized knowledge in public policy. Pluralism favors the formation of an open and competitive market of ideas. But politics prevails clearly over technical rationality. Specialized knowledge is, in essence, a weapon in the fight for power among the main political actors. State structures, like in type III, clearly show the mark of the predominance of political rationality. Uruguay offers a good example of this type.