The relationship between politics and knowledge

Most political (and policy) analysis takes individual ‘preference’ as a given. That is, it assumes individuals have presupposed political interests that are expressed at elections (and other avenues of political expression). However, this ‘rational-choice’ approach fails to take into account where people get their ideas of the world and how this process shapes their preferences. In fact, most empirical evidence would support a thesis of the irrational voter rather than the myth of the rational voter (i.e. why do people support policies that objectively challenge their socio-economic interests, or why do people support private pay related health-care policies over free health-care policies?) Now, it is naive to deny that people do not maximise their preferences and I am not challenging this rational fact. However, I am questioning the assumed relationship between politics and knowledge, or more specifically, how knowledge is constituted and how political actors develop their preferences.

To really understand politics one has to analyse how people constitute and develop their political preference. This requires expanding political analysis beyond strategic-instrumental reasoning (strategic power) toward dialogical process of discursive interaction (communicative power).

Interests are not objective facts existing in a platonic realm waiting to be realised but discursively formed. Hence, to understand the relationship between politics and knowledge one has to examine the discursive (public) production of knowledge. This production can take place in a variety of forms ( i.e. political canvassing, public debates, journalistic opinion pieces, political broadcasts). It can also take place by a variety of actors (politicians, activists, NGO’s, journalists, trade unionists, employers). The management of knowledge production in the political arena can either hinder or support the critique of existing political institutions. But, the democratisation of this production of political knowledge is arguably more important that the political act of voting itself. This, of course, is not a new argument. It goes right back to Aristotle.

There are arguably two different arenas when analysing the relationship between knowledge and politics; the policy arena and the polity-political arena. As a public policy researcher I am more interested in the former than the latter (at the moment). But, the policy arena undoubtedly influences the political arena, and raises many serious questions. One of these is how do we make the the policy advise (by social scientists, economists and policy ‘experts’) more democratic and effective. In Ireland, we can see this tension at the moment in the discourse around banking-fiscal policy. The government is being advised by Alan Ahearn and International banking consultants. The consensus amongst this policy community is to avoid nationalising the banks at all costs. On the other hand, a whole variety of economists are arguing in favour of nationalisation. Both provide evidence for their argument but ultimately political ideas (and ideologies) are determining policy action. This illustrates the power of ideas over the power of evidence.

Policy making is now seen to take place under both conditions of technical complexity and political ambiguity. The production of knowledge informing political decision making has been steadily increasing over the past decade. The numerical objectification of knowledge makes this possible as it is presented as hard-fact (i.e. evidence based policy making).  The problem with this, for politics, is that it depoliticises policy-making. Numerical-statistical evidence is presented as neutral and non-political. But, the whole process of decision making is intensely political. Also, the politicisation of policy-making is increasingly viewed as a bad thing. We can witness this in discussions around fiscal-banking policy in Ireland. But, surely making explicit ones political ideas rather than hiding behind a dubious veil of evidence is a central prerequisite of a democratic society? Making explicit the ideas informing political action provides the voter with the necessary information to make a rational decision. The next step is to simply rationally justify and defend ones idea.

Thus, the procedural process of how knowledge is produced and managed ought to be a central object of inquiry for political-policy studies. This, however, is not just an epistemological debate. It should be of  concern to all political actors trying to influence the decision making process of public policy.


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