Re-thinking impact through epistemologies of ignorance

Social scientists probably agree that approaches to policy impact stressing only supply side research, incentivised action, or that which overlooks political dynamics, are insufficient. If we begin from this position and explore policy impact concerning racial equality, we should also take seriously the role that ‘epistemologies of ignorance’ may play in policy approaches that are exacerbating racial inequalities. This idea, drawing on Charles Mills and Linda Alcoff, ‘attempts to explain and account for the fact that…practices of ignorance – wilful ignorance, for example, and socially acceptable but faulty justificatory practices – are structural.’ The bearing this has for policy impact might not be explicit, but I read three implications. Firstly, it wants to make provisional, models and approaches about policy problems that originate only from institutionally privileged locations. Secondly, it looks to challenge the presumption that the pursuit of policy impact is an innocent activity produced by honest brokers. Thirdly, it insists that those hurt by public policy designed and implemented without the inclusion of their experiences, must be heard. 

This blog is part of the research project Rethinking Policy Impact

A UK-wide conversation on the principles, goals and approaches that should guide the policy impact agenda in higher education.

Recent examples

To bring into view how these theoretical considerations are useful, we can turn to examples on which there is a range of publically funded peer-reviewed research that has found audiences in the policy process. This includes feeding into at least eight significant Parliamentary inquiries since 2009, each of which made recommendations that are contrary to what is being pursued:

  1. The UK government is set to introduce a ‘minimum entry requirement’ for university students to access student loans. Researchers have previously established that such changes would erect a further hurdle to university for the majority of children from Black Caribbean backgrounds (between 20 and 52 per cent of whom do not currently clear the minimum entry requirement). The Department of Education, accepts this analysis and itself recognises that ‘students with certain protected characteristics, such as students from black and ethnic minority groups and those with special educational needs, are likely to be disproportionately impacted’. 
  • The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 will strengthen the power to deprive racially minoritised Britons of their citizenship, and follows on from the finding that up to 57,000 Black and minority ethnic Britons may have been deported or stripped of their residency rights. The Windrush Lessons Learned Review, conducted by Wendy Williams, reported to Parliament the ‘serious concerns that these failings demonstrate an institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race’.
  • The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, the Home Office accepts, may cause ‘indirect difference [of] treatment on the grounds of race’. It is introduced against an increase in the number of Black children being cautioned or sentenced in England and Wales, which has doubled since 2010. Black children now account for 28 per cent of all children in custody, even though Black people aged 10-17 years make up barely 4 per cent of the national population.

These examples foreground a question infrequently considered at the research policy interface. Namely, what if governmental reception of research is already aligned with existing racial injustices, because there is a latent acceptance that racial injustice is an intrinsic feature of social systems as they are presently configured? This is at heart the challenge: researchers, activists and minoritised groups continually identify the drivers of racial inequalities, and are long accustomed with the obfuscations that stymie change. Smith, Allen and Danley have characterised something of these dynamics as ‘racial battle fatigue’.

Public intellectualism and anti-racism

Often, therefore, scholars look elsewhere in an effort to address what Alcoff terms ‘substantive practices of ignorance’. Antiracist advocates have long utilised a range of strategies, debates and intellectual chains that have led to demonstrable policy impact. These include Black feminist critiques of the ways in which mainstream gender equality had historically ignored the intersections of racial justice and patriarchy, a ‘multi-strand’ interpretation of which is ‘mainstreamed’ in the Equality Act 2010. The concept of institutional racism, meanwhile, came from the Black Power movement, but was adopted in the Macpherson Inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. After a long family and community struggle, this informed the Race Relations Amendment Act 2003.

Such developments have routinely traversed the boundaries between community knowledge and academic expertise, and mobilised through a range of social and political networks. Yet it is paradoxical that during the ascent of the impact agenda, a number of standard bearers for the need for academics to better engage with society have pointed to a retreat of public intellectualism. Such complaints are interesting if for no other reason than that they operate with a relatively narrow conception of public intellectualism, often tacitly trading in, and reproducing, the vision of a white male ‘who through intellectual command or charisma straddles and maintains credence’. No less problematic is that such accounts take ‘the structure of associations as given, when the problem of publics is always the problem of consequences of associated actions for others[1].

In contrast, campaigning organisations including the Coalition for Race Equality and Rights (CRER) in Scotland, the Runnymede Trust in England, and Race Equality First in Wales, amongst others, have consistently mobilised on the basis that direct and indirect racial inequality does not have to be intended or consciously designed to be the case, but nonetheless operates at a systemic level. Namely, by highlighting the operation of institutional racism, insisting on an explicit focus on racism and antiracist actions within strategies and planning, and seeking corporate responsibility from Government, local authorities and public bodies. Re-thinking impact through epistemologies of ignorance, therefore, invites us to move beyond a transactional adoption of knowledge, and recognise what is known of how existing policy practices reproduce inequalities.

[1] Holmwood, John (2011) Manifesto for a Public University. Bloomsbury (open access). Chapter 1 ‘The Idea of a Public University’.

Nasar Meer is Professor of Sociology and Director of RACE.ED at the University of Edinburgh. He holds the Personal Chair of Race, Identity and Citizenship, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.