How Important to Policy Science is Research Philosophy? And is that Important Enough?

Prof. Robert Ackrill

How important to policy science is research philosophy? How often do we ground our research design, our methods of data collection and – especially – our methods of data analysis and interpretation in a clearly described philosophical framework? With my own research, for many years the answer to these questions was yes, implicitly (albeit without any conscious engagement), but no, I do not do this explicitly. At all.
I now believe this is neither adequate or acceptable. All of those ologies and isms matter. Comparing my own research with others’ on the same topics led me to question how we could reach different conclusions about a policy, despite adopting similar methods of data collection and seemingly similar methods of data analysis. A key reason for these differences, I now believe, is having fundamentally different philosophical starting points; but with none of us stating this explicitly, this conclusion is still reliant partly on guesswork. What, as a result, does this tell us about the nature and robustness of our empirical analyses, conclusions and (crucially) policy prescriptions?
The research proceeds in two stages. The first stage will involve a systematic literature review, based on papers published over the last decade or so in the top policy journals, as defined by Web of Science Journal Impact Factors. This will consider, first, whether key aspects of research philosophy are addressed explicitly or not. Second, a more detailed content analysis will be undertaken, to determine whether any explicit consideration has been given to the implications for the analysis of the philosophical choices made. The second stage will consist of interviews with the editors of the chosen journals, to determine the extent to which editorial policy explicitly considers research philosophy and its implications for policy science.
These implications of the findings will then be explored by a comparison of my own research with others’, in order to identify where, in the research processes undertaken by policy scientists, ‘fracture points’ or ‘critical junctures’ might occur, that can send research in different analytical directions.