Political Theory and social policy: a match made in heaven or grounds for divorce

Luke Craven (@Luke Craven) from the University of Sydney, and a new moderator with Power to Persuade, considers what political theory can offer to our understanding of social policy. In particular, he argues that political theorists are uniquely placed to understand the ideas and values that underpin evidence-based policy.


I am new to Power To Persuade. From this year, (hopefully) well into the future, my intention is to make my presence as a moderator a constant reminder that political theory is just as crucial to our discussions of social policy as evidence or data is made out to be. There is no doubt that this is a contentious claim and, while I am not the first to make it, it is bound to ruffle some feathers. In many ways, I hope it does. Indeed, the idea of evidence-based policy has become so synonymous with and necessary for ‘good policy’ over recent years that we have forgotten how policy is a war of values and ideas.

It is values and ideas that political theorists do well. It is strange, then, that they remain absent. Why is this? And, what can be done to bring them (back) into the fold?

Core to this problem are the massive academic divisions between political theory, social policy, and practice. Political theory is balkanised away from social theory. Methods are different. Conferences and journals are different. The importance of application varies widely. Consequently, we lack the channels of communication and understanding that would allow political theorists into the social policy arena and enable them to question the deeper principles by which we do politics, policy and governance. More collaboration and interdisciplinarity are therefore a key part of the solution, but they must be done so in a way that encourages genuine and sustained engagement. What this looks like in practice is, in many ways, an open question—but one that demands an answer.

And if that answer isn’t already crucial, it will soon become so. If, for example, agent-based models (ABMs) are used by governments to understand complex social systems—as is becoming increasingly common—then what rules should govern our use of these models in decision making contexts? Who decides? Are ABMs really anything more than academic puffery? And how closely must they reflect the real world to be a legitimate part of our policy-making arsenal? Increasingly, sociologists are using these models to explain social phenomena. Social theorists, too, riding the wave of the ‘complexity turn’, have taken up the question of how and whether ABMs can properly reflect the dynamic nature of the social world.

As of this moment, political theorists are largely absent from this discussion, which is, arguably, why many of these questions remain unanswered. And strangely so, because it is all too easy to make the case for why political theorists are necessary. If nothing else, their role should be to actively question and problematise the tools other characters in the story—empirical sociologists, social theorists, policy makers—use to understand the world. This is important for scientific reasons when the tools we gravitate towards, for whatever reason, are both faulty and influential in the conduct of social science. And, crucially, it is important for political reasons when the evidence born of these tools shapes the process of policy making.

Agent-based modelling is but one example of why political theorists must be engaged in our discussions about social policy. By way of illustration, though, ABMs are particularly suited to helping us make the case for a more systemic change. They are theoretically-informed, (increasingly) empirically-grounded, and naturally suited to political environment that demands evidence-based policy making. The social and political dimensions coexist. Indeed, they are inseparable. What counts as evidence—and ‘good evidence’—is so tightly bound up in the values and ideas that determine how they are used in practice. And so, at the nexus of values, ideas and evidence sits the political theorist, (hopefully) a key part of discussions about how they might inform social policy.

Luke is a PhD student at the University of Sydney and the Sydney Environment Institute. His interests lie in the application of social and political theory to contemporary policy problems, with a focus on food politics, policy, and system reform. You can find out more about Luke here or read some of his work at academia.edu. He Tweets @LukeCraven.

Posted by Luke Craven