A couple of days into the Egyptian revolution of 2011, I sat down at my kitchen table in Cairo, to write a memo for my colleagues at the Swedish embassy. My intention was to summarise what political science could offer in terms of predictions on the immediate future of the incipient democratisation process. It should have been a simple task. Before joining the embassy, I had had an academic career in political science; I had obtained my PhD on a thesis on comparative democratisation, and had later become an associate professor in political science.
Summing up the main points of democratisation theory—one of the most vigorous subject areas of comparative politics—did not prove a problem. Hard-liners and soft-liners, the role of civil society, civilian-military relations, critical junctures; I could recite such concepts along with the relevant theories from memory. But what dawned upon me at my Egyptian kitchen table was how little immediate guidance came from those concepts and the theories that they are derived from. They could not tell us what would happen the following days, let alone predict how the putative revolution would play out.
At the time, this absence of clues from political science did not matter much, though. At the embassy we worked with what was in front of us: visits to Tahrir square, meetings with government and opposition, gossip from people who had military connections, rumours, news reports, and the myriad other clues that one encounters daily.
Returning to academia a couple of years later, however, the memory of political science’s defeat in my kitchen stayed with me. Now a professor, I was often asked for opinions and predictions. But while I was happy with the attention, I also found the faith placed in my opinions somewhat naive, particularly when it came at the expense of the opinions of practitioners; the people who actually perform the day-to-day work, and who possess the close contacts and direct knowledge necessary to navigate the maelstrom which is a political process.
For all its importance, academic knowledge is limited. Some would only be too happy to use this basic fact to dismiss all of it as a product of lofty ivory towers. But what we really would need is a recognition of just when and how political scientists and their knowledge can be of use, and when—correspondingly—we should rather look towards practitioners for guidance and savoir-faire.
Academics are good at explaining general tendencies and trends. In a program setting, we may provide a theory of change based on analogy or theory. Likewise, we can often give a background to current events or sketch general lines of development. Our independence provides an additional value and may in combination with methodological knowledge be useful for monitoring and evaluation.
To the extent that we as academics are specialised on a particular country or region, we may in many cases also possess thorough empirical knowledge about the specific case. Still, many academics offer opinions and analysis based on general knowledge only; and even while we have it, such empirical specialisation is not specific to us as researchers, but is shared with practitioners with experience from a particular country.
Furthermore, the potential contributions of academic knowledge should not blind us to its frequent shortcomings for operational purposes. These are likely to be most evident during the more concrete aspects of analysis or project management; particularly the identification phase, when the general statements proper of policy and of planning documents will need to be boiled down to concrete actions or conclusions. This step requires judgement and intimate knowledge of the context and its actors that academics cannot always claim to possess, particularly when we are not specialists in the given geographic area.
We may think of this as problems of validity. On the one hand, academic advice may entail a risk of concept-stretching. Yes, we know that an independent judiciary may strengthen the rule of law, but while independence may spell impartiality in one setting it may entail lofty elitism in another. On the other hand, when applied to the concrete case, our concepts may often seem rather tautological. The hard-liner is the politician who refuses to yield, the civil society group is the one calling for and practicing democracy, and a democracy is consolidated when it does not risk being overthrown. But saying as much is not always very helpful for analysis or action, as such qualifications can only be determined ex post.
Add to that characteristics such as absence of consensus among scholars, the common—and quite natural—reluctance to give clear recommendations, and the fact that most social science is concerned more with the longue durée than with more proximate factors, and the necessary limits of what theoretical insights can contribute to practical analysis and policy decisions becomes apparent.
In fact, local activists, embassy staff, development cooperation workers, and journalists tend to be both better informed on the political situation, but also potentially better at identifying the relevant actors and possible interventions. Of course, their knowledge is also limited; it tends to be expressed in sui generis terms, rarely draws on more general perspectives, and may often be influenced by particular positions or personal beliefs. Nevertheless, it is a knowledge that may need to be recognised to a larger extent by us as academics, particularly when it comes to adapting theory to local settings.
In turn, this may lead us to rethink what we as academics can contribute to daily analysis and concrete decisions. Even though we are most often called upon to contribute expert knowledge based on our role as researchers, an equally or even more important role may be that of the teacher. By forming future practitioners and deliberating with current ones, we are giving them intellectual tools that they can apply in their work. Academic knowledge can provide concepts and ideas that let people reflect about phenomena that they encounter. Even while these concepts do not by themselves allow us to predict the future, they do facilitate the necessary discussions and reflections that may lead to better prognosis and analysis.
A realistic perspective on political science’s contributions to policy and program development should therefore entail more caution when it comes to announcing solutions to a particular situation. But it should also lead to more readiness to proceed in tandem with practitioners stressing dialogue and joint reflection rather than trying to provide supposed expert opinions drawn from general theory.