In the last couple of months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the poetics of impact. I’ve always been somewhat ambivalent about the impact agenda, initially suspecting that it might open up opportunities for valuable activity to be recognised within the increasingly restrictive confines of the accelerated academy. I wasn’t alone in this. This is how Les Back described his own changing relationship to the impact agenda:

It is embarrassing to remember that some of us – at least initially – thought that ‘impact’ promised the possibility of institutional recognition for public sociology. Might the emphasis on relevance and engagement create a ‘public agora’ for sociological ideas of the kind described by Helga Nowotny and her colleagues?

Another President, this time of the British Sociological Association, had a very different view. John Holmwood warned in 2011 that it was “naïve” to think that the turn to impact would lead to an enhanced public sociology. Rather, he suggested in contrast that UK research would likely be “diverted into a pathway to mediocrity”. Surely not, I felt when I first read this piece. John you are being overly pessimistic! How right he has been proved to be.

Underlying this ambivalence is a tension between the impact agenda as a top-down imposition and a bottom-up expression of a desire to make a difference through research. This tension explains why, as John Brewer puts it, “Impact is at one and the same time an object of derision and acclaim, anxiety and confidence”. While it’s seen as innocuous within the policy evaluation community, it’s irrevocably tied up with the unfolding audit culture within higher education, particularly within the UK. It’s an imposition which seems liable to profoundly reshape working life, in unwelcome and unclear ways, but it also resonates, however vaguely, with a sense of what motivated the work of many people in the first place. I’ve always like Michael Burawoy’s description of this as the sociological spirit:

The original passion for social justice, economic equality, human rights, sustainable environment, political freedom or simply a better world, that drew so many of us to sociology, is channeled into the pursuit of academic credentials. Progress becomes a battery of disciplinary techniques—standardized courses, validated reading lists, bureaucratic ranking intensive examinations, literature reviews, tailored dissertations, refereed publications, the all-mighty CV, the job search, the tenure file, and then policing one’s colleagues and successors to make sure we all march in step. Still, despite the normalizing pressures of careers, the originating moral impetus is rarely vanquished, the sociological spirit cannot be extinguished so easily.

The impact agenda both reflects this spirit and is tied up in the apparatus which is crushing it. How could it not provoke ambivalence? My growing interest is in how this manifests itself at the level of discourse surrounding impact. Could the tendency towards what Pat Thompson analyses as heroic narratives of impact be in part a response to this underlying tension:

You know these heroic narratives – they are everywhere from nursery rhymes to popular films. It’s the knight on a white charger who slays the dragon, the cowboy who rids the town of lazy barflies, the cop who cleans up the burb and sends all those good-for-nuttin drug dealers and pimps to the big house.

There is a research version of this kind of narrative. You know them too I’m sure. The researcher/lecturer/professional rides into town – usually this is an impoverished neighbouhood/really dumb class/group of people/ hopeless policy agenda. Through the process of intervention/teaching/participatory or action research/evaluation the impoverished neighbouhood/really dumb class/group of people floundering around/hopeless policy agenda becomes improved/enlightened/empowered/transformed. Work done, the researcher/lecturer/professional simply has to write the paper and ride out of town.

These stories create a rather dangerous division between the hero/heroine and the saved. The hero/heroine knows and can do everything, and can do no wrong. Those to be saved know/can do nothing and are destined for a hopeless future until the hero/heroine shows up.

I realise this is more narratology than poetics but these perhaps constitute two distinct phases of an investigation. What are the structures of stories about impact? What do they share and how do they differ? What rhetorical devices are used in these stories? What linguistic techniques are used in talk about impact more broadly?

The tendency that fascinates me involves a perpetual oscillation from idealism to pragmatism. Impact is hailed as an opportunity to live a more authentic life as a researcher, change the world with your research and be a better human being. Plus this is the way things are now and you’d better adapt or you’ll be left behind. The invocations are at times explicitly ethical (right or wrong to do), supplementing the aforementioned moral dimension (good or bad to be):

  1. You have a responsibility to tax payers to ensure your research is put to use.
  2. You have a responsibility to knowledge to ensure your research leaves academic silos.
  3. You have a responsibility to society to ensure your research makes a difference.

At an event in Belgium at the start of December, I saw a senior figure in the UK impact community explain that academics who claimed not to ‘get it’ should be “ashamed of themselves”. The expression varies in its tenor and force but it’s usually there. But this is accompanied by a pragmatism with a similar range. From mild claims that being engaged will make you a better scholar, up to outright threats that you’ll be left behind and won’t be able to survive in the new academy unless you develop your impact skills.

When I raised this on Twitter, Penny Andrews made the fascinating suggestion that this oscillation between carrot and stick resembled a religious sermon in its tone. I think there’s a fascinating project which could be undertaken exploring this comparison at the level of the texts, as well as detailing the poetics and narratology of impact discourse* and situating them within an account of the accelerated academy.

*I don’t feel the slightest bit capable of doing this with a sufficient level of sophistication, but if anyone wants to collaborate please get in touch!

A compilation from Colin Chandler on pg 7-8 of Achieving Impact in Research:

  • To have impact is to have a strong effect, to make a difference.
  • By impact we mean the ‘influence’ of research or its ‘effect on’ an individual, a community, the development of policy, or the creation of a new product or service. It relates to the effects of research on our economic, social and cultural lives (AHRC, 2010).
  • Impact is the demonstrable contribution that excellent research makes to society and the economy (RCUK, 2011).
  • Impact … an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia (REF, 2011).

It’s been ages since I last wrote an abstract and immediately found myself thinking “wow, I can’t wait to write this paper”:

Surviving Life in the Accelerated Academy: The Potential and Pitfalls of Digital Scholarship 
In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the stress and anxiety of academic life. This developing discourse has an ambivalent relationship to digital technology: it has been facilitated by the uptake of blogging and micro-blogging amongst academics, yet social media and other digital technologies are involved in many of the facets of academic life that are seen as sources of stress and anxiety. This talk uses the notion of social acceleration to address the changes taking place within higher education, as well as the role of digital technology in their emergence and the difficulties they create for academics. It considers the significance of digital scholarship within this context, arguing that its institutionalisation will profoundly shape the conditions under which people aspire to be academics and to do academic work. I make the case that there is an emancipatory possibility inherent in the uptake of digital scholarship by academics but that this risk being lost, as a narrower managerialist conception of digital scholarship begins to take root within higher education.

This article by John Holmwood is worth reading:

There are few national systems of higher education that are immune from their effects, though their use is more extensive and systematic in some places, rather than others. They seem to have gone furthest in national systems with a high proportion of public universities, especially in countries with strong neo-liberal public policy regimes – for example, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. They are less extensive where national systems of governance are weaker – for example, the United States and Germany.

My purpose is not to describe the myriad forms of audit-by-metrics, or the national differences in ‘metric regimes’. Rather, I shall draw out two aspects in the development of ‘metric regimes’, which have particular significance for the discipline of sociology. The first is how the form of metric measurement favours particular disciplines over others. The second is the move from ‘co-production’ to ‘commercialisation’ in the construction of metric regimes.

This was the rather unlikely connection suggested in Jonathan Wolff’s Guardian article yesterday. I have massive respect for Wolff, who taught me as an undergraduate and is the only lecturer who has ever consistently held my attention, which left me taking this article more seriously than I otherwise might have. To be fair, he’s not talking about the ‘impact agenda’ as such but rather a broader tendency of which the ‘impact agenda’ can be taken to a bureaucratic and unlikable leading edge. His point is that there is a change taking place in the criteria by which ‘success’ is measured in academic careers. Furthermore, it is a change which is bringing activities motivated by private commitments, often done in private time without recognition, into the sphere of public assessment. In doing so, ‘academic success’ comes closer to life success. Or perhaps life success is being collapsed into career success. I’ll be pondering this for a while:

The final category is a recent innovation, by which I mean that it has crept in over the last 20 years. It goes by various names: knowledge transfer, knowledge exchange, public engagement or impact. Specialists will shudder at my ignorance in lumping all of these together. To transfer knowledge is to take your research and apply it outside an academic context. Knowledge exchange is a less imperialistic version of the same thing, recognising that one might actually learn something oneself in the process. Public engagement can be roughly the same thing yet again, but perhaps with other people’s research rather than your own. As for “impact”, it seems to be whatever the research councils have decided it is this month.

This final category, however, reflects a quiet revolution in the way in which universities conceive of themselves and their contribution. Not so long ago, if you were a school governor, or edited a community newsletter, you kept quiet about it. Either it was regarded as entirely your own affair or, even worse, a distraction from the real business of research and teaching. Now it is public engagement. We seek it out, promote you for it, and crow about it on the university’s website. Cynics might think that it is the invention of web pages, and the need to fill them with something, that has made the difference. Or that it is encouraged only because universities are continually under pressure to demonstrate their “relevance”. But whatever the explanation, it is encouraging that a successful university career is now somewhat closer to a successful life than it once was.

Call for Presentations at SPA Workshop 2013: “Challenges and Innovation in Social Policy Research: Mixed Methodologies and Impact”

16th December 2013, Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion, London School of Economics

In recent years, the use of mixed methods and methodologies in Social Policy research has become increasingly popular. Effective integration of quantitative and qualitative methods offers new opportunities for the potential and impact of Social Policy research. At a time when a growing number of Social Policy researchers are using mixed methods, it is important to reflect upon experiences and lessons from a period of particular methodological innovation. At the same time, the increasing use of blogs and social media has re-established the ‘public nature’ of Social Policy research and the importance and potential of communicating research outside academia. The impact agenda challenges Social Policy researchers to communicate research findings in an accessible and effective way without compromising their often inherent complexity. Given their active use of blogs and social media, Postgraduate and Early Career Researchers are particularly well-equipped to contribute to these developments and to collaborate with each other in fostering Social Policy research impact.

This workshop will explore questions surrounding mixed methods and methodologies of Social Policy research and the purpose and potential of Impact within such a context.

Based on feedback from the Social Policy Postgraduate community, this session has been developed to cover issues specific to Social Policy Postgraduate research experiences, research methodologies and impact. This Workshop will therefore cover:

1) Mixed Methods and Methodologies of Social Policy Research: Professor David Byrne will give a presentation on ’Mixed methods, methodology and the impacts of Social Policy Research: a challenge to simplistic explanations for a complex world’. Professor Byrne will focus on fundamental methodological issues to do with the nature of social causation and how these relate to the way in which Social Policy research can and should have an impact. Following this, there will be a series of presentations and a short panel discussion.

2) Impact – whose agenda and what for?: This panel session will consider our current definition and interpretation of impact in Social Policy research. Mark Carrigan, editor of the Sociological Imagination Blog and academic technologist, will explore what ‘impact’ can be taken to mean within the present context and discuss how social media tools provide unparalleled opportunities for researchers. Mark will show why problems with the ‘impact agenda’ should not discourage us from exploring how we can make a social and cultural impact using digital tools. Jane Tinkler and Sierra Williams, from the LSE Public Policy Group and members of the LSE Impact of Social Sciences Blog team, will look at research from the forthcoming ‘LSE Impact Book’ and present their experiences with impact and blogging. They will reflect on the relationship between impact and policy research and discuss the opportunities for Early Career Researchers.

Following this, there will be presentations and a short discussion on the following questions:

· Should or can we have a broader notion of impact in Social Policy research?
· Given the recent changes in media communication, what is the role of traditional media and new social media in facilitating the impact of Social Policy research?

The workshop will be organised in such a way as to facilitate a critical but encouraging environment for information sharing and learning amongst Social Policy Postgraduate and Early Career Researchers. A particular aim of the event is to look forward in considering how we might best maximise the utility of mixed methods social sciences research and impact in Social Policy research. The following questions will be considered:

· What opportunities and challenges do mixed methods and methodologies of social policy research present?
· How can mixed methods facilitate deeper and better understanding in different Social Policy domains?
· Can Social Policy research be communicated to a non-specialist audience?
· What is the scope of ‘public’ social policy research in informing and affecting the policy process?

We invite abstracts for papers and presentations on any of the questions outlined above. Priority will be given to presenters that draw on their own current research.

The organisers will give an option to presenters to use the or format. These are relatively short presentations (6 minutes each) and are another engaging and innovative way to disseminate Social Policy research.

The workshop will be held at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics on Monday 16th December. A £6 registration fee will be charged for the workshop, refreshments and lunch. Places are limited but can be booked here. Please submit abstracts (300-400 words) to: Please submit abstracts (300-400 words) to: by 15th November 2013. Decisions on abstracts will be made by 22nd November 2013. A limited number of travel bursaries will be made available.

For further information please visit: