The Many Meanings of Research Utilization
What does it mean for policy makers to make use of research? Carol Weiss wrote this classic paper after years of extensive work with the US government, and after editing and writing books on the roles of social research in public policy. In the paper, Weiss summarizes seven major ways of thinking about the use of research, arguing that if social scientists understand these approaches, they can improve the policy impact of their work and be less disappointed with the scope of that impact.
Knowledge Driven Model
This model "assumes the following sequence of events: basic research -> applied research -> development -> application." Weiss argues that this model is rare in the social sciences, whether or not it actually describes what happens in the natural sciences. She argues against "the assumption that the sheer fact that knowledge exists press it toward development and use." (427) This, she argues is for three reasons:
- "Social science knowledge is not apt to be so compelling or authoritative as to drive inevitably toward implementation" (427)
- "Social science knowledge does not readily lend itself to conversion into replicable technologies" (427)
- "Unless a social condition has been consensually identified as a pressing social problem, and unless the condition has become fully politicized, and the parameters of a potential action agreed upon, there is little likelihood that policy-making bodies will be receptive to the results of social science research" (427)
Some social scientists start from a problem that society agrees on and try to develop research that can guide subsequent decisions. Weiss points out that this model makes several assumptions:
- "there is a consensus on goals" (427)
- "policy makers and researchers tend to agree on what the desired end state shall be" (427)
In this situation, social science research may "help identify and select appropriate means to reach the goal" (427). In these cases, Weiss points out two paths for research to influence policy. In one path, the research already existed and is drawn upon when needed. This rarely happens, because people making decisions rarely have access to relevant research. Researchers who focus on this path tend to try to improve the communication of research findings. In the second path, policy makers commission research to answer questions. Weiss, writing in 1977, called this view "wildly optimistic" (428). She writes that "occasional studies have direct effect on decisions, but usually on relatively low-level narrow-gauge decisions. Most studies appear to come and go without leaving any discernible mark on the direction or substance of policy" (428). To illustrate the implausibility of impactful commissioned research, Weiss outlines the "extraordinary concatenation of circumstances" that would need to occur:
- "a well defined decision situation"
- "a set of policy actors who have responsibility and jurisdiction for making the decision"
- "an issue whose resolution depends at least to some extent on *information*"
- "identification of the requisite informational needs"
- "research that provides the information in terms that match the circumstances within which choices will be made"
- "research findings that are clear-cut, unambiguous, firmly supported, and powerful"
- "[findings] that reach decision-makers at the time they are wrestling with the issues"
- "[findings] that are comprehensible and understood, and that do not run counter to strong political interests" (428)
When these things do not converge, Weiss worries that too many researchers become discouraged.
Another model sees researchers as "part of an interactive search for knowledge" (428). Here, researchers acknowledge that they are part of a network of people making claims and arguments, including journalists, planners, politicians, interest groups, aides etc, who all "pool their talents, beliefs, and understandings in an effort to make sense of a problem." Weiss cites Donnison's studies of UK policy research, including cases where politicians needed to make decisions before research was complete (1972).
Weiss points out that research often speaks into conversations that have hardened along political lines: "At this point, decision-makers are not likely to be receptive to new evidence from social science research. For reasons of interest, ideology, or intellect, they have taken a stand that research is not likely to shake" (429). In these situations, "research becomes grist to the mill." Yet when research "finds ready-made partisans who will fight for its implementation, it stands a better chance of making a difference in the outcome." Weiss suggests that in these cases, researchers should at least support open access for reasons of equity (Weiss 1973).
Sometimes research is used for purposes unrelated to the goals of the research itself. For example, "sometimes government agencies use research to deflect criticism" (429). Alternatively, government agencies may ally with well-known researchers as "a tactic for enhancing the prestige of the agency" (429). Sometimes, "agencies support substantial amounts of research and in so doing, build a constituency of academic supporters who rally to their defense when appropriations are under congressional review" (429).
Weiss argues that most social research influences policy through a process of "enlightenment" (Janowitz, Crawford & Biderman). Rather than specific findings influencing specific policies, "it is the concepts and theoretical perspectives that social science research has engendered that permeate the policy-making process" (429). In this model, we see "social science generalizations and orientations percolating through informed publics and coming to shape the way in which people think about social issues" (429). Unlike other models, the goals of this research do not need to align with decision-makers' goals.
Weiss argues that while this idea "has a comforting quality," convincing people that "without any special effort, truth will triumph" (430). Yet this enlightenment model can spread invalid, wrong generalization along good ones. Sensational, newsworthy research can take the limelight. Important work might never get noticed. As much social research complicates our understandings rather than converging it, "advocates of almost any policy prescription are likely to find some research generalizations in circulation to support their points of view" (430).
Research as Part of the Intellectual Enterprise of Society
Finally, Weiss summarizes the idea of social science research as one of many forms of intellectual enquiry, which "responds to the currents of thought, the fads and fancies, of the period," where "social science and policy interact, influencing each other and being influenced by the larger fashions of thought" (1979). These fads shape what social scientists are interested in, what funders prioritize, and consequently, what researchers are able to study.
Weiss hopes that understanding the diversity of these models "may help us to overcome the disenchantment with the usefulness of social science research that has afflicted those who search for use only in problem-solving contexts" (430). She concludes by arguing that "there has been much glib rhetoric about the vast benefits that social science can offer if only policy makers paid attention" (431). Weiss argues that social scientists should apply their own methods to improving their understanding of this issue so that even if they cannot "increase the use of research," they may still be able to "improve the contribution that research makes to the wisdom of social policy" (431).
- Donnison, D. (1972). Research for policy. Minerva, 10(4), 519-536.
- Weiss, C. H. (1973). Where politics and evaluation research meet. Evaluation practice, 14(1), 93-106.
- Janowitz, M. (1972). Professionalization of sociology. American Journal of Sociology, 78(1), 105-135.
- Crawford, E. T., & Biderman, A. D. (1969). The functions of policy-oriented social science. Social scientists and international affairs, 233-43.
Theoretical and practical relevance:
This classic article outlines seven major ways that social research contributes to society. The article prompted more substantial research and thinking on the uses of social science research by society.