Last week (4th-6th July) I attended the 11th international Interpretive Policy Analysis (IPA) Conference in Hull, 2017 UK City of Culture.
This article reflects on the conference and the IPA. Most importantly, it highlights the sense and benefits of an IPA community within which a milieu of interdisciplinary and international social and policy researchers can reside.
Variation in topics covered was vast. Over three days I saw three keynote speeches, had the choice of over 80 panel sessions to attend, a drinks reception at the Deep aquarium, the world’s only submarium (!) and a conference dinner.
A first glance at the conference programme gave a flavour of the rich diversity and breadth of topics included. Presentations on climate change, public policy, immigration, gender, space, democracy and governance, linguistic ethnography, neoliberalism, wars, crisis, think tanks, food, hegemony, moral economies of austerity and teaching were just a few included! Not only was the conference a platform for displaying a rich tapestry of topics but it was also a space in which presenters were brought together from far-lung corners of the globe. Research had been carried out in Finland, France, Thailand, Portugal, the US, the UK, India, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Ukraine, Germany, Syria, Wales, Switzerland, Uganda, China and Tasmania, and many more places besides. In short it was a truly interdisciplinary and international event.
Ngai-ling Sum and Bob Jessop’s book Towards a Cultural Political Economy was the subject of an enlightening ‘authors meets critics’ session. Responses to the critics included the use of post-structuralists and post-capitalist frameworks with discursive struggles included, debates on critical realism and the viability of objectivity, discourse theory and analysis and the idea of discourse creating organic intellectuals, were stimulating and useful. Both macro and meso level techniques as part of the cultural political economy programme meant theory could be applied through tools such as selectivities, ‘moments’ and entry points, for example in relation to cross-overs between Gramsci, Marx and Foucault. To paraphrase Sum researchers should choose their own moments and find their own entry points within this vast theoretical landscape.
On the first day the panel session on the role of think tanks in crisis situations focused on the financial crash of 2008 in the UK, China and Germany (also across Europe). In China the role of think tanks during the financial crisis were less influential than post-crisis when think tanks were tied closely to the state and the work of policy actors. In the UK think tanks were categorised into ‘against the status quo’, ‘for the status quo’, ‘academic or scientific’ and ‘politically linked’. Each organisation took a different discursive approach in 2008 and the years following. In the final paper think tanks publications across Europe were categorised by topic and frequency of publication during the financial crisis with interesting changes occurring over time. Presenters Patrick Köllner, Marcos Gonzalez Hernando, Dieter Plehwe continue their research on think tanks at the Institute of Global Area Studies, the University of Cambridge and the Berlin Social Science Centre respectively.
On the second day there was a panel on ‘constructing policy and creating spaces’. This included a wide range of spatially based theoretical frameworks enacted in Germany, the UK, Lyon and Marseille in France and California in the US. The session also included spaces of implementation for the NHS in England. The theme running through all presentations was tensions between differing definitions, uses and boundaries in the process of scale-craft, the construction of political concerns by geography in data analysis. Whether at neighbourhood, regional or national level the politicisation and delineation of boundaries for policy, planning or economic purposes did not occur without counter-narrative from policy and non-policy actors as micro, meso and macro scales.
The panel on immigration and asylum policy in Syria and the UK discussed recent events and policy responses using cultural political economy as a framework, with a focus on the knowledge brand – the creation of easily usable, transferrable knowledge components for policy actors. Research from Syria showed the long-term but temporary situation of Syrian Refugees and the reaction to this. UK findings relating to the push / pull theory on immigration and its continued use by policy makers despite a lack of evidence for its value and increasing call for acknowledgement of the complexity of immigration. Katharina Lenner and Lucy Mayblin continue their research in the European University Institute, Florence and the University of Sheffield respectively.
Finally, the panel on neo-liberal transformation of the university reflected critically on the education industry, myself included. Bob Jessop revisited the academic capitalism in the light and drank of neo-liberalism. Framing his critique around the domination of profit-making in academia and its pitfalls. Alan Mandell called for an awareness of the problems associated with public access to universities, not least the inequalities which can stem from these, focusing on the US. Both included the influx of students to sustain universities straining capacity, evaluation and pressures associated with these. Rosana Boullosa and Roberto W.S. Rodrigues used Brazilian Higher Education to highlight inequalities between public and private providers of higher education. Other papers in the panel included perspectives on neoliberalisation from neoliberal assault in Indian universities, the armed forces in Thailand, quality in the Netherlands and, my own on research impact in Wales. The theme running throughout was that of a sector under attack holding on to ideals in a rapidly changing neo-liberal economy of professionalisation, managerialism and a for-profit culture.
By the end of the conference I felt that conversations and debates sparked had inspired me to draw on a range of discursive theories as commonalities between different research topics in a policy analysis community. Themes such as hegemony and concepts such as strategic and relational selectivities in discourse as language and practice, are all tools which researchers from many different disciplines can draw upon. Finally conversations throughout the conference often turned to the continued shock and concern surrounding the recent Brexit vote, particularly for EU nationals researching in the UK. Being immersed in the wealth of an international cross-disciplinary community made the reality of a UK vote to leave the EU more poignant. Based on my positive experience it is with hope for continued and deepened relations with our EU and global colleagues researching in the social and political sciences for the long-term future that I conclude.