1963-2018 - 55 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Special Events (2000 - 2009) | Event: UNRISD Conference on Social Knowledge and International Policy Making: Exploring the Linkages

UNRISD Conference on Social Knowledge and International Policy Making: Exploring the Linkages

The Relationship of Research to Activism in the Making of Policy: Lessons from Gender and Development

by Gita Sen

The field of gender and development is often viewed as a sterling example of researchers and activists working together to bring about policy change. A cursory glance at the kinds of policy changes that have occurred in the latter 20th century suggests strong confirmation for this view. Across a sweeping range of issues, from macroeconomics to human rights and political participation, feminist researchers and activists from women’s movements appear to have succeeded in bringing about significant changes both in discourse and in actual policy.

This happened furthermore, in a relatively short 30-year time-span during which the field of gender and development was itself evolving and taking definition. Perhaps this openness and fluidity in the analytical underpinnings of the field during this time brought a salutary humility to the ways in which researchers were willing to listen to and learn from ground-level activists! Be that as it may, during this time policy was made, changed and shaped by the agglomeration of researchers and activists that call themselves part of the women’s movement. And policy makers who rarely have time or patience to deal with the intellectual vagaries of a newly evolving field appear to have paid attention.

What lessons are there to be learned by those who attempt to create knowledge to support social policy? Is the experience of the women’s movement unique or special? Was it the result of the serendipitous presence of the right people in the right places at the right times? Were there critical elements of conscious planning? And central to the concerns of this paper, is social activism the key to effective translation of research-based knowledge into policy? On the other hand, can activism by itself effect policy change? When and to what extent is research necessary? Are different combinations of research and activism required in different circumstances? The experience of gender and development provides a rich basis for addressing some of these questions. Looking more closely at this experience offers insights into the key issue for this conference: how the relationship between research and policy is mediated by politics, discourse, subjectivity and learning.

The discussion of the paper draws from three illustrative examples of policy change: engendering macroeconomics; sexual and reproductive health and rights; and human rights especially violence against women. In discussing these we show that the relationship of activism to research has been far from smooth, and continues to be fraught with challenges. Nonetheless, it offers a number of lessons for how a better understanding of the politics of policy, and the politics of discourse may actually help to close the gaps between research and policy.

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