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Subjectivity: The Next Challenge for Evidence-Based Policymaking?

Tuesday 29 November 2016


Mile End Institute Deputy Director Dr Helen McCarthy assesses methods for ensuring subjective experience is considered by policymakers. 

Everyone agrees that we lead complex lives in the 21st Century. 

Policy experts have been talking for years about eschewing ‘one-size-fits-all’ policymaking in favour of more flexible models which are responsive to user needs and which recognise that those needs are shaped by diverse preferences and circumstances. 

Public services, it is widely argued, should be ‘personalised’, ‘co-produced’ or ‘people-centred’, with the emphasis placed on choice for the individual and respect for differences between and within communities.  

Treating those whose lives are touched by policymaking as three-dimensional human-beings sounds simple enough, but in practice is hard to achieve. 

The dramatic result of the EU referendum in June 2016, and the highly-charged political atmosphere unfolding in its aftermath, suggests that government has thought too little about the place of feelings and emotions in our collective public life. That needs to change.

Which evidence counts?

The evidence that commands greatest power in government tends, perhaps understandably, to be outcomes-focused: data which measures the impact of a policy intervention and calculates the cost to the taxpayer. 

This kind of evidence, often quantitative in nature and produced by economists, statisticians or behavioural scientists carrying out randomised-controlled trials, is crucial for effective policymaking. 

Yet the relentless focus on measurable outcomes inevitably sweeps those on the receiving end of policy decisions into undifferentiated aggregate groups. 

It flattens out an individual’s passions, eccentricities, fears and desires, and renders invisible her ‘subjectivity’ – that her sense of herself as a subject, thinking, feeling and acting in the world.

Subjectivity is fundamental to our humanity, but it so often gets lost in the dry language of policy debates. 

Politicians and officials might aspire to make policy align with the needs and preferences of ordinary people, but how can they be sure that they really understand what those needs and preferences are?

Understanding Subjectivity

Nowhere is this arguably more the case than in the arena of gender, care and work, the theme of a recent Mile End Institute event held at the British Academy entitled Understanding Women’s Work and Family Lives: Policy, Practice and Lessons from the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Policies concerning parental leave, childcare and flexible working form part of the landscape within which men and women make deeply personal decisions about their most intimate relationships. 

Here policy collides with raw emotions, calibrates power relations within households, and mediates negotiations over the sexual division of domestic labour and care. 

There are few areas where understanding subjective experience could be more important for the policymaker.

And yet the researchers who specialise in producing exactly this kind of knowledge often struggle to make their voices heard when competing with the ‘hard’ evidence of graphs and tables. 

The methodologies typically deployed by scholars in the humanities and social sciences to capture subjectivity do not deal in absolutes.

Laura King, a social and cultural historian, spoke at the event of how oral history testimonies can complicate dominant narratives of social change, demonstrating the multiple meanings that a mother and daughter might construct from the same parent-child relationship.

Linda McDowell, a human geographer, showed how space, place, scale and mobility shape women’s subjective experiences in ways which challenge accounts of post-industrial modernity centred on the male-worker norm.

Janet Fink, a sociologist, described the mixed methods she used to explore how couples sustain long-term relationships in contemporary Britain, including ‘emotion maps,’ photo-elicitation interviews and diaries.

Jane Millar, a social policy specialist, described her ongoing longitudinal study of lone mothers which builds a fine-grained picture of how these families have coped (or failed to cope) since 2003 through intensive interviews involving both women and their children.

Finally, the event served as the launch of the Working Mothers Project website, the culmination of my own collaboration with the photographer Leonora Saunders.

Combining semi-structured life interviews with documentary photography and photo-diaries, the project provides an intimate portrait of the interconnected work and family lives of five mothers in East London.

This kind of research is time-consuming and expensive, it can be emotionally draining, and it requires experience and skill to do well. 

The evidence it produces is not ‘soft’ data, but it is, inevitably, of a different nature from research explicitly designed to solve well-defined public policy problems.

Work on subjectivities does not conceptualise research participants as customers, consumers or users who expect and deserve better services, and nor does it necessarily frame them as citizens or taxpayers demanding accountability from their elected representatives. 

Instead, research into subjective experience can reveal to policymakers everything that goes into the making and remaking of a life: from the pleasures and stresses of the daily routine, to the web of personal and social relationships which shape our present selves and the phalanx of influences which fire our imaginings of what we might yet become.

Attending to subjectivity adds light and shade to the picture and inserts twists and turns into the narratives which typically frame policy problems.    

Translating Subjectivity into Evidence

So how might this kind of knowledge become evidence for policymaking? 

Qualitative research does, of course, have a place in current decision-making processes. Polling, attitude surveys and focus groups all form part of the mix of data used by policymakers, whilst individual stories are frequently included in political speeches or policy documents to illustrate the impact of government reforms on ‘real’ people’s lives.

The danger here is that qualitative evidence is valued primarily as a means of adding colour or human interest, whilst quantitative data provides the empirical substance behind the policy. 

In the digital age when anyone can run an online poll, there is a further risk that what passes as qualitative evidence is often lacking in rigour and probes subjective experience in only very limited ways.

Yet the power of storytelling undoubtedly creates an opportunity for researchers interested in subjectivity, particularly in policy areas where objectives are inherently ‘subjective’, such as the wellbeing and quality of life agenda. 

Outcomes must be measured here as in any other area of policy, but the task of identifying those outcomes should be rooted in a deep understanding of what ‘wellbeing’ might mean to different people in different places and at different times. 

The concepts and methodologies discussed at the Mile End Institute event offer robust models for capturing those meanings.

The challenge, as set out by the policy experts present at the event, is one of translation and timing, and involves building stronger networks for facilitating dialogue between policymakers and academics.

Fran Smith from the Government Equalities Office highlighted the importance of researchers developing a clear understanding of the shifting landscape of spending priorities and delivery timescales within Whitehall.

Ceri Goddard, a Fellow at the Young Foundation and leading expert in gender innovation, pointed to a need to grasp the distinction between using research in a ‘reactive’ mode to respond to short-term policy proposals, versus the pursuit of ‘conceptual’ change, involving a fundamental transformation of the terms of debate.

Scarlet Harris of the TUC stressed the value of building strong, effective collaborations between academic researchers and trade unions, whilst Kathryn Nawrockyi of Business in the Community emphasised that the kind of research which creates impact amongst employers is action-orientated, easily-digestible and carefully-targeted.  

Subjectivity and Gender Equality: A New Research Agenda

What became clear to all participants at the event was that subjectivity should be at the heart of any gender equality policy agenda. 

It was in the 1970s that feminists first argued for the authority of personal experience and placed women’s everyday struggles to achieve full human flourishing at the centre of their politics. 

This lesson is as relevant today as it ever was. It is arguably even more so, as both activists and researchers increasingly recognise the importance of understanding men’s subjective experiences alongside those of women for the success of any policy initiative aimed at advancing gender equality in our society.   

To illustrate this point, one might consider the report on the Gender Pay Gap produced earlier this year by the Parliamentary Women and Equalities Select Committee, based on extensive evidence received from a range of organisations and experts.

This long and detailed document identified a significant weakness in the existing research base in relation to Shared Parental Leave (SPL), a policy introduced in 2015 but which has seen only limited take-up amongst eligible couples. The Committee noted:

Whilst financial incentives, and deterrents, can influence couple’s decisions about who takes parental leave, the evidence also points to cultural factors hindering the take-up of SPL amongst men. The question of how families make decisions about caring came up on several occasions during the inquiry.

The Committee went on to recommend that the Government commission research to examine ‘how decisions about taking time out of work for caring are shared between men and women.’ 

This evidence should subsequently inform how government seeks to support parents ‘in considering the long-term implications of their decisions around the time they take parental leave.’

There would seem no better opportunity to place research on subjectivity at the heart of policy debates around gender, work and care. 

Doing so would represent a step towards embedding a model of policymaking which treats individuals as human beings, with all their complexities and contradictions. 

If the political events of 2016 have taught us anything, it is that government badly needs to understand the emotional landscapes, alongside the material circumstances, of those whose lives they seek to improve.  

Dr Helen McCarthy is Reader in Modern British History and Deputy Director of the Mile End Institute. She organised the Understanding Women's Work and Family Lives symposium with the support of British Academy's Rising Star Engagement Award and by a conference grant kindly provided by the Social History Society.

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