Social Science and Public Policy

Richard Freeman

Frequently Asked Question

Do you really believe in knowledge transfer?


No. I mean yes, in a negative way.

Look, it happens. What would it mean to believe in it or not? And it can happen in both positive and less positive ways; it can go well or badly. So I think it's right to maintain a kind of critical ambivalence about it.

If you're asking about the concept of 'transfer', then I'm critical, yes. I like the idea of 'transplant', which seems to draw attention to context and process as much as the thing being transferred. It changes the terms of debate from engineering and trading to gardening and medicine, and that seems intuitively right. But then I'm really not sure knowledge is a thing, in that sense. So I prefer 'translation', which seems to connote some creative alignment of different worlds, made through speaking and writing. That seems closer to what I understand 'knowledge' and 'policy' to be.

Meanwhile, 'transfer' stands as a default generic, so obviously problematic that we have to wonder about it. If it has that function, I still prefer it to alternatives. I'm not much impressed with the idea of knowledge 'exchange', which seems to mean nothing more than reciprocal transfer, and so allows that unreconstructed sense of mechanical process to stand.

But I'd like to go back to that problematic 'and' of your previous question (about social science and public policy). One of the problems that line raises is whether we should be doing social science 'of' or 'for' government. For me, it's inevitably both: 'of' is also 'for'. Because what we're doing, whether describing, explaining or interpreting government, is reflecting it back on itself, representing itself to itself. The adult educator Myles Horton talks about 'helping people learn what they do', which I think is meant in a similar spirit. And that seems to me to be the most likely way of being productive, both in social science and in public policy.