From Theory to Practice

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The second internal seminar in Athens 2015—and indeed, probably the most pertinent one, as far as the methodological thrust of the IASR—was concerned with the theme of Translating research findings into practice/public policy (chaired by Pirjo Nikander). Since I wasn’t myself responsible for organizing the seminar, I thought I might be in a position to jot down a few thoughts on the themes we spoke about. In particular, I’ll try to make sense of the different ways in which translations from research findings to publicly shared practices—hence, from theory to practice—can be carried out, from a philosophical, multidisciplinary perspective.

I start with a platitude: I assume we the researchers are doing science. Science, as a matter of principle, ought not to be directly converted into public policy, unless it’s a very specific species of science we are doing. Surely, one can bring the results of research to a larger audience, but that’s not to make them into public policy. And if, on the other hand, we wish to have our research contribute to doing public policy, I’d say the logic of translating from theory to practice is different.

During the conversation, taking my departure from thoughts such as those just mentioned, I suggested some distinctions that might be drawn respecting the different ways in which scientific research can be translated into something practical. We can think, to begin with, of at least the following three different cases:

  1. a tough science converted to technological usage (e.g. quantum physics)
  2. a reasonably translatable science brought to a larger audience (e.g. philosophy)
  3. research in public policy / social sciences converted to public policy

Number 3, of course, is the most explicit example of translating research findings into public praxis, whereas numbers 1 and 2 represent different examples. In the discussion, a further species of translation work turned up, namely, political participation at the grassroots level—rooted in research—that may make direct practical interventions.

Inspired by the first list, Risto Heiskala, the present director of the IASR offered an alternative list. He told us he’s been thinking of three different species of activity carried out in scientific research. These three activities—as far as my notes do justice to the view—are as follows: 1) discovery (both in the natural and in the human sciences), i.e. coming up with an idea that’s actually a result; 2) enlightenment, which usually means popularization in natural science and some kind of creation and cherishing of culture in the humanities; and 3) field of technology, i.e. inventing gadgets or new social technologies—and according to Risto, number 3 is what public-policy people customarily require.

Intriguingly, Risto’s list breaks down various conventional distinctions, say, between the human and information sciences, in that it sees the social sciences involved in the business of producing technologies as well. It goes without saying that various further questions arise from both lists. Risto’s item number 3 runs the risk of clouding the way in which technologies in the humanities and/or social science involve moral values & norms in ways that they perhaps do not in the natural sciences. (This is not to say, however, that research in the natural sciences would be normatively neutral.)

The discussion, all in all, was rich and broached the themes from various different angles. Different examples of successful translations from theory to practice involved, e.g., urban planning, nature preservation projects, management education and research on child welfare. Much could be said about all of them, but I’ll wait for other people to touch on other themes later!

Art and us

Life without the collective resources of our libraries, museums, theatres and galleries, or without the personal expression of literature, music and art, would be static and sterile—no creative arguments about the past, no diverse and stimulating present and no dreams of the future… (Arts Council England, Evidence Review, 2014)

Spaces & places
Screen capture from a film by Perttu Salovaara, made in collaboration with Arja Ropo who dealt with the use of film in management research in her presentation

The third and final internal seminar in Athens was arguably the most inspiring, devoted to discussing the function and value of Art and culture for our lives as researchers, involving different examples and offering various insights for further lines of development. The theme is admittedly complex and can be easily watered down if we think, say, that art and science are, as it were, automatically in a dialogue. We can make much better sense of the intersections of the two if we look at specific examples of how art and science might go together.

Professor of French language and literature, Jukka Havu got us started in thinking about the topic through his adorable introduction into the differences in the consumption of culture in Finland and France. While the Finns often embrace the stereotype of the French as culturally active and of themselves as less active, empirical evidence shows to the contrary. Judging on the basis of criteria, indeed, such as book borrowings from libraries, attendance of orchestral concerts, modern dance and theatre performances, the Finns fare much better than the French in terms of respective frequencies of consuming culture. In the borrowing of books from libraries, for instance, the borrowings per year in Finland (13.77 per capita) number about five times as much as in France (2.57 per capita).

Secondly, one of the chairs of the session, Hannele Mäkelä, discussed the usage of poetry in her own field of research, which is accounting. Surprising as it may sound, an international journal in her field has welcomed the publication of poetry related to themes such as accounting and accountability—and these pieces of poetr are published alongside academic articles on accounting. As an example, Hannele recited some verses by her colleague Pala Molisa, to have been published in the journal. As Pala puts it, “poetry offers a way of getting into problems in ways that prose (especially academic prose) often doesn’t allow for—it’s more expressive and condensed, and allows for an emotive charge that’s often needed to ‘feel’ a problem and not just to intellectually understand it.”

This is a valuable point insofar as it brings to the fore the insight that through the help of art we can approach different issues on the platform of our emotions, which enables us, for example, to form a more holistic stance on an issue than might be possible through more traditional academic prose. In one of the presentations in the seminar, I made a similar point in discussing the function of so-called future stories in research processes, such as in The Finnish Future Barometer on Education in 2030, where I was one of the authors producing prose and poetry on the basis of empirical research on the future of education. The specialists in education and future studies may collect big chunks of data respecting the future of education, but their predictions will customarily be ethically neutral and somewhat general. With the help of literature, in turn, one can bring in the individual, experiential perspective of a character undergoing the changes imagined, and thus we can introduce not only an emotive but also an ethical element into the picture.

Any case studies of successfully breeding art and science, however, raise criticisms that call for further treatments of the theme. If one defends the value and force of, say, narrative literature or poetry for understanding different phenomena in a specific field of research, we ought to remind ourselves that academic prose can be a genre of literature as well (also borrowing—as we best see fit—from rhetorical strategies conventionally employed in narrative literature). Also, we must keep in mind that the interchanges between art and science run in both directions: not only can we the scientists learn something from the arts, but the artists should keep their eyes open to what goes on in science, too.