Piggin, J., Jackson, S., And Lewis, M.  (2009) ‘Knowledge, Power and Politics: Contesting “Evidence based” National Sport Policy’, in International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 44 (1): 87 – 101

This one examines sport and recreational policy in New Zealand, and tests the claims that it is based on evidence alone.  Instead, a number of other knowledges are brought together into a discourse.  Foucault is used to manage the analysis [although actor network theory would have done just as well].

The organisation Sport and Recreation New Zealand (Sparc) is the government organisation responsible for funding sport and recreation to the tune of millions of dollars.  It claims to be based on evidence, and to offer a model for further interventions in sport, including talent identification and coaching techniques.  Foucault can be used to offer a critical analysis: the way in which policies shapes values and interaction itself, and helps people frame up interests; the way in which power works to generate forms of domination and resistance; the ways in which some knowledges come to acquire the status of science, and which ones are excluded; the articulation between power and knowledge.  The intention is to see how a policy intervention is ‘discursively constructed’ (88).  Since evidence based approaches are understood as positivist, it is also a critique of positivism.

Foucault is notion of governmentality is a broad one, extending to the notion of regulation, usually offering not straightforward domination but regulated freedom.  However, no state to a state agency can ever dominate completely, partly because power itself is too diffuse, and partly because there are other power relations at work.  Governmentality can have a positive aspect in ‘encouraging citizens to become more active’, for example.  Sparc draws upon legitimate governmental power, but it also needs to manage rival conceptions and inconsistencies in public sport policy, ultimately defending the decision to invest government funds.  Part of this is a claim to know about sport.

The authors studied the ways in which practices were constructed as discourses, including the ways in which interests were concealed, or rendered at the unconscious level.  This is compatible with genealogy, a way of bringing to light suppressed knowledges.  In this case, the official discourse of  evidence based policy is analysed to show the hidden workings of power and its impact on knowledge.  To do this, major policy documents were analysed, including relevant websites.  A clear claimed to be based upon evidence was apparent.  Various Sparc announcements including media and press releases were also analysed, to see articulation at work.  Finally, two senior managers were interviewed.  The data permitted comparison and contrast between knowledge sources and how they were used.

The official discourse assumes that policy is or should be based on research or evidence [one critic here is Hamersley].  Basing policy on evidence is supposed to be positive and worthwhile.  There is a lot of evidence in the various policy documents, often involving statistical research on things such as proportions of active people, returns on investment, views gathered from stakeholders, how national interest might be calculated, and so on.  This approach is clearly used to justify the use of public money and investment, part of the general neo liberal turn in New Zealand politics.  Thus metaphors of the market lead to commercial market research techniques, surveys of stakeholders and their levels of satisfaction and so on.

However, policy makers themselves occasion express doubts about the evidence.  Sometimes, for example they deny that statistics alone can prove the effectiveness of policies, or that evidence can be conveniently gathered on things such as the impact of policy on participation.  [It is clear there is a tactical issue here, since policy makers are trying to stave off criticism about their own ineffectiveness].

Some data is simply ignored.  For example, when surveyed, New Zealanders wanted investment in both elite and popular sport.  This had to be managed and a set of priorities were required.  One technique was to use ‘marketing techniques such as the construction of what the marketing manager called brand essence statements…  [to reduce]…  the range of discursive possibilities’ (94).  [Here the example here involves a bland slogan—‘Live to Win’].  Marketing can not be based exclusively on evidence.

Evidence has to be interpreted and understood.  For example, policy making might have to be defended against media criticism.  Although a policy statement involved the winning of Olympic medals, the failure of New Zealand to do so at Athens had to be managed, and media stories had to be dismissed as simplistic.  The same goes for the idea of national identity and the need to manage ‘unrealistic expectations’ (96).  In this particular case, their own chosen slogan Live to Win prove to be contradictory [best make it even vaguer, as in ‘Just Do It’?].

Other kinds of experts can also produce knowledge.  There seems to be an acknowledgement that sports persons themselves can also know about sport and its reality.  Thus the famous sports people have been brought on to the management team of Sparc and other bodies.  This is intended to fight off accusations that policy makers do not know what is really needed.  At the same time, specialist managers had to exert their rights, for example by claiming that they were able to ask ‘intelligent outsider questions’ (97).  The authors claim to have found evidence [sic] of a ‘conceptual contest between tarnished and objective viewpoints’ (97).

Policy making bodies have to utilise positivistic stance is to gain legitimacy, but they can never do so consistently.  Instead, knowledge and evidence emerges from different sources and have to be articulated together—‘interlocking (although not necessarily synergistic) apparatuses of positivism, scepticism, intuition, uncontrollable understandings and expert knowledge’ (98).  Attempts to simplify and conceal these contradictions can lead to distrust of policy.  Politicians like to cling to the positivist approach because it limits resistance.  However, discourses are problematic at  times even by policy makers, for example when they market.  Whether such a discourse succeeds in persuading the public to support their version of expert knowledge needs to be researched further.

[I was reminded at times of Latour, which may be hardly surprising if you think that Latour and Foucault use the same method, as do Kendall and Wickham. In particular, it is clear that there is a tactical dimension, in the construction of science, not just in policy that follows from it.  The authors of this article seem to think that positivism only gets corrupted when it’s put into practice – this is very common with people who use Foucault to criticise particular discourses, without realizing he can be used to criticise all discourses, including the one at work in this article.  I think Latour will also help to explain the political significance of amassing expert knowledge to support policy, whether it is positivist evidence, all the testimony of other experts.  It simply becomes impossible to summon the resources to counter ‘facts’ amassed in this way, and so they obtain a kind of inertial objectivity by default]

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