Three strategies for attaining legitimacy in policy knowledge: Coherence in identity, process and outcome

Date01 March 2018
AuthorKate Williams
Published date01 March 2018
Three strategies for attaining legitimacy in policy
knowledge: Coherence in identity, process and
Kate Williams
Department of Sociology, University of
Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
Kate Williams, Department of Sociology,
University of Cambridge, Free School Lane,
Cambridge CB2 3RQ, UK.
Funding information
Commonwealth Scholarship Commission
At a time when truth and facts are highly contested, understanding
how knowledge gains legitimacy is crucial. Creating valuable policy
knowledge involves navigating a space between fields, where
actors and ideas from different social worlds come into play. This
article outlines a novel set of strategies for attaining legitimacy
within this space. Drawing on mixed-methods analysis of interview
and publication data from 12 development research organizations,
the article argues that legitimacy centres around three primary
types of coherence. Coherence in identity is the demonstration of
propergoals via negotiation of organizational and individual iden-
tity. Coherence in process is the demonstration of properpro-
cesses through maintenance of independence, integrity and
transparency. Coherence in outcome is the demonstration of
properoutcomes via creation of the rightproducts, audience
and impact. Mastery of these three areas makes possible the pro-
duction of credible, distinctive and significant knowledge.
The current climate of alternative factsand post-truth politicsillustrates how empirical observations can carry lit-
tle weight against emotion, preconception and power. There are always competing ways of understanding phenom-
ena; what is important is how we decide which are most likely to be true. Empirical observations must be weighed
against one another using established theories and methods. Yet there is an ongoing battle for legitimacy over truth
and facts, whereby traditional experts seek to adhere to the rules of the game, bringing established forms of evi-
dence to bear on economic, social and environment issues, while others attempt to change the rules to their advan-
tage (Fuller 2017). In this context, people across the world have fought to have the role of evidence and expertise
in society recognized and reinforced (e.g., the 2017 March for Science rallies). The legitimacy of experts and knowl-
edge is therefore an especially pertinent issue, and we need to ensure that we have well-funded institutions and
credible researchers that can provide the most sophisticated ways of understanding pressing issues so that
DOI: 10.1111/padm.12385
Public Administration. 2018;96:5369. © 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd 53
appropriate actions can be taken. Thus, examining how knowledge is produced by research actors whose task is to
inform public policy and debate, and how this knowledge gains legitimacy, is crucial.
This article offers a novel way of conceptualizing legitimacy in policy-focused research contexts. Legitimacy is
defined by Suchman (1995, p. 574) as a generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are
desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions.
A body of research specifically takes up the issue of legitimacy within the structural environments that research
organizations are embedded in (e.g., Marnoch et al. 2000; Contandriopoulos et al. 2004). According to this thinking,
research organizations are a heterogeneous group with a wide range of potential outcomes, where external factors
(e.g., norms, relationships, or politics) create pressures to which organizations must adapt (DiMaggio and Powell
1991; Burns and Scapens 2000; Scott 2014). In this view, the purpose of the rules and procedures employed by
organizations is to gain legitimacy, rather than to ensure efficiency (Zucker 1977; Peters and Pierre 1998). Pre-
scribed by national, institutional and disciplinary context, organizational actions are therefore based on patterns that
develop over time as a result of rules, qualifications and shared beliefs. Thus, informal cultural practices and rituals
become as important as technical processes and resource requirements.
The attainment of legitimacy is important for organizations because a critical mass is required to attain the
resources necessary for an organization's existence and growth, and because legitimacy provides moral authority to
operate (Nicholls and Cho 2006). In addition, with the continued importance of evidence-based policy, policy-
makers (at least rhetorically) turn to scientific evidence for legitimacy, which is no longer guaranteed by purely polit-
ical processes (Sanderson 2002; Sullivan 2011). It is therefore possible to comprehend the effects of these values
and norms on the intellectual labour designed to gain legitimacy through intellectual interventions.
Yet, traditional views of legitimacy (e.g., DiMaggio and Powell 1991; Scott 2014) tend to assume a relatively
static field of enquiry where people follow mutually understood norms, and actors risk portrayal as cultural dopes.
However, there is a recent body of work that takes the production of knowledge as a more dynamic process that is
often created in the space between different fields (Eyal and Pok 2011; Stampnitzky 2013). In this space, there are
no specific rules of the gameor fixed capitals(Bourdieu 1985), but rather shifting, permeable borders that permit
actors, ideas, and tools to travel between varied sites of knowledge production (Eyal and Pok 2011). Rather than
viewing all fields as tightly bounded spaces, attention should be given to the boundaries between fields, which both
separate and connect them. This perspective allows us to conceive the act of producing policy or applied knowl-
edge, or creating meaningful intellectual interventions, as necessarily spanning distances between social worlds.
Researchers and organizations in these contexts are required to manage and satisfy evaluators, funders and
supporters from diverse fields, in order to foster and maintain a favourable set of symbolic beliefsin numerous
audiences (Carpenter 2010; Gilad et al. 2015; Maor 2016), while attending to a central mission. Derived from an
organization's outputs, expertise, principles and procedures, this reputation-based power rests in the judgment of
its audiences [who] have a form of power, too, as their assessments may diminish if the organization's behavior
exhibits a lack of propriety, equanimity, or honesty(Carpenter 2010, p. 18). Intellectual products must therefore ful-
fil the expectations of specific social worlds, while retaining the flexibility to inhabit multiple overlapping communi-
ties (Star and Griesemer 1989). Recognizable formats and structures allow them to maintain a common identity
across different sites, but each output is also a site where several worlds intersect (Garrety 1998). Outputs are thus
artefacts of specific settings, the wider social milieu, and the intended audience. At any stage, research actors must
inscribe knowledge, compile evidence and gain resources in balance with diverse audiences with competing inter-
ests and rules of the games (Bourdieu 1985).
This article considers the making of policy knowledge by utilizing evidence from several case studies of diverse
research contexts. It argues that in order to speak to these different fields, policy researchers are perpetually
involved in a great negotiation, which takes place between disciplines, professions and sites of production
(e.g., Gulbrandsen and Smeby 2005; Denis et al. 2015). For example, the researcher is simultaneously (and unevenly)
an academic, journalist, adviser and fundraiser (Medvetz 2010), and is thus engaged in moment-to-moment position-
ing and repositioning in order to establish credibility in relevant fields. Positions are established in the act of self-

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