Demand, supply and intermediaries: unhelpful labels

Demand, supply and the market

We know that the separation between the demand and supply of research is artificial: Ideas emerge and are used in complex systems in which players interact with each other and often perform several roles at once.

The labels, demand and supply, come from the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas which was introduced to the world of policymaking and think tanks in the 1970s in the United States. Back then, words that had been used in business and marketing broke into the world of public policy and never left. But recently, many research funders and several researchers and practitioners in the field of ‘bridging research and policy’ have adopted the metaphor, only this time in a literal manner.

K* jargon

This is a mistake. One thing is to say that there is something like a marketplace of ideas in which ideas are exchanged and another is to attempt to structure the research-policy space like a market. This is just not the case.

We also know that the policy process involves complex relationships between people, organisations and institutions that are sustained by different degrees and types of communication between parties.

In other words, everyone is an intermediary to someone else. But this intermediation is different from what the proponents of the concepts of knowledge brokering, knowledge intermediation, etc (what has been called K*) argue for. This type of intermediation responds to Robert Hoppe’s concept of boundary workers (or the broader concept of boundary organisations). Boundary workers:

Unlike the intermediary that sits ‘in-between’ two or more separate players or communities, a boundary worker (or an organisation homo mediaticus) must abide by and is accountable to the rules of the communities it seeks to bring together. In other words, and in the particular cases that this blog deals with, a boundary worker would part of both the research and the policymaking communities. And its success as a boundary worker is greatly dependent on its ability to:

  • Be an active and respected member of the various communities that it seeks to bring together; and
  • Add value to that interaction by undertaking research, analysis, and/or reflection, and/or the application of ideas into practical actions.

It is not therefore just a matter of being a specialist in intermediation -whatever that means. An effective boundary worker is competent in the trades of the communities it brings together and adds value to the interaction by its own interventions. And it is by combining both memberships that it things comes together. Think tanks can be seen as boundary workers between academia and policymaking (and the media, political parties, corporations, NGOs, etc. depending on the focus and scope of their work). But research centres in universities and policy analysis units in ministries could just as well play that role between a number of other actors. The media, too, can present this quality.

We ought to be more nuanced in the way that we try to study and understand the research and policy communities, and their overlaps, across developing countries and in each case in particular. Making broad generalisations is unhelpful; as is relying on labels. And a shame, too: the apparent messiness of the system and attempting to make sense of it is much more interesting.