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policy research


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Social scientific research which has non-university groups as its main intended audience (although the results may in practice also interest academic audiences). For the most part such research attempts to apply social scientific findings to the solution of problems identified by a client. The term ‘applied sociology’ is also given to such exercises. For example, the development of game theory was funded by the US Department of Defence with reference to its relevance to military strategy, but it has also made a fundamental contribution to social science theory.

Policy research may be descriptive, analytical, or deal with causal processes and explanations; it may evaluate a new or existing policy programme, describe examples of best practice, measure social change, develop projections on the basis of large-scale modelling exercises, or consist of large-scale experimental research in real-life settings running for years and even decades. Most policy research espouses a multi-disciplinary approach and avoids narrowly disciplinary jargon. Thus policy research is rarely explicitly sociological, even if sociology contributes more than any other discipline to the theoretical foundations, design, and methodology of a study.

In principle, policy research will focus on actionable or malleable social factors to a greater extent than theoretical research. For example, the family may be the most important source of sex-role or racial stereotypes, but policy research would focus on the role of the public educational system in changing children's perceptions in directions considered desirable. Policy research has created some multi-disciplinary hybrid fields of study, such as industrial relations (see labour relations) and social policy. When carried out in the commercial sector the term ‘consultancy work’ is often preferred. For a review of the issues and an account of some interesting case-studies see Martin Bulmer (ed.), Social Policy Research (1978). See also Black Report; broken windows thesis; Coleman Report.

Subjects: Sociology.


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