I attended the conference of the International Studies Association in New Orleans. Its theme “Theory versus Policy? Connecting Scholars and Practitioners” is surely relevant to anyone interested in aid, communication/media, and governance. The question prods us to think about whether the two professional communities are inevitably opposed, and if not, then, how collaboration is possible.
In an ideal world, scholars and practitioners may not necessarily hold hands and sing kumbaya, but they could find common ground based on mutual respect and recognition. In reality, however, my experience tells me that something completely different happens. Even theorists and aid practitioners working on related issues and holding similar normative ideals, rarely see it eye to eye. Despite sporadic goodwill, encounters tend to be filled with tensions. If (sotto voce) dismissive words are not heard, participants loudly speak about different concerns. “Wait, there is a huge literature on that issue” warn academics when they hear simplistic arguments. “That works in theory, not in practice” practitioners respond and rattle off experiences that disprove theories. One’s theoretical excursus makes the other yawn. One’s case analysis meets indifference in the other. One asks about conceptual clarify and rigor, the other begs for simple concepts to use.