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.
You get the picture. Different needs, languages, aspirations. Yes, there are many academics-qua-consultants who ably swim in both waters, and practitioners curious about new research findings and groundbreaking ideas. Yet they are the exception. How often do academics sift through “best practices” and “lessons learned” reports to get a glimpse at what donors and implementers have learned? How many aid professionals keep up with recent conceptual developments?
In my mind, the main obstacle for more synergy and collaboration is that professional motivations inside academe and the aid industry are completely different. Their institutions pursue different goals, uphold different rules and norms, and deliver different organizational rewards. One cares about theory-building, testing hypotheses, advancing knowledge, publishing. The other needs to work with stakeholders, navigate bureaucracies, roll out programs effectively, monitor accountability and expediency, and deliver client satisfaction.
Considering these antithetical motivations, can’t we all get along? Probably if we talk to each other frequently and respect different needs. More than hostility between both professional cultures, I think that the conversation doesn’t happen enough. “Versus,” as in the conference’s theme, assumes engagement. Yet it is hard to know whether there is an irreconcilable differences and even antagonism when the conversation rarely takes place. It does not happen in academic conferences like the one I attended. If my impressionistic sample of panelists and attendees is representative, the participants were mostly affiliated with academic institutions. Expectedly, they cared about what scholars are concerned about: theory building, conceptual arguments, research methodologies. I didn’t see or hear any practitioners in the seven panels I attended. Not one. Thus, it’s hard to determine if there’s opposition if only one party is at the table. Likewise, few academics typically attend meetings organized by donors and contractors. I am not saying the conversation never happens – I am sure all readers can think of examples. The point is that collaborative exchanges and discussions do not happen frequently.
Given that this “blog” platform brings together both practitioners and academics, it is worth asking several questions. How scholars and practitioners may be better connected? Do we need to ask similar questions? What are our complementary needs? How to overcome the “ships that pass in the night” mindset? What examples illustrate fruitful collaboration either through joint participation in common efforts or informal borrowing and enriching each other’s ideas? What basic conditions are needed for both to be sitting at the same table?
Photo Credit: Flickr user lumaxart