British Politics

, Volume 13, Issue 3, pp 312–331 | Cite as

The higher education impact agenda, scientific realism and policy change: the case of electoral integrity in Britain

  • Toby S. JamesEmail author
Original Article


Pressures have increasingly been put upon social scientists to prove their economic, cultural and social value through ‘impact agendas’ in higher education. There has been little conceptual and empirical discussion of the challenges involved in achieving impact and the dangers of evaluating it, however. This article argues that a realist approach to social science can help to identify some of these key challenges and the institutional incompatibilities between impact regimes and university research in free societies. These incompatibilities are brought out through an autobiographical ‘insider account’ of trying to achieve impact in the field of electoral integrity in Britain. The article argues that there is a more complex relationship between research and the real world which means that the nature of knowledge might change as it becomes known by reflexive agents. Secondly, the researchers are joined into social relations with a variety of actors, including those who might be the object of study in their research. Researchers are often weakly positioned in these relations. Some forms of impact, such as achieving policy change, are therefore exceptionally difficult as they are dependent on other actors. Strategies for trying to achieve impact are drawn out such as collaborating with civil society groups and parliamentarians to lobby for policy change.


Scientific realism Policy change Electoral integrity Electoral registration Electoral studies Impact Higher education 


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of East AngliaNorwichUK

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