What (a) to do about ‘impact’: a Bourdieusian critique

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Colley, Helen (2013)

This paper presents a research-based, theoretically-informed contribution to the debate on ‘impact’ in educational research, and specifically a response to Gardner’s presidential address to the British Educational Research Association (2011). It begins by discussing the development of the research ‘impact’ agenda as a global phenomenon, and reviews the current state of debate about ‘impact’ in the UK’s Research Excellence Framework. It goes on to argue that a radical alternative perspective on this agenda is needed, and outlines Bourdieu’s sociology – including his much-neglected concept of illusio – as offering potential for generating critical insights into demands for ‘impact’. The term illusio in particular calls us to examine the ‘stakes’ that matter in the field of educational research: the objects of value that elicit commitment from players and are ‘worth the candle’. This framework is then applied first to analyse an account of how an ESRC-funded project that I led was received by different research ‘users’ as we sought to generate impact for our findings. Second, it is used to show that the field of educational research has changed; that it has bifurcated between the field of research production and that of research reception; and that the former is being subordinated to the latter. The paper concludes by arguing that, despite many educational researchers’ commitments to ‘make a difference ‘ in wider society, the research ‘impact’ imperative is one that encroaches on academic freedom; and that academics need to find collective ways in which to resist it.
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