Monday, 28 March 2011

The AHRC and the "Big Society"

I was somewhat surprised to find that the Observer reported yesterday on the news that the Arts and Humanities Research Council has been designating research into the "big society" a priority area. I was surprised because I didn't think this was new news, not least because it was discussed (albeit briefly) on this blog some days ago. However, I was even more surprised to read that the AHRC has replied to the Observer story by posting, on the main news list for philosophers in the UK, Philos-L, an apparent "denial" of the story.

The denial was issued by no less a person than Professor Rick Rylance, the Chief Executive of the AHRC though it is interesting to note precisely what Professor Rylance chose to deny from the Observer story. What Professor Rylance focuses on is the idea that the AHRC either was pressured to accept the "big society" idea as a priority research area or that it developed it in response to Tory election slogans from last year. Instead, the idea arose from within the AHRC itself and was something that, whilst relevant to the agenda of the current government, was not apparently commissioned by it. It is, though, true, as you can see by checking the AHRC's own site, that the focus on the "big society" and the using of the language of the "big society" is something explicit in the council's own description of one of its key priority research areas. That focus on such a notion can be defended by Professor Rylance is somewhat bizarre. Further it is explicitly stated in documentation of the area that there is a link not just with the language of government policy but with the explicit idea of it:

Radical new policies on the „Big Society‟ & localism at the heart of the new Coalition Government‟s strategy in England represent a major „social experiment‟ and research opportunity, have created urgent new needs for research to inform policy and require a step change in research engagement with local communities and groups, the third sector and local government.

So the substance of Professor Rylance's argument with the Observer story appears to boil down to the point that the AHRC thought of focusing on this idea of the "big society" before the government did but is happy to assert a link to it quite explicitly now it is government policy. And who is supposed to be satisfied with this as a response?

That no one is satisfied is apparent from the discussion of this same story that was run in the Times Higher where this time the defence is that the idea of the way this research priority area has been defined is due to needing to speak to government in a language it "understands". Such language has also defined here the specific nature and sense of the enquiry in question as is clear from the citation above. That the AHRC itself chose to make itself such a tool of government rather than requiring "pressure" from them makes the situation worse rather than better.

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