• theory;
  • practice;
  • academia;
  • concepts;
  • ideas


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Traditional Perspective on Policy Relevance: A Critique
  4. Grand Theory and Policy Relevance: Instrumentalism and Beyond
  5. Grand Theory and Conditions for Policy Relevance
  6. Conclusion
  7. References

This paper challenges the commonly held perception that grand theory is irrelevant for policy. Policy, it is often argued, is in need of detailed case-oriented empirical analysis and instrumental policy recommendations rather than any sweeping generalizations or lofty ideas emanating from grand theory. Notwithstanding, this paper argues that grand theory has an underestimated relevance for policy. To be able to see and appreciate this, the notion of policy relevance must be expanded. Whereas grand theory and grand concepts such as Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism, or Marxism do not provide case-specific knowledge or recommendations, they provide general roadmaps, conceptualization of world affairs, and also have a symbolic function, legitimating or challenging established policy paradigms. Policymakers, akin to grand theorists, arguably like to make sweeping statements and generalizations. Drawing on theory and findings in public policy studies, here applied to international relations and foreign policy, this paper suggests conditions under which grand theory can be relevant for policy.

Within the international relations (IR) community, scholars advocating policy-relevant theory and research recurrently lament that many of their ivory tower “monks” frown upon anything that smacks of policy relevance and arguably are more interested in their academic careers than in solving real-world problems (Wallace 1996; George 1993; Jentleson 2000; Lepgold and Nincic 2000; Walt 2005; Nye 2008a,b). They complain further that too much theory and research in IR is far too abstract with little or no relevance for policy, and that those contributions to IR theory which, in their view, actually have relevance for policy are rarely picked up by policymakers. In the words of Stephen Walt (2005:42): “Should our discipline really be proud that relatively few people care about what we have to say?”

Advocates of bridge-building have quite clear views of what they mean by policy-relevant theory: case-oriented and actor-specific analyses, “user-friendly” empirical data on current trends and events, middle-range theory, and instrumental policy recommendations (George 1993; Lepgold and Nincic 2000). They also hold that grand theory1—that is theory which makes sweeping generalizations and claims universal validity—is of little value for policy. The bridge-building advocates have received a fair amount of critique, but even critically minded scholars tend to make a separation between policy theory (also called problem-solving theory) and grand theory (Cox 1981; Jones 2009; Brown 2012).

In contrast to both the bridge-building advocates and some of their critics, this paper argues that grand theory can be extremely policy-relevant and that there is ample evidence showing this. To be able to see and appreciate the policy relevance of grand theory, the notion of policy relevance must be expanded. Whereas grand theory and grand concepts typically do not provide case-specific knowledge or recommendations, they provide general roadmaps for policy, conceptualization of world affairs, and also have a symbolic function, legitimating or challenging established policy paradigms. Policymakers, just like grand theorists, tend to make sweeping generalizations. Hence, this paper suggests conditions under which grand theories and concepts are relevant for policy. In so doing, I draw on theory and findings in public policy studies, translated to IR and foreign policy.

The paper is structured as follows. First, the traditional conception of policy relevance is presented and critiqued. Subsequently, a broader concept of policy relevance is presented, taking into account how theories, in addition to potential instrumental utility, may also function as general road maps as well as fulfilling symbolic policy functions. Thereafter, the paper elaborates conditions under which grand theory is more or less likely to be utilized in policymaking. Finally, some concluding remarks are made with regard to the theory–policy interface.

The Traditional Perspective on Policy Relevance: A Critique

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Traditional Perspective on Policy Relevance: A Critique
  4. Grand Theory and Policy Relevance: Instrumentalism and Beyond
  5. Grand Theory and Conditions for Policy Relevance
  6. Conclusion
  7. References

Although some IR scholars warn against listening to “the siren song of policy relevance” (Girard, Eberwein, and Webb 1994; Hill and Beshoff 1994), there is no lack of academics trying to bridge the perceived gap between theory and policy (George 1993; Wallace 1996; Lepgold and Nincic 2000; Walt 2005; Nye 2008a,b; Jentleson and Ratner 2011). Policy-relevant scholarship is commonly defined in a strictly instrumental way, expressing a rational–managerial perspective on both theory and policy. This is also the perspective of the International Studies Review 2011 symposium on the relationship between theory and policy (Weiss and Kittikhoun 2011), following the ISA 51st annual convention, which had the same general theme. In the words of Bruce Jentleson and Ely Ratner:

We define policy-relevant scholarship as research, analysis, writing and related activities that advance knowledge with an explicit priority of addressing policy questions. Policy-relevant scholarship does not in any way mean atheoretical work. It does, though, orient more towards theories that are middle range in their level of abstraction in contrast to efforts at general theory and -isms. (Jentleson and Ratner 2011:8, italics added)

This definition is representative of how most advocates of policy relevance define this concept. Two things should be noted about this definition, however. First, it conceives of policy-relevant work in a limited way, as only that which explicitly addresses policy questions. Second, it explicitly discards grand theory (and –isms) as irrelevant for policy. Thus, it ignores implicit, unintentional, and more broadly political functions of scholarship in the policy fray. I will soon return to how and why there is a need to expand the notion of policy relevance to include such forms of policy utilization.

Advocates of a traditional understanding of policy relevance have further specified what kinds of scholarship they consider to be more and less relevant for policy. General or grand theory is refuted as largely irrelevant for policy because it presumably cannot provide knowledge or ideas applicable to particular events or decision points (George 1993; Stein 2000:56). Joseph Lepgold has suggested a ladder of abstraction ranging from general theory to idiosyncratic policy analysis, with various forms of middle-range scholarship in between (issue-oriented puzzles and case-oriented work)—explicitly arguing that middle-range theory and idiosyncratic policy analyses are more policy-relevant than general theory (Lepgold and Nincic 2000). Rather than treating politics as everywhere the same, middle-range theory implies a comparative approach, uncovering conditional patterns of similarity and difference (Nincic 2000:32–35; Stein 2000:56–58, 63; Lepgold 2000:82–83, 86–89).

In his seminal work on the theory–policy interface, Bridging the Gap, Alexander George suggested three types of scholarship that, he claimed, have particular value for policy: conceptualization of strategies, generic knowledge, and actor-specific behavioral models (George 1993). Strategic conceptualizations identify critical variables in policymaking and clarify how strategies work in different situations (George 1993:117–118; Lepgold 2000:82). Generic knowledge refers to conditional rather than probabilistic generalizations—thus answering questions such as “Under what conditions are economic sanctions likely to be successful?” rather than “What is the probability of success for economic sanctions?” Actor-specific behavioral models clarify the particularities of significant actors in world politics, replacing the superficial assumptions of rationality in other actors’ behavior. In a fashion complementary to George's typology, Stephen Walt has distinguished between four types of policy-relevant scholarship: diagnoses, explanations, prescriptions, and evaluations (Walt 2005:29–34; cf. Jentleson and Ratner 2011:9; Jentleson 2000:181–182).

I find the traditional understanding of policy-relevant scholarship problematic in three particular ways. First, it conveys an idealized rationalist–instrumentalist perspective on the policy process, ignoring wider political and symbolic aspects of policy—on which I will elaborate later. In this rationalist-instrumentalist view, scholarship is produced and screened through peer review to make sure only that which meets scientific standards of logical consistency and explanatory power gets published. Then, in the best of situations, relevant scholarship is communicated to policymakers in dire need of scientific knowledge for effectively managing real-world problems—be it war, terrorism, organized crime, famine, or other such major issues. This notion of “speaking truth to power” expresses a strong belief in the enlightenment function of scholarship and implies a traditional fact/value distinction. In reality, the relationship between theory and policy is much more complicated, as experts cannot deny responsibility for how their ideas are being used (the nuclear bomb), and because the politicization of research can imply a threat to intellectual integrity (Wildavsky 1987; Fischer 1990; Jasanoff 1997). Moreover, there are many other ideas, values, and interests besides scientific theory and research, which influence policymaking (Weiss 1977, 1980, 1992; George 1993; Smith 1996; Jasanoff 1997). Generally speaking, the utilization of scholarship in policymaking is indirect, limited, and rare (George 1993:xvii–xx; Rosenau and Sapin 1994:127–129).

Second, and related to the first point, the traditional perspective on policy relevance assumes a sender–receiver perspective: university professors are supposedly “speaking truth” to government officials, who are or should be using this scholarly input in their formulation of policies. This prevailing perspective is understandable given the feeling among many IR scholars that practitioners pay little or no attention to what we have to say (George 1993; Wallace 1996; Walt 2005:42; Nye 2008a,b). Yet the distinction between senders and receivers is problematic. It suggests that communication is one-directional, that only “truth” is communicated to “power,” and that there are only two types of actors involved. What about practitioners trying to influence what scholars say and do—through, for example, prioritizing certain issues above others in research funding? Steve Smith argues that policymakers tend to utilize scholarship when it confirms what they already believe (Smith 1997, 2008). When this is the case, scholars talking to practitioners are echoing “truths” already settled by practitioners. Furthermore, the sender–receiver perspective ignores how both knowledge and policies are produced in complex contexts and processes, which involve a number of different types of actors and advocacy coalitions, with often diffuse and multidirectional patterns of influence. Ideas expressed by scholars reflect and interact with a larger societal context, which includes but is not limited to public policymaking (Büger and Gadinger 2007:95). Moreover, the very distinction between scholars and practitioners is sometimes blurred. Some individuals are “in-and-outers” (Rosenau and Sapin 1994) going back and forth between, for example, a university position and government assignments or other political positions, such as being members of parliament. Within the world of think tanks, individuals simultaneously play a number of roles—as academic experts, as journalists, as policy advocates, and occasionally as policy shapers and decision makers themselves (Rich 2004). As argued by Lisa Anderson, universities can no longer claim monopoly of scientific (or methodologically rigorous) production of knowledge (Anderson 2003). Think tanks, NGOs, new2 and traditional media organizations, social science corporations, and governmental in-house units of research and analysis produce knowledge and input for policy sometimes competing with, sometimes replacing, that which university researchers produce. Knowledge as well as public policy is formed through epistemic communities and networks of advocacy coalitions, which are blurring the boundaries between scholars and practitioners, academia and policy, and truth and power.

Third, the traditional conception of policy relevance confuses relevance with improvement. If only politicians would read and appreciate “the best” IR middle-range theories on topics on political agendas, policies would be greatly improved, and by implication, so would the world (cf. Groom 1984; Wallace 1996; Lepgold and Nincic 2000; Walt 2005; Nye 2008a,b; Jentleson and Ratner 2011:8). This view partly stems from an irritation with the perceived ignorance of policy relevance in large parts of the IR community, and partly from a sense of intellectual superiority. Arguably, this view conveys a skewed account of both theory and the policy process. To make the point clear, it cannot be assumed that influential scholarship necessarily makes policy “better” or that high-quality research always has a better chance of influencing policy than sloppy research or ideas that build on faulty or even false premises. Perhaps, it is not always the academically most acclaimed theories that gain the attention of policymakers, but rather those that provide the most simple, elegant, and accessible worldviews and solutions to problems which are in fact extremely complex. How else is it possible that ideas which are rhetorically elegant yet academically bashed, such as Huntington's “clash of civilizations,” can gain significant political attention? In the words of Peter Gourevitch (1989:87–88): “Even a good idea cannot become policy if it meets certain kinds of opposition, and a bad idea can become policy if it is able to obtain support.”

To be sure, influential scholars should not be equated with influential scholarship. While impact is an empirical question, improvement is a normative issue. Some consider game theory relevant (Lepgold and Nincic 2000), while others think it is far too abstract and based on unrealistic assumptions to be of any practical use (George 1993). Referring to scholarly ideas as “relevant” or “irrelevant” for policy may also serve a purpose in disciplinary power-games, in attacking and defending particular theories and methodologies. Influential scholars, including those who have gained top positions in policy advisory or decision-making circles, may certainly contribute with research-based ideas. However, involvement in bureaucratic turf battles, coalition-building, and politicization may also constrain, distort, or prevent scholarship from being used in policymaking (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1993; Kingdon 1995). In think tanks and other policy-oriented communities, close involvement in policy analysis, planning, and decision making is often praised as signs of being policy-relevant. Yet again, the mistake is to equate influence with influential scholarship. Scholars may be influential, but not necessarily by enriching practice with theory and research. Scholars may—consciously or unconsciously—prevent as well as promote the dissemination of ideas, whether based on research or not.

Grand Theory and Policy Relevance: Instrumentalism and Beyond

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Traditional Perspective on Policy Relevance: A Critique
  4. Grand Theory and Policy Relevance: Instrumentalism and Beyond
  5. Grand Theory and Conditions for Policy Relevance
  6. Conclusion
  7. References

While the traditional and arguably narrow perspective on policy relevance prevails in IR, a broader and more nuanced perspective has been developed in public policy studies. In the words of Tim Booth: it is too limiting to conceive of policy relevance as something “concrete […] and open to direct and objective appraisal” (Booth 1990:81, italics in original). The traditional notion of policy relevance assumes a strictly rational and undiluted utilization of scholarship, which arguably does not give either a complete or realistic image of what is or can be relevant for policy. Our understanding of policy relevance must be expanded to include ideas and knowledge that do not necessarily yield concrete, direct, or objective recommendations, but which nevertheless is of relevance for policy. This includes general ideas and concepts as well as political ideologies and religious philosophies. Such ideas do not provide concrete knowledge or objective truths—but they can certainly be helpful in shaping the minds and thus the policies of decision makers.

The Power of Grand Theory, in Scholarship and in Policy

In the oft-cited words of John Maynard Keynes:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. (Keynes 1936:383)

Applied to the discipline of IR, Keynes’ insight puts the “great debates” and their scholarly as well as political impact in perspective. These “great debates” are usually referred to as firstly the debate between Realism and Utopianism in the 1930s and 1940s, secondly the debate between scientism and interpretativism/historicism, and thirdly the “interparadigmatic” debate between Realism, Liberalism, and various critical perspectives. Regardless of how the “great debates” are described and how many such debates have really taken place, most observers agree that “great debates” have played a major role in the development of academic IR.3

Moreover, and more importantly for the purpose of this paper, it can be argued that these “great debates” have not been isolated affairs within the ivory tower, but have also reflected paradigms in foreign policy and world affairs. This is perhaps most clearly the case with the first debate between Realism and Utopianism, which was explicitly concerned with how the West should deal with Nazi Germany. Yet, it can also been argued that “grand theory” has continued to shape policy. US foreign policy, for example, is commonly described in terms of a balancing of two main grand theories—on the one hand Realism and its emphasis on “hard power” in military and economic terms, and on the other Liberalism and its emphasis on “soft power,” multilateralism, and the diffusion of democratic norms and institutions.4 Some scholars turned practitioners, such as Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, have embraced a particular grand theory (in this case Realism, in its classical and geostrategic variant), as a theoretical and conceptual guide for their politics (Schwartz 2011; Brzezinski 2012). Likewise, the US postwar containment policy essentially reflected Realist geopolitical ideas—using military and economic means to “contain” the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, established by the UN General Assembly in 1948, clearly reflects fundamentally Liberal ideas. Even beyond such perhaps more “obvious” cases of grand theory turned into policy, we should consider Keynes observation of how grand ideas and theories, including ideologies and religious worldviews, shape policy.

Importantly, grand theories and grand ideas shaping policy should not be equated with scholars or scholarship shaping policy. As noted earlier, the relationship between scholarship and policy is a complicated one, and the assumption of a simple sender–receiver relationship is far too limited. Scholars and statesmen, as well as journalists, analysts, bureaucrats, business leaders, political activists, and others participate and contribute to a political discourse in which ideas and policies are formulated, critiqued, reshaped, and occasionally implemented. Inspired by John Kingdon and his theory of the agenda-setting process in public policy, I argue that a “garbage can”5 approach gives a more realistic understanding of the production of policy than the sender–receiver perspective. Ideas are “floating around” in the “policy soup” as well as in academia. Rather than tracing the origin or originator of an idea or a particular policy, which will only lead to “infinite regress” (Kingdon 1995:72–73), focus should be on who is advocating a particular idea, who resists it, and what determines how the policy agenda is shaped.6

Some observers lament that many useful scholarly ideas are ignored: That there is a gap between scholarship and policy in terms of direct communication and explicit exchange of ideas and people (George 1993)—a gap that arguably has tended to grow (Wallace 1996; Walt 2005; Nau 2008:636; Nye 2008a,b). Critics argue that this “gap” is exaggerated or simply, they claim scholars and policymakers tend to be likeminded and guided by similar paradigmatic views of how the world hangs together (Büger and Gadinger 2007; Smith 2008; Jones 2009). These critics also claim that the distinction between objective scholarship (truth) and subjective politics (power) is overstated—arguing that teaching and research are unavoidably normative and very much concerned with real-world issues. Likewise, critics argue that the policy world is not only exercising power but also developing ideas, understanding, knowledge, and explanation, albeit not necessarily according to scientific principles (Smith 2008). Thus, it is essential to make a clear distinction between direct communication and exchange on the one hand and paradigmatic community on the other. There is clearly a gap in direct communication and exchange between scholarship and policy, and in a general sense, this may be growing, although patterns are not everywhere the same. Yet scholars and practitioners often share paradigmatic views on the world, largely reflecting positions taken by some grand theory.

Despite shared worldviews, scholars and practitioners find it hard to communicate for a number of reasons, including differing incentives and career paths, but also differences in how fundamentally similar ideas are framed. While practitioners often consider scholarly texts as inaccessible, esoteric, and basically useless for policy; academics tend to dismiss policy reports as shallow, biased, and unsubstantiated (Wallace 1996; Nye 2008a,b). While these reactions are understandable, they shadow the underlying paradigms shared by scholars as well as practitioners. In liberal democracies, not all scholars and practitioners share the same paradigm, but most paradigms tend to be shared across the gap. Realism, Liberalism, Marxism, Feminism, and other grand theories are represented in academia as well as in the policy world, although grand theory in the policy world is usually expressed implicitly and incomprehensively. After all, many practitioners have studied social science, and the major grand theories of IR also reflect elements of major political ideologies, which helps explain their prevalence and structuring function in policymaking. A university degree is usually required for a position as analyst or policy planner in governmental departments and agencies. Many of these individuals might be slaves of some IR scholar, whether defunct or not.

Instrumental, Conceptual, and Symbolic Functions of Grand Theory

What, then, are the policy functions of grand theory? The broader perspective on policy relevance suggested above has been elaborated in more detail in public policy studies (rather than in IR), particularly within the subfield on research utilization. This literature has identified three main functions of scholarship in the shaping of policy: instrumental, conceptual, and symbolic.7 This framework is fruitful in that it gives a more comprehensive and realistic understanding of the relationship between scholarship and policy than the traditional perspective on policy relevance, which is focused strictly on a limited view of instrumental utilization.

Instrumental use is about directly applying ideas in some specific way—corresponding to giving recommendations on how to act in a given situation, such as how to deal with a nuclear threat issued by a particular state at a particular point in time. As noted, grand theory is often dismissed as unable to yield policy recommendations, mainly because it builds on universal rather than conditional generalizations (George 1993). By contrast, I argue that grand theory can be instrumental for policy—not on an operational or tactical level, but on a general strategic level. For example, Kenneth Waltz used his own grand theory (structural realism) for his controversial strategic recommendation that an increased spread of nuclear weapons “might be better” (Waltz 1981). Furthermore, Bill Clinton relied heavily and explicitly on democratic peace theory in his foreign policy—one of the few yet very clear examples of explicitly utilized IR scholarship (Lepgold and Nincic 2002:chapter 5; George and Bennet 2005: chapter 2). Whether democratic peace theory is considered a “grand theory” or not, it belongs to the Liberal paradigm and has strongly universal aspirations. It also implies clear yet very general strategic recommendations: since democracies do not fight each other, the best way to promote international peace is by supporting democratic reform in countries run by autocratic regimes.

Conceptual use of ideas involves an analytical function, geared toward understanding rather than recommendation. Public policy theorists and experts on research utilization have observed that policymakers find social science useful not so much for the empirical data they provide, but more so because of their concepts and generalizations that facilitate analysis of problems and policies (Weiss 1980:269; Albaek 1995). Concepts—”balance of power,” “smart power,” “unipolarity,” “globalization,” “widened security”—help policymakers understand their environment and structure their thinking. Influencing how practitioners think about problems is in itself a very clear sign of relevance, whether this thinking leads to policy change or not. After all, policy decisions are influenced by many more things than strategic concepts and analysis; bureaucratic politics, public opinion, news media, and advocacy coalitions “interfere” in the policy process.

Symbolic use of ideas is about legitimating or critiquing an already established policy, delaying decisions, redefining commitments, or bolstering support. Much like advocates in court use experts to boost support for their own cause and for discrediting their adversaries, policymakers may use research to support their own positions (Weiss 1977:11; Fischer 1990; Beyer 1997:17). Thus, policymakers have many other motives for using scholarship in addition to using this for improving the knowledge base of decision making. In her seminal work on how policymakers use social science, Carol Weiss observed a great variety of symbolical uses, which the policymakers themselves described as: “supporting,” “backing up,” “selling,” “justifying,” and “documenting” (Weiss 1977:165,140–141). Importantly, symbolic uses do not prevent conceptual and instrumental uses of scholarship. For example, Liberalism can be used for legitimizing “humanitarian intervention,” while Realism, feminist, and postcolonial theory can be used for critiquing “humanitarian interventions,” albeit on quite different grounds.

The point to be made here is that the three functions—instrumental, conceptual, and symbolic—are not mutually exclusive. One particular idea, or grand theory, may simultaneously fulfill all three functions, or only one or two. Democratic peace theory, for example, may have an instrumental as well as conceptual function, convincing a policymaker that democratic reforms are truly the best strategy for building international peace. However, the same theory may also be used symbolically, for instance as a rhetorical cover for “humanitarian interventions,” which are guided more by geostrategic interests than a true belief in the power of democratic reform.8

By applying this framework, it is possible to discern policy relevance even when there is no independent effect of ideas on policy content, which is the main concern in past studies of the impact of ideas on foreign policy (Goldstein and Keohane 1993; Yee 1996; Parsons 2002). The goals and means that constitute a particular foreign policy might remain the same, but scholarship may still influence other aspects of policymaking, such as the conceptual toolbox, analysis of causes and effects, and perhaps even the core values expressed in policy choices.9 For example, scholarly input might make policymakers revise their analysis of the causes of a particular international conflict, without necessarily changing the goals and means for dealing with it.

Grand Theory and Conditions for Policy Relevance

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Traditional Perspective on Policy Relevance: A Critique
  4. Grand Theory and Policy Relevance: Instrumentalism and Beyond
  5. Grand Theory and Conditions for Policy Relevance
  6. Conclusion
  7. References

Given that grand theory has a more fundamentally paradigmatic power than any mid-range or low-level theory, it can be argued that it is more difficult for grand theory to be picked up in policymaking. Consequentially, however, grand theory can be expected to have much stronger staying power once it has become the foundation of policy. This is essentially what Kuhn claims about paradigms: once internalized, old habits die hard, even when change in conditions call for a change in policy. In the words of Keynes: “the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas” (Keynes 1936: 383; cf. Hall 1993). This is confirmed by scholars turned practitioners, such as Henry Kissinger and Joseph Nye, who have noted that the time pressure in policy circles make policymakers rely on ideas and intellectual capital achieved before entering into politics (Nye 2008b:656).10

How, then, can paradigm shifts be explained? They might be rare, but they do happen. Rephrased for the purpose of this paper—under what conditions is grand theory more or less likely to be utilized in policy, whether instrumentally, conceptually, or symbolically? Thus, as argued at the beginning of this paper, the notion of policy relevance is redefined to include all three forms of utilization. It is not scientific corroboration or logical consistency which defines policy relevance, but if policy shapers find the idea in question useful for instrumental, conceptual, or symbolic purposes. Indeed, “speaking fiction” can be as relevant for policy as “speaking truth.”

Conditions for Instrumental, Conceptual, and Symbolic Relevance of Grand Theory

I will now discuss the more specific conditions for instrumental, conceptual, and symbolic utilization (and thus policy relevance) of grand theory. In so doing, I apply Carol Weiss’ conceptualization of social science and policy utilization.11 Let me quickly reiterate that instrumental utilization refers to recommendations for action (on an operational, tactical, or strategic level), conceptual utilization to how concepts and worldviews are formed, and symbolic utilization to legitimation or a critique of established positions.

Applying Weiss’ (1991) observations, it can be suggested that grand theory is more likely to be used instrumentally:

  • When there is consensus among policymakers on values and goals (cf. Rich 2004:103). When a fundamental worldview is shared, it is easier to reach agreement on that (and how) this worldview should guide action. For example, one-party governments generally find it easier than multiparty governments to have a particular grand theory translated into instrumental action.
  • When decision makers (or their staff) are analytically sophisticated, or when decision makers sustain a culture of intellectual deliberation. In more theoretical terms, some form of institutionalization of theory-informed advice greatly improves the chances of instrumental application (Haas 1992; Jasanoff 1997). When scholar-practitioner Joseph Nye was Assistant Secretary of Defence in the 1990s, he was responsible for developing the US East Asia Strategy. In so doing, he drew explicitly on a combination of Realism and Liberalism, combining a reinforced security alliance with Japan (the Realist element) with open economic relations with China, and supporting China's membership of the World Trade Organization (the Liberal element) (Nye 2008a,b: 656). In a similar fashion, Jeffrey Checkel has shown how Soviet academics were behind much of the “new thinking” that eventually influenced the radical changes of Soviet foreign policy, leading to the end of the Cold War (Checkel 1997). It is noteworthy that while these ideas were floating around already in the 1960s, it was not until the 1980s that political leaders started expressing a demand for new ideas.12

Grand theory is more likely to be used conceptually:

  • At the early stages of policy discussion, when there is a greater demand for conceptualization, and analysis of problems and their causes are in focus, for which grand theory might be found relevant. At a later stage, positions may have hardened, making reconceptualization more difficult. Paradigm shifts are not battles won and cannot be settled through negotiation—they require a change of mind. Thus, when decision makers stubbornly hold on to their worldviews, a change of people in top positions might be a necessary condition for a change in policy paradigm.
  • When existing policy is in disarray—for example, when the end of the Cold War challenged existing security thinking—effectively opening up for wider and comprehensive notions of security going beyond the traditional military concept. While a widened concept of security was discussed already in the 1970s, partly as a result of the ecological and economic crises of the time, and theorized in the 1980s by Barry Buzan and others, it was not until the end of the Cold War that the traditional paradigm in security policy was effectively challenged.
  • When uncertainty is high, which can make policymakers turn to their general theories for “answers,” as data and information are missing. Theory, especially grand theory, does not only guide interpretation of data, but also suggests answers to puzzles for which there is no reliable data, or puzzles which cannot be empirically settled.
  • In decentralized or fragmented policy arenas. Take a hypothetical government in a hypothetical democracy, in which a general Liberal approach may guide thinking and policy within the foreign ministry, while a more Realist approach dominates within the defense ministry.

Grand theory is more likely to be used symbolically:

  • When conflict is high, for instance during electoral campaigns, debates, and political crises. In such situations, positions have already been taken, and the different sides are not open for re-conceptualization, but will use grand theory for supporting their already established views. Grand theory, as well as other forms of scholarship, can be used for mobilization: to encourage followers, convince the doubtful, and weaken the arguments of opponents. Indeed, criticism is perhaps the most important political function of social science research (Weiss 1977:253, 270; Wildavsky 1987).
  • In legislatures and political assemblies. The parliamentary arena, much like the court, is designed for pro-con debate. Argumentation and ideological proliferation is the prevailing approach in such arenas. Grand theory that supports argumentation will be appreciated.
  • After decisions have been made, to strengthen legitimation (Weiss 1991; cf. Fischer 1990; Smith 2008). Importantly, scholarly ideas can be symbolically utilized in ways which do not correspond to their original meaning or intention. For example, George W. Bush explicitly used Samuel Huntington's widespread (and pretty grand-theoretical) notion of “the clash of civilizations” in defending his “war against terrorism.” But he did so not by applying Huntington's theory, but by exploiting and reframing the concept. In the words of Bush: “[T]his struggle has been called the clash of civilizations. In truth, it is a struggle for civilization” (Bush 2007). Here, Bush reframed “the clash of civilizations” from an essentially Realist to a Liberal reading, as a means of bolstering support for his policy (Eriksson and Norman 2011:427). All communication of ideas and policies entail “editing” and “translation” and grand concepts with disputed or multiple meanings easily lend themselves for competing symbolic utilization.

Two caveats have to be issued. First, the policy relevance of scholarship, including grand theory, depends not only on content and external conditions, but also on how it is framed. It is often argued that if scholars are able to popularize their findings and arguments and tweak them for the audience they have in mind, the chances of getting their attention increase. More specifically, this might imply excluding lengthy theoretical and methodological exercises and instead move directly to the points that policymakers might find most useful. In contrast to researchers, practitioners are rarely interested in what methods or theories are used to produce a particular observation or argument. In the words of Alexander George, the eyes of policymakers often glaze over at the mention of the word “theory” (George 1993: back cover text). Put simply: packaging matters. This point can be further developed by drawing on the framing literature. Depending on how a situation or idea is framed, the chances of resolving intractable policy controversies can be dramatically different (Rochefort and Cobb 1994; Schön and Rein 1994).

Second, even if the conditions sketched above are in effect, policy uptake is not guaranteed. Reframing ideas to make them appear compatible with established paradigms can be counteracted by other frames that uphold the status quo. The effects of lobbying and alliance making can be neutralized by other lobby groups and alliances within and outside the government. Crises, regime change and other focusing events can be interpreted and framed in more than one way, and it is not certain that policymakers will take an interest in scholarly ideas that are presented as being relevant in a new situation. Crises may open the window for reform, but policymakers may also react by sticking to traditional patterns of behavior. Finally, in liberal democracies, education and the making of public opinion imply no monopoly of truth, but rather that theories and ideologies are something of a “smorgasbord” from which decision makers and other citizens freely can choose. That this heterogeneity is a sign of vitality and freedom might be an undisputed fact, but it is also noteworthy that the competition between ideas makes it harder for any single idea to get the attention of policymakers.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Traditional Perspective on Policy Relevance: A Critique
  4. Grand Theory and Policy Relevance: Instrumentalism and Beyond
  5. Grand Theory and Conditions for Policy Relevance
  6. Conclusion
  7. References

In this paper, I have argued that the notion of policy relevance must be expanded beyond the direct and action-oriented application of ideas, which improve the problem-solving capacity of policy. If the understanding of policy relevance as policy improvement is relaxed, not only will it be clarified that what is an improvement is largely in the eye of the beholder, but also that conceptual and symbolic functions of scholarship can be extremely relevant for policy. Conceptualizing problems and their causes, and bolstering support for or against, is as relevant as elaborating a strategic roadmap. Grand theory—like Realism, Liberalism, Marxism, Feminism, or Constructivism—can be as relevant as any low- or middle-range theory. At the end of the day, whether an idea is relevant or irrelevant for policy is not determined by the level of generalization, but is a result of whether policymakers find an idea useful, for instrumental, conceptual, or symbolic reasons. While it is harder for grand theory and its unavoidably paradigmatic status to become politically significant, once it has become doctrine, it is much harder to change than any low- or middle-range theory.

Finally, there is a tendency in the literature on the theory–policy nexus to assume that scholars are the primary entrepreneurs of ideas, and that there is basically a one-way communication between senders of truths and wielders of power. There is good reason to go beyond such limited and dualistic models of diffusion and appreciate the complexities, interdependencies, and blurred boundaries in the global knowledge society. University professors, journalists, policy analysts, think-tankers, NGO activists, businessmen, policymakers, and traditional and social media actors are all involved in the production and utilization of grand theory. While there is a gap in direct communication and exchange between academia and policy, scholars and practitioners often share paradigmatic views of the world, largely reflecting positions taken by some grand theory.

  1. 1

    The term “grand theory” was coined by sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959) referring to abstract theorizing on a general level, in which formal organization and logic take priority, and in which theorizing aspires to universal validity, more or less separate from the empirical differences and varieties over time and across space. Thus, grand theory implies universalism, ignoring that things are not always or everywhere the same. In IR, grand theory is often used to refer to the major theoretical paradigms, or “schools” that have dominated the discipline, mainly realism, liberalism, Marxism, constructivism, and other general theoretical paradigms. See also Quentin Skinner's The Return of Grand Theory in the Human Sciences (1990).

  2. 2

    The “blogosphere” seems to be a new arena in which scholars, analysts, and practitioners communicate ideas for policy, including social science theory and research. Indeed, foreign policy bloggers such as Dan Drezner, Steven Walt, Josh Busby, and others have pioneered the development of a cyber-arena for the dissemination and critical evaluation of ideas, which they consider more or less relevant for policy. See, for example, Josh Busby's June 2012 post “Is International Relations Useful?” published on The Duck of Minerva blogspot.

  3. 3

    Some argue that there is a fourth great debate between positivists and postpositivists, or even a fifth debate concerning “classical Realism” (Brown 2007). Steve Smith argues that today there is no single “great debate” dominating IR, no sign of a “fifth great debate”, and that most “great debates” were not really “debates”, because most scholars simply ignored competing paradigms (Smith 2008:726). For more in-depth discussions on the “great debates”, see for example Wæver (1996); Ashforth (2002); Smith (2007).

  4. 4

    As Joseph Nye (2004:32), Suzanne Nossel (2004), as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (2009) argue, it is the skilful and informed combination and balancing of “hard” and “soft” power that yields “smart power” in world politics. Clearly, although these terms are new, the realities they refer to have a much longer history.

  5. 5

    The original “garbage can” theory, developed by Cohen, Mark, and Olsen (1972), suggests that an organization, including policy-making bodies, “is a collection of choices looking for problems, issues, and feelings looking for decision situations in which they might be aired, solutions looking for issues to which they might be the answer, and decision makers looking for work.” Problems, policy advocates, policy alternatives, and windows of opportunity flow in and out of a “garbage can,” and there is no universal logic or order in which problems and solutions (policies) are identified and prioritized.

  6. 6

    While such a more complex approach to the policy process as well as to the significance of ideas in world politics has certainly gained saliency in IR (Goldstein and Keohane 1993; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998), it has been surprisingly absent from the study of the relationship between scholarship and policy, which is still largely influenced by a rationalist–managerial perspective on scholars speaking truth to practitioners.

  7. 7

    See Beyer (1997:17); Amara, Ouimet, and Landry (2004:75–77); and Eriksson and Norman (2011). Similar but not identical distinctions have been suggested by Christina Boswell (2008), who distinguishes between instrumental, substantiating, and legitimating functions of research, and by Carol Weiss (1991), who distinguishes between research as data, as ideas, and as arguments.

  8. 8

    It is noteworthy that Stephen Walt, who conveys a traditional policy relevance perspective and explicitly advocates the use of middle-range theory (2005:36) nevertheless acknowledges the utility of general theory in that it provides common vocabulary for describing global issues (globalization, unipolarity, and other such general concepts), offering general strategic prescriptions and helping us understanding recurrent features of world affairs, such as commitment problems and security–freedom dilemmas (Walt 2005:35).

  9. 9

    Goldstein and Keohane (1993) make a distinction between three different “causal pathways’ in which ideas can change foreign policies: roadmaps, focal points, and ideas, which are incorporated into institutions. Although Goldstein and Keohane elaborate ideas as conceptual contributions, they are in fact only concerned about how ideas change the goals and means of foreign policy, and thus, disregard that ideas may have conceptual and symbolical effects, although the content of policies remains the same.

  10. 10

    If the goal is to make people believe in certain paradigmatic ideas such as those expressed by IR grand theories, then the “formative years” of university studies seems a much more effective tool of diffusion than any op-eds or policy advisory committees. When scholars teach and tutor students over an extended period of time, often several years, and they are doing so in an environment in which academic theorizing dominates. It would be surprising if scholarly ideas did not have any effect on the worldviews of students, some of which are future policymakers (Eriksson and Sundelius 2005). This does not necessarily happen through some straightforward “trickling-down” from the ivory tower to the corridors of power, but more likely through more complex processes, which are not isolated from other sources of influence, such as the growing world of think tanks, and through the news media—all of which are easily available through new information and communications technology (Walt 2005; Nye 2008a,b; Jentleson and Ratner 2011).

  11. 11

    Weiss (1991) did not refer to grand theory but rather to more empirically oriented “policy research,” but her observations are of a general nature, arguably making them applicable also to grand theory. Moreover, Weiss used the terms data, ideas, and arguments, which I believe are sufficiently close to instrumental, conceptual, and symbolic functions.

  12. 12

    Weiss (1991) suggest two additional circumstances under which instrumental use of research is likely: in rapidly changing situations, and when alternatives are sharply opposed. I think these conditions are more applicable to low- and middle-range theory than grand theory, however. Grand theory, say Realism or Liberalism, usually does not give clear cut guidance when alternatives are sharply opposed, such as whether to launch a military invasion or not. In this case, answers. Grand theory is rather yielding more general, strategic roadmaps, such as whether to focus on relative or absolute gains, or more specifically on multilateral norm- and institution-building, or on balancing of military and economic power.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. The Traditional Perspective on Policy Relevance: A Critique
  4. Grand Theory and Policy Relevance: Instrumentalism and Beyond
  5. Grand Theory and Conditions for Policy Relevance
  6. Conclusion
  7. References
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