Knowledge, Legitimation and the Politics of Risk: The Functions of Research in Public Debates on Migration

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There is a striking lack of research on the utilisation of expert knowledge in public policy debates and party political mobilisation. Existing contributions in related fields of scholarship generate rather contradictory expectations. On the one hand, political communications literature points to the dumbing down of political debate, implying a limited role for expert knowledge. On the other hand, a number of prominent sociologists have noted the centrality of science in political debate on the politics of risk. This article suggests that the two theses are not necessarily incompatible. For knowledge to be reported in the media, it clearly needs to conform to criteria of novelty, drama and scandal, but scientific findings can and often do meet these criteria, especially in areas of risk, where there is enormous potential to scandalise government actions or omissions. The article illustrates these tendencies through an analysis of the use of expert knowledge in UK debates on migration from 2002 to 2004. It explores how research was used in parliamentary debates, speeches and newspaper coverage of three prominent episodes in the politics of migration. The examples demonstrate well how the mass media utilises research to expose political scandal. The analysis also suggests the ambivalence of political actors and especially incumbents in drawing on research. While governments are keen to utilise research to legitimise policies, they are also aware of the limitations of science in underpinning risky decisions. The article concludes with a discussion of how politics has responded to this dilemma.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)165-186
Number of pages22
JournalPolitical Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2009


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