Science Wars: Policy Translation Debated

The debate on the travel of ideas has ignited once again, this time on the pages of the new scientific journal called Global Discourse. Founded in 2010, this journal claims not to have a particular disciplinary audience and to target inter-disciplinary approaches. It managed to raise an interesting discussion with the latest issue.

In one of them, by Maria Elisa Balen and Cristian Leyton “Policy translation: an invitation to revisit the work of Latour, Star and Marres” the authors make a strong case for policy translation as the most fitting approach to study the travel of ideas. They cite the key work on this emerging tradition and then illustrate the point advanced by these scholars with a case study from Latin America. Their argument is within the Actor Network Theory approach of Latour and Michel Callon and its use in understanding policy processes.

Interestingly, the same journal published a reply to this article almost immediately by Professor Paul Spijker. The response claims that the policy translation approach does not really contribute much. The quote below says it all.

The idea of ‘translation’, at least in the terms ably expounded by Freeman (2009), is part policy transfer, part operationalisation and part implementation. What the idea of ‘policy translation’ offer us is, at best, a word that can help us to refer to a process; but it is rather too generic and broad-brush to clarify the steps in that process, or say anything specific or distinctive about them.

This once again shows how futile and interesting is this debate, and how hard it may be to speak across ontologies, disciplines and traditions. But we must persist in having this conversation as this, even if slow and painstaking, it better than having two parallel discourses in distinct communities and journals — one on policy transfer and implementation and another on policy translation. We must talk with each other, not past each other!

And I thank Global Discourse for facilitating this conversation!

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