In the latest issue of History Workshop Journal (issue 75), Pamela Cox (a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Essex) argues that historians are well placed to play a more important role in policy making. To further the debate on how history might be used in the future, History Workshop Journal has made a full article freely available online and it can be read here. We encourage readers to post their thoughts and comments on the matter on this web page. Pamela Cox will also be invited to periodically respond to the issues raised and we will post her comments below.
Abstract: We live in a new era of evidence. The knowledge economy demands new kinds of evidence deployed through new types of channel. Policy-makers demand evidence to support decision-making. ‘Evidence-based policy’ is built around the need to know if a strategy or a policy or any other kind of intervention – in medicine, criminal justice, welfare, banking or international aid – has ‘worked’ and whether it is cost effective. But what kind of evidence is sought and from what sources? How are outcomes evaluated? How do policy-makers deal with the uncertainty and contradictions so often generated by research?
This article considers the contribution that historians might make in providing and critiquing evidence in these everyday scenarios. Given that our work consists of assembling, selecting, sifting and presenting evidence we might argue that we should play a major role particularly when History as a discipline faces contentious calls to demonstrate its public impact. However, we might argue the opposite. In terms of policy, for example, historians might continue to offer evidence of what ‘has not worked’ in the past as opposed to what ‘might work’ in the future. We might point to the epistemological uncertainties and doubts generated by new empirical claims to truth. This article focuses on these opportunities and challenges. Using two contrasting case studies, from Vietnam and East Anglia, it asks how historians can carve out a distinct role as constructive sceptics in the knowledge economy.