Impact: an Introduction

The new system for assessing the quality of research produced by institutions of higher education in the UK and the academics they employ will be known as the “Research Excellence Framework” (REF). Replacing the “Research Assessment Exercise” (RAE), the inaugural REF exercise will likely take place in 2014, with one of its key components being the measurement of “impact,” on the part of both the research and the researcher. The precise contours of “impact” are currently out for “consultation,” a process likely to take a little longer given the UK’s recent change of government. However, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) currently describes “impact” as: “where high quality research has contributed to the economy, society, public policy, culture, the environment, international development or quality of life.”

Within the critical social sciences and the humanities, the arrival of “impact” signals both creative openings and potentially restrictive closures on the nature of research. While it offers an opportunity for intellectual work to be assessed by means other than the peer-reviewed publication, it also signals a potential move toward an increasingly economistic, social and institutional valuation of knowledge production.

This in turn raises a wider set of questions about the status and value of critical thought, scholarship, and political intervention within the social sciences and humanities. How will the move to “impact” bear upon the critical imperatives in leftist scholarship? What kind of state-regulated notion of “impact” and public accountability, if any, can be compatible with critical political imperatives, and what will be the status of idiosyncratic, creative, and exilic work in this shifting knowledge economy? More broadly, what responsibility does publicly funded scholarship bear to the public domain, especially in the light of a global economic recession? Indeed, the predicament of the critical social sciences and humanities in the emergent “age of impact” can be read against a backdrop of the normalization of the definition of “use” forged in the context of market value.

These questions and concerns aren’t entirely new. Some may even consider them to be contemporary articulations of the question of “relevance” that has long haunted cultural studies in all its variants. Indeed, “impact” construed purely as a call for relevance has underpinned that popular and proverbial image of academia (especially the arts and humanities) as an ivory tower. And in terms of the creeping institutionalization of critical thought, though the questions set out above are particularly pressing in the UK right now, they also accompany a neoliberalization of knowledge production that walks hand-in-hand with the increasing corporatization of the “global” (read: Euro-American) university.[ref]For example, see Eng-Beng Lim, “Performing the global university,” Social Text 27 (2009): 25-44.[/ref]

In this periscope, a selection of social science and humanities scholars familiar with UK higher education and research have been asked to reflect on the challenges and opportunities that “impact” poses for critical knowledge production and the British academy going forward. From a range of different disciplinary, practical, and theoretical perspectives that straddle the critical social sciences and humanities, the contributors have pushed the implications of Britain’s new “impact” agenda to some of its most worrying and hopeful potentialities alike. But focused as this collection is on the British context, the entries also speak to a more global concern regarding the restructuring of critical space in the modern university. We invite you to join the discussion.

Tariq Jazeel teaches Human Geography at the University of Sheffield in the UK.

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Tariq Jazeel