Event Highlights: Knowledge Regimes and Comparative Political Economy with John Campbell

October 30th, 2011 in Event Highlights

On October 26, John Campbell, Professor of Sociology at Dartmouth College and Professor of International Political Economy at the Copenhagen Business School gave two talks at BU in which he explored the question, “Where do the ideas come from over which policy makers fight?” Over lunch with faculty and graduate students, he discussed “The Politics of Policy Knowledge in the United States and Europe”; later in the afternoon, he gave a lecture entitled “Knowledge Regimes in the United States and Europe.” Both talks had their origins in a comparative research project examining the development and operation of knowledge regimes – a blindspot in the political economy literature according to Campbell and collaborator Ove Pederson – in the United States, France, Germany, and Denmark over the last twenty years.

Campbell defines a knowledge regime as a national field of policy research organizations (e.g., think tanks, government research units) that generates and disseminates policy analyses and recommendations. The project pays special attention to how change in the surrounding political-economic environment has affected knowledge regimes and whether the organizations that constitute them have grown more or less similar to each other since the late 1980s. Data are drawn from in-depth interviews with leaders from a variety of policy research organizations in each country as well as documents from each organization.

Campbell sketched out four ideal types of political economies and identified the representative knowledge regimes associated with each one. He began by distinguishing liberal market economies, such as the United States and Britain, which structure economic activity primarily through markets and corporate hierarchies in which corporate manages respond primarily to price signals and make strategic decisions without much consolation with other organizations in their environment, from coordinated market economies, such as Germany and France, which structure economic activity through non market relationships such as informal networks, formal corporatist bargaining, associations, and various forms of state intervention and regulation. He explained how the process of economic coordination and decision making in market economies is driven by market-based competition, whereas in coordinated market economies, it is also driven by institutionally based cooperation of various sorts.

Next, he drew a distinction between centralized and closed states, in which policy making is located in a few arenas that tend to be insulated from external influences of civil society and policy-making authority is vested primarily in national government, and decentralized and open states, in which policy making is much less insulated from external influences and policy making authority is often shared or delegated to lower levels of government and permanent civil service less extensive.

He went on to map the topography of knowledge regimes in the different types of political economies and to specify the organizational actors and institutional mechanism by which policy-relevant ideas are generated in different political economic types. Campbell’s research suggests that different institutional forms of political economies affect how knowledge regimes are organized and operate.

His argument proceeded as follows: liberal market economies with decentralized, open states (the United States) tend to have market-oriented knowledge regimes that are highly competitive and often partisan and adversarial. Liberal market economies with centralized, closed states (Britain) also tend to have competitive knowledge regimes, but the level of partisan competition is tempered politically by public funding for knowledge producers in civil society and by the state’s own in-house analytic capacities. Coordinated market economies with decentralized, open states (Germany) tend to have relatively more consensus-oriented knowledge regimes as a result of having political economies with strong associational and corporatist institutional arrangements, parliamentary systems that often produce coalition governments, and much public funding for knowledge producers. Finally, coordinated market economies with centralized, closed states (France) tend to have statist-technocratic knowledge regimes where much policy-relevant knowledge is produced in-house by the state. Of course, competition and conflict over ideas exist within all types of knowledge regimes.

Campbell explained how processes affect content of knowledge produced. For example, coordinated market economies produce policy knowledge that favors comparatively incremental policy reform, where liberal market economies produce policy knowledge that favors more radical reform. This is because knowledge regimes in coordinated market economies are more consensus-oriented and therefore, cautious, while in liberal market economies, they are more partisan, adversarial, and acrimonious, and therefore more prone to extreme recommendations.

In conclusion, he touched briefly on factors precipitating changes in knowledge regimes such as the Internet, changes in institutional arrangements, and finally, the nature of ideas themselves, all of which lead to changes in the policy making regime which feed back in ways that transform the knowledge regime itself, illumining the extent to which ideas are both dependent on and constitutive of their surrounding institutional environments.

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