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Research Impact and Critical Research: Reclaiming Impact on Critical Terms

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

Critical research – research that foregrounds the contingency of knowledge, social structures, and relations – is often impassioned by desire for social change. Yet in challenging the status quo, critical research often faces a more complex and lengthy pathway to impact. As higher education funding and assessment architectures in the UK (and internationally) are increasingly demanding the demonstration of research impact, concerns have been raised that ‘the impact agenda’ could adversely affect critical as well as blue skies research, favouring instead forms of research that easily lend themselves to mainstream societal uptake.

In a paper recently published in AREA ( I explore the scope for rethinking impact on critical terms. While taking seriously the very real concerns about the relationship between ‘the research agenda’ and the corporatisation of UK higher education, between assessment metrics and neoliberalism, and about the instrumentalisation of knowledge that demands for impact often entail, I argue that there is scope to work with impact differently, and to reclaim ways of thinking about research impact that support critical agendas. In the paper I draw from case studies submitted during REF2014 to illustrate five modes of critical research impact: challenging policy; empowering resistances; platforming voices; nurturing new critical publics and envisioning alternatives.

Mode 1: Challenging policy

Confronting mainstream policy head-on, critical researchers might propose policy amendments by highlighting the implications of existing policies on particular underrepresented groups, geographies, or concerns. More transformative policy change however is likely to focus on election manifesto writers and targeted social pressure rather than consultations within existing policy cycles.

Mode 2: Empowering resistance

Sometimes, traction for critical research findings is found amongst activist organisations with a degree of existing policy standing and legitimacy for whom the research, or the connections it articulates, may help to strengthen their discursive position and evidence base for their alternative vision. These organisations may be receptive to engaging with research in ways that may be missed if the focus is solely on impacting mainstream policy.

Mode 3: Platforming voices

Critical research often achieves impact for communities through foregrounding and empowering underrepresented voices. Participatory action research in particular often develops long term relationships with marginalised communities in which research questions are co-produced around non-academic challenges offering opportunities to reshape public discourses and reconfigure participation through the process as much as the product of research (Pain et al’s 2011 work Geographies of impact: Power, participation and potential.)

Mode 4: Nurturing new critical publics

Critical research can inspire new critically engaged citizens. This often takes shape through working with young people, as well as providing mechanisms for engaging and empowering otherwise politically disengaged adults. With rapidly developing digital technologies and the growing role of social media in generating critical publics, there are opportunities to think about new forms of media through which critical publics become fashioned, politically engaged, and/or mobilised.

Mode 5: Envisioning Alternatives

Sometimes critical approaches to research – whether scholarly or collaborative – actively construct alternative imaginaries or courses of action. Research in this vein may be explicitly normative, subversive, or carve out space for others to imagine and construct the very alternatives that excite criticality in the first place. The work of critical research in populating the ways in which presents and futures could be otherwise, offers important potential through which societal change might take place.

This typology is provisional and by no means exhaustive. However its goal is to prompt debate and expand possibilities for thinking about critical research impact in ways that encourage more complex and nuanced discussion. Explicit attention to what critical research impact might look like, seeks to fill a gap in research impact thinking about potential dialogue between research impact and critical research. To date, critical research has had to bend to the formal impact agenda rules to engage with research impact, or alternatively align with suggestions that not all research, and not all researchers need to realise impact. While such exemptions are welcome, this carves out space for critical research only through exception and negation. Yet many scholars engaged in critically facing research have their own long and complex stories of achieving impact from their work and there is an explicit need to recognise the different forms that engaged scholarship takes, differences in the process of working towards impact, and potentially also in the forms of support that might be required to foster it. Recognising a difference between research impact and the formal REF Research Impact Agenda and building from Rachel Pain’s emphasis on the “political imperative to restate the kind of academy in which we want to work” (2011:188), the paper focuses on how impact might be pursued in ways that support and enrich critical agendas and argue for greater and more nuanced dialogue between the two.

In order to counter any tendency for formal Research Impact Evaluations to squeeze out critical research, I argue that both assessment frameworks and institutional expectations need to account for the following:

  • Evidencing: There needs to be recognition of the increased challenges around evidencing impact from critical research. This includes the need for a portfolio of evidence forms which may need to be combined in complex ways, and recognition that blunt and instrumental forms of evidencing may not be in the interests of sustaining long‐term relationships and may pose risks to the uptake of critical research findings

  • Significance and Reach: Continuing commitments to assessing significance and reach separately is important in enabling research impact to be pursued among communities where it holds most relevance.

  • Timeframes: Critical research impact may require longer timeframes to develop as changing the terms of debate is difficult and slow, with quick wins unlikely. This may mean that impact materialises outside or cross-cuts assessment periods.

  • Impactful Process: In critical research impact is often achieved through the process of working together rather than the findings or products of research - as Rachel Pain has identified (see ACME ‘Impact: Striking a blow or walking together?). The move away from measuring the impact of discrete publications is welcome but more could be done to capture narratives of process as well as product in reporting templates.

This is a provisional start to a wider project of collective thinking about the specific challenges and opportunities that working on research impact from critical research might bring. A project in which it would be great to hear more from researchers who are actively developing critical and impactful research that is difficult to formally return through the REF Assessment, as well as scholars who are successfully developing critical impact case studies for submission to REF2021.

Sharing challenges and potential recommendations that could better support and facilitate the development of research impact on critical terms will not on its own counter the concerns over the ideological context for the REF and its attention to impact that Watermeyer and others have so eloquently expressed. But it will help us to keep open the possibility of doing impact differently, and not “losing ourselves in those ideas and activities which the existing organization of society instils into its members” (Horkheimer, 1939, pp. 264–265). To ensure that the UK REF Assessment and its institutional architectures do not (advertantly or inadvertently) narrow space for critical research, there needs to be active re-articulation of what research impact on critical terms involves and collective solidarity around how its differential needs are recognised.

Ruth Machen is a Research Fellow at Newcastle University focusing on environmental science-policy interaction. This article is taken from her recent paper in Area ‘Critical Research Impact: making space for alternatives’ which was formerly published as an LSE Impact Blog: available at:

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