Unobtrusive Probing

Policy-making requires the interplay of social, political and economic factors. In democratic environments, the process could also involves the engagement of civil society, businesses and other stakeholders. Empirical knowledge is given importance and often prioritised. On the other hand, policy analysis could be approached differently. What are the institutions involved in designing policies? What structures are present in these institutions? What is the process of policy-making? What type of isomorphism is present in a particular organisation – normative, coercive or mimetic? To what extent does decoupling occur? Which divisions of society are engaged in this process? These are some questions that a policy-researcher would find worth keeping in mind. 

When the global landscape is becoming more divided and extreme views are gaining popularity in the form of fashion statements, moderation is dismissed and sometimes even shunned. The purpose and worth of neutrality is trivialised. The policy-researcher is expected to conduct surveys, questionnaires and interviews as methods to gather data. Such a traditional approach could add value to a piece of research. But before that, several conditions have to be fulfilled.

Are the respondents providing information on behalf of their affiliations? Are they permitted to give opinions independent of their organisations? Is the information provided by them available in public domains? If so, what is the value in obtaining their feedback? Is their insight capable of altering research outcomes? How would the researcher know if respondents are truthful? Incorporating the response of an influential and experienced individual from an institution, relevant to the research is indeed an attractive prospect. Somehow, such research gains visibility, credibility and popularity. The big question is – is the research high in accountability? Will that research have a different finding if the same methods are applied in the future or even with a different respondent from the same institution?

In a digital age where abundant information is available in multiple platforms; where reports from international organisations and governments are churned out periodically for public knowledge and further study; where grey literature is a necessity rather than a luxury; are individual responses to surveys, questionnaires and interviews significant for policy analysis? Of course, much depends on what aspect of a policy is being studied and the researcher’s frame.

For instance, if the researcher chooses to adopt unobtrusive research methods and frame migration policy analysis with the institutional theory and the migration system theory, would that be a shortcoming or a much-needed, long-awaited, divergent approach? Making the assumption that individuals will respond truthfully to questions is detrimental to the credibility of any research. To counter this danger, a robust combination of theories and methodology (the theoretical underpinnings of the methods applied) is necessary. 

In an unobtrusive approach to the study of migration policies in ASEAN, comparative analyses of the ten member-states’ policy institutions, process-tracing of the stages and stakeholders of policy-making in each state, and the convergence/divergence policy approach could serve as strong supplements for the institutional theory and the migration system theory. Such a combination of theoretical tools would ground the epistemology of the research. It is no surprise that the empirical school of thought will vehemently object to unobtrusive means. Indeed an added value for research diversity!

A study that is deep-rooted in theory and logic will prevail across institutions, individuals, experiences, and most importantly, time. That study will expose flaws and loopholes in policy-making, without the sugar coat of opinions. It will probe into the inadequacies of current systems without any interference. It will be unwaveringly replicable in different situations. Why not choose to probe unobtrusively!

Leave a Reply