Knowledge in Policy: Embodied, inscribed, enacted, by Richard Freeman and Steve Sturdy (eds)

Policy Press, 2014, xi + 242 pp, 1 4473 0998 7, hbk, £70

We know things; we express that knowledge; and we make use of it when we do things. What is true in daily life is equally true in the social policy world. People know things; people express their knowledge, in writing and in other ways; and people make things happen on the basis of their knowledge. Much knowledge is tacit and deeply ’embodied’ in our experience as human beings – for instance, in our experience of stigma. Knowledge might then be ‘inscribed’: for instance, in documents. And knowledge is ‘enacted’ when embodied and inscribed knowledge influences action.

The book’s authors employ this threefold embodied, inscribed, and enacted schema to enable them to understand particular policy processes. A study of mental health policy in Scotland reveals how context-dependent knowledge might be ( – and in particular context can determine which knowledge is marginalised and which is prioritised). The process of school evaluation in Portugal shows how knowledge is ‘subject to an almost infinitely extended process of social validation’ (p.60); international organisations such as the World Health Organisation work by creating, fixing, and diffusing knowledge (p.75); and British civil servants choose to whom they talk, and then they choose what to do with what they learn:

When the civil servants spoke to others to learn about a policy issue, they were not only trying to develop an understanding of an issue, but also to rework this understanding in terms that enabled a policy proposal to meet … in-practice requirements for success. (p.101)

Across a variety of countries school inspectors are found to create ‘standardised knowledge’ by ‘collectively inscribing data’ (p.122); and a European project became possible through the ‘evolution of patterns and habits specifically erected through face-to-face interaction’ (p.139).

The final three chapters study knowledge interests ( – knowledge transfer must cohere with local knowledge if it is to be effective); knowledge conflicts (successful enactment has to take account of often competing embodied knowledges); and knowledge work (translation of knowledge for particular contexts is crucial to successful enactment).

This book succeeds in persuading the reader of the importance of knowledge in the policy process, and suggests that those who influence policy have an obligation – one often fulfilled – to seek knowledge as widely as possible, because some knowledge might be embodied but not inscribed or enacted. In the context of benefits policy this means that the knowledge embodied in administrators, claimants, and anyone who might be a claimant, could be essential to the success of any proposed reform. To collect that embodied knowledge, to inscribe it, and to enact is, is a major and important task.