Targeting practitioners

Doing research in Bolivia Paraguay and Perú

By 26 April 2016

According to existing categorisations, Bolivia, Paraguay and Perú, are among the smallest players in the South American region when it comes to social research production.

In 2015 a comparative study of the social research environments of these countries was conducted as part of the GDN’s Doing Research initiative. The study was carried out as a collaboration between GRADE in Perú, Fundación ARU in Bolivia, and CADEP in Paraguay. Looking at why these countries fall behind others in the region, the study established that this is largely explained by an historical lack of state support –through policies and funding– to research in general, but particularly to social research.

The study found a strong degree of path dependency in the way that the state in these three countries, mostly through its absence, has influenced their research environments. The study traces this to the weak or non-existent historical presence of developmentalist political projects in the three countries, which contrasts to other countries in the region that today have more consolidated research environments.

In recent decades, however, new trends have started to emerge. The era of structural reforms in the 1990’s ushered in a discourse of technocratic policy making that translated into greater demand for social research as evidence for the policy process. In this context, new research centres and think tanks emerged in the three countries. In the case of Paraguay, such centres played a key role in the democratic transition and in building the state almost from scratch.

While there are some continuities –notably the non-existent or negligible presence of the state through purposive policies and funding– since the early 2000s, and especially in the past decade, the social research environments of the three countries have taken somewhat different paths.

In Perú and Paraguay, an instrumental-technocratic model of social research production seems to be consolidating as the practice, and not just the discourse of evidence-based policy making, takes hold. In Perú, however, this model of social research production seems to be much more deeply entrenched than in Paraguay. In the latter, recent research policies are beginning to open the way for more academic and less instrumental forms of research production –such processes, however, are still at a very early stage and their sustainability and effects are still to be seen.

In Bolivia, the rise of the Movement for Socialism (MAS) has radically altered the rules and the context for social research production. Social research still plays an important role in providing ideas for MAS’s political project, something that can be seen in the creation of a Social Research Centre (CIS) of the Vice-Presidency. But the context and the government are averse to the idea of evidence that might challenge their political project, and the environment for independent social research production is therefore somewhat hostile.

In spite of its fundamental absence in the form of funding or of more explicit policies aimed at strengthening research production, the state, then, does contribute to shape the research environments of these countries. This is because states are among the main players demanding research and they tend to prioritise certain types of research over others. The same happens with the research demands that emerge from the other “big players” in these contexts: international donors. While some donors have broader capacity-building agendas, others also fall into the pattern of making specific demands that fit their own specific interests.

While there are shared trends in the three countries, the study also found important differences in the responses from local research communities. Most notable is the case of Perú, which, of the three countries, has the greater degree of institutional density– seen, for instance, in the relatively higher presence of social research societies, second tier institutions and social research journals. Here, the study found a small number of research institutions (both universities and research centres) developing internal mechanisms and incentives to promote both more and better quality research production. Such bottom-up efforts have clearly had an impact on the country’s greater degree of professionalisation of research careers, although this is still low by international standards.

The absence of programmatic and competitive public funding for independent research, alongside researchers’ reliance on the specific and usually non-programmatic demands from the state and international donors, has clear and strong impacts for both the quantity and quality of research produced in the three studied countries. Social research agendas are unsurprisingly fragmented and this hinders both specialisation, conceptual elaboration and the possibility of playing in the ‘big leagues’ of academic research circulation (i.e. peer reviewed journals of the highest standards) – this, however, also reflects global geopolitical inequalities and a bias against research published in languages other than English. Researchers in the three countries agree on the lack of research communities and ‘critical mass’, which they see as fundamental drivers of research production and quality – and, in the view of many researchers, are much more effective than external incentives. For most social researchers in the three countries, doing research is still a lonely, if not an outright heroic kind of pursuit.

While demand for social research might be at an all-time high, especially in Peru and Paraguay, the study suggests that the social sciences are a blind spot in the study’s countries’ science and technology strategies. The study therefore proposes that, in order to move on towards strengthening these social research environments, an important first step would be to get a debate started as to why and for what purposes social science research is produced. The study also suggests that such debates should raise questions about the implications of a merely instrumentalist (technocratic or populist) vision of the social sciences, and emphasise the role that the social sciences can play in the identification and definition of social problems, as well as in the generation of critical ideas. Debates should also focus on the importance of balancing the notion of research as providing evidence with an understanding of what is needed to strengthen local capacities for social research and the role that more independent and academic research production can and should play in this respect.

Developing appropriate indicators to measure the health of low and middle income countries’ research environments, such as the Doing Research initiative seeks to do, would be an important contribution towards these debates. Rather than assume ideal models of research organisation, such indicators would need to reflect, to some degree, the particular ways in which research actors and institutions in these low and middle income countries have organised themselves up to now, in order not to undermine whatever local capacities do exist. Such indicators would also act as benchmarks for different countries to move towards.

Beyond indicators, efforts at generating public debate on the role and contributions of the social sciences, and on the mechanisms through which social research environments can be strengthened, should involve local researchers and promote much needed networks and communities that focus not on specific research subjects but on the environments from which research is produced.

The full working paper can be downloaded here.

More information on the Doing Research project can be found at www.gdn.int/dr.

This blog is part of the GDN Doing Research series which brings together insights from the researchers across the project.