“Impact”, Research and Slaying Zombies: The Pressures and Possibilities of the REF

Robert MacDonald

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to reflect critically upon current debates and tensions in the governance of research in the UK and more widely, particularly the imperative that social science research should demonstrate impact beyond the academy. Design/methodology/approach: Drawing implicitly upon the Bevir’s theory of governance, the paper positions discourses about “research excellence and research impact” as elite narratives that are rooted genealogically in forms of managerial audit culture which seek to govern the practices of social science academics. The paper reviews relevant literature, draws upon key contributions that have shaped debate and refers to the author’s own research and experiences of “research impact”. Findings: Initiatives such as the UK’s “Research Excellence Framework” can be understood as a form of governance that further enables already present neo-liberalising tendencies in the academy. The “impact agenda” has both negative (e.g. it can distort research priorities and can lead to overstatement of “real world” effects) and positive potential (e.g. to provide institutional space for work towards social justice, in line with long-standing traditions of critical social science and “public sociology”). Research limitations/implications: There is a need for more critical research and theoretical reflection on the value, threats, limitations and potential of current forms of research governance and “impact”. Originality/value: To date, there are very few article-length, critical discussions of these developments and issues in research governance, even fewer that connect these debates to longer-standing radical imperatives in social science.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)696-710
Number of pages15
JournalInternational Journal of Sociology and Social Policy
Issue number11-12
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017
Externally publishedYes


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