I am delighted and honoured to receive the Faculty of Social Science Research Excellence Award. It is a source of pride, joy and inspiration for me to have this support from my peers on the Faculty’s Research Committee.
Like so many colleagues, I have found it more difficult to pursue my research since the pandemic struck because of the impossibility of research travel, the very real stresses of the ongoing uncertainty, and of course the fact that my children have been home with me for most of the past six months. At the same time, I continue to find solace and strength in my research. As grim as the last few months have been, the COVID-19 crisis—and, more importantly, our collective political, social and cultural response to it—have helped me to see some aspects of my research in a new light. I want to briefly share three of these new insights.
My research over the years has focused on the limits of policy knowledge—its ambiguities, its failures and its relationship with ignorance. Although it might seem perverse to focus on the limits of expertise, I would argue that it is absolutely vital to do this kind of work, particularly today. Part of what has been so remarkable about the recent public health crisis is just how quickly key policymakers have had to act while also acknowledging the imperfect and evolving nature of their knowledge. What a contrast to those dogmatic approaches to policy that refuse to acknowledge the complexities a given issue and claim to have a singular perfect solution. What a contrast too to those who opt for willful ignorance and condemn all expertise as meaningless. In a world in which labels like “post-truth” have become prevalent, we need a more robust understanding of both the possibilities and limits of expert knowledge.
In empirical terms, I study international political economy—and while that means that I often explore some of the more abstract and arcane aspects of global economic policy, I have championed an approach to these questions that looks at the ways that politics and economics play out in everyday social and cultural practices. This past Spring semester, I used this approach to teach an online course on the everyday politics of the economy (POL3103). What an extraordinary opportunity to be able to share with my students their own experiences of the ways in which COVID-19 was altering their lives: helping to forge a new more critical understanding of the nature of paid work, caring labour, consumption, corporations, debt and the environment. Together we identified the ways in which this health crisis was intensifying many existing political economic divisions, revealing many of our collective blind spots about inequalities in our economy, and opening up new conversations about the possibilities for change.
In fact, one of the most exciting and timely projects that I’ve been working on in the last two years is a set of joint special issues on “Blind Spots in International Political Economy,” which are to be published this Fall in Review of International Political Economy and New Political Economy. The goal of the project is to take the idea of recognizing the limits of knowledge and apply it to our own work as researchers, identifying the blind spots that have emerged in our field—the problems, issues and experiences that our analytic lenses fail to pick up or treat as marginal when they are in fact central. Although many scholars of international and comparative political economy were reasonably confident that they understood the 2008 global financial crisis, over ten years on, it is no longer as clear that our field is up to the global challenge of times in which we live. The ubiquity of racism and xenophobia, misogyny and movements to combat it, the spiralling threat of climate crisis, the growth of populism and nationalism—these are just a few of the dynamics that political economists must seek to make better sense of if their challenge is to be responded to effectively.
As we note in the Introduction to the New Political Economy special issue, “Two years after we first began this project, as COVID-19 lays bare the ways in which race, gender and class intersect to shape the relative probability of survival, as populism and nationalism continue their forward march, and as people mobilize around the world to protest the injustice of political and economic systems in which Black lives are not treated as of equal value, these concerns resonate all the more.”
This research excellence award reinforces how very fortunate I am to be able to continue to try to make sense of these important questions—and to do so as a part of a community of researchers as vibrant and supportive as the one we have here at the University of Ottawa.
Jacqueline Best is a Full Professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa