The Myth of Research-based Policy & Practice by Martyn Hammersley

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    Clive Sims

    Hammersley, Martin. The Myth of Research-Based Policy & Practice. (2013) London. Sage. Reviewer: Clive Sims.


             This is an important book which examines in depth and often provocatively the relationship between research, policy making and professional practice against the pervasive background of the evidence-based practice movement.  Martyn Hammersley is Professor of Educational and Social Research at the Open University and has long been a critic of the use of the slogan ‘evidence-based’ to discredit all opposition as being irrational. The evidence-based movement started in the ‘90s in the field of medicine but quickly spread into other fields of applied and social research including educational research. Its foundation was and is CASP, the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme, Critical Appraisal being the systematic examination of research to assess its reliability, value and relevance within particular contexts. This approach initially led to a very narrow, positivistic, definition of acceptable evidence and attracted much criticism particularly that positivistic, usually quantitative research, was not the sole, nor necessarily the most effective basis for professional practice. Responding to this the term “evidence – informed” practice has since been increasingly used although the basic positivistic underpinning remains. Here I must declare a degree of interest. As a professional psychologist I took the CASP course and later a university certificate in evidence-based practice. However I early came to question the strict adherence to the scientific/positivistic approach, particularly in the field of psychological therapy as it excluded much evidence of effective practice and completely ignored the human relational aspect for successful outcome in therapy.

            Professor Hammersley’s background is educational research and the majority of his published papers focus on the consequences of evidence-based practice in that area. In ‘The Myth of Research-Based Policy & Practice’ he expands his argument from education to include policy and practice developments in other areas to include healthcare and social care as well as, what might be termed, purely political decisions. The book consists of an introduction, eleven chapters, references, a name index and a subject index. The Introduction is essential reading as it provides a comprehensive background for the arguments presented in the body of the book and sets the historical context. On the very first page he sets out the aims of the book which are a) to consider what generally counts as knowledge and b) to expose the “limits of what counts as knowledge in evidence-based policy making”. Each chapter covers a specific topic and, whilst the individual chapters can be used for reference, Professor Hammersley’s argument progresses from the nature of evidence-based practice through the nature of scientific inquiry to systematic reviews of research literature and qualitative synthesis.

           The ‘evidence – based practice movement’ with its origins in medical research takes as its gold standard the results derived from randomly controlled trials (RCTs). It rapidly expanded its influence into other areas of educational and social research and in the practice and policy decisions derived from such research. As a result of its dominance this approach, firmly rooted in the positivist tradition, marginalized other approaches based upon alternative paradigms and sought to minimalize decisions made upon practical experience, which could not be replicated in the “laboratory” of RCTs. As a result practice guidelines and decisions and social policy came to be based upon a very narrow paradigm supposedly derived from the natural sciences, and largely ignoring the fact that it has been called into question there too. In the first chapter Professor Hammersley presents a critical analysis as to why such a situation has come about. He largely ascribes its predominance to what he calls the myth of transparent accountability which “relies upon a version of perfectionism which implies that all failures and risks can be avoided, or at least reduced in in number and seriousness.” (p27). Thus the more rigorous the research method the more reliable will be any policy or practice derived from it. As he rightly points out, this ignores the fact that many public services rely on expertise which cannot be captured by RCTs. In chapter two he provides a useful figure illustrating the not inconsiderable problems associated with the idea of research-based policy or practice.

           Professor Hammersley uses the following chapters to develop his critique into the nature of evidence in fine detail, including the question of the quality in qualitative research in chapter six. Following this he first moves from the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of research and the derived ‘evidence’ to action research as a particular research methodology and then on to methods of reviewing research literature, focusing in particular on systematic reviews and whether they can ever be truly systematic. Given that critical appraisal via systematic reviews is the cornerstone of the evidence-based policy and practice movement it is a pity that this topic was not examined earlier in the book. Following this chapter he examines traditional reviewing practice and in the final chapter qualitative synthesis. At this point the book ends. There is, unfortunately, no concluding chapter tying all the various strands together. The reader is left in something of a limbo wondering “what next”, which is a shame as I think that such a chapter would have strengthened Professor Hammersley’s thesis even further.

           I found this book immensely interesting and can fully recommend it. Not only did it confirm many of the doubts that I have developed over the years relating to issues surrounding the nature of evidence and its relationship to practice development but it has also caused me to question my own involvement in providing ‘scientific evidence’ to various government consultations which will, in due course, inform policy. Hopefully this book will go some way to informing policy makers that the ‘gold standard’ of RCTs is not so golden after all.

    rhian smithson

    They can be of man option to choose different and catchy slogan. In fact there are suggested slogans and taglines to use at


    The ‘evidence – based practice movement’ with its origins in medical research takes as its gold standard the results derived from randomly controlled trials (RCTs).
    run 3

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