Friday, 20 May 2016

Interview - Sebastian Maslow

Sebastian Maslow
Assistant Professor (Political Science) at Tohoku University

Q: How do you design/assess a methodology?
My research focuses on the role of knowledge networks, in particular Think Tanks in Japan's foreign policy process. At various levels of a policy process, problem definition and agenda setting evolve informally; this is also in the case for Japan, where the close ties between the conservative government coalitions, the bureaucracy and the corporate sector has been a defining feature for most of the country's post-war political history. Accounting for the causal impact of ideas is a complex if not impossible task for political science analysis. Hence, assessing the impact of Think Tanks in this political environment requires a command of qualitative research methods, combining in-depth interviews of Think Tank affiliates. The research design should cover longer time horizons in order to assess the changing institutional conditions under which Think Tanks yield influence. Qualitative research of this sort seeks to trace the evolution of policy ideas (my own research focuses on the recent debate over Japan's national security institutions and collective self-defense as it has evolved under the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe since 2012). A comprehensive command of Japanese language skills is required to take into account the Think Tank publications and media debates to locate Think Tanks in the interaction with government agencies in Japan's complex knowledge networks.

Q: Is your research primarily demand or supply driven?
My research is perhaps both, demand and supply driven. Supply driven means scholarship which derives from a genuine academic problem perception. As for research on Japan's Think Tank community, little comprehensive analysis exists assessing their role in the policy process. Meanwhile, the need for policy expertise and external advise has risen as Japan faces challenges to its economic and social institutions in the form of an on-going economic crisis of slow-growth and rapid demographic change. In this regard, scholarship on knowledge networks in Japan is also demand driven. Finally, the growing literature on Think Tanks and knowledge regimes in political science has yet to turn its attention on Asia.

Q: How important is academic rigour in terms of technical, economic, social, political and environmental dimensions?
Aiming at a high-degree of academic rigour across all dimensions is crucial for scholarly analysis, as only rigorous social science analysis will be granted the necessary trust for it to be of relevance in public discourse. Scholarship, as other sites of public discourse, needs to be accountable and transparent in its conduct; only by upholding the highest standards in social inquiry can academia play an important role in shaping society and holding political power accountable.

Q:  In your opinion, is consultative approach and engagement with diverse stakeholders a feasible model?
Social inquiry needs to distinguish itself from consultative engagement in social debate. Academia is influential because of its critical distance to its research objects and not because of its direct entanglement with it. The latter jeopardises public trust in social inquiry as consultative engagement comes along with the risk of losing objectivity. A clear line should therefore be drawn between social inquiry and policy advisory; scholars on both sides of policy analysis must be critically aware of their role in shaping social debate.

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