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Knowledge and policy

As societies develop, social identities become more varied, social processes more differentiated and occupational roles more specific. Each assumes a particular way of knowing about the world: what we think of as the 'knowledge society' is in fact a society of knowledges. In Europe, information and expertise are now more widely available and more widely distributed than ever before. At the same time, expectations of transparency and public accountability have increased. In turn, the legitimacy and authority of social and political processes depends on the legitimacy and authority of the knowledge on which they draw. Knowledge is both contested and a means of contestation: it has become both vehicle and substance of politics. Both social cohesion and effective government depend on integrating knowledge as well as interests.

Yet we understand relatively little about the process by which this takes place. What does society as a whole know about the problems it faces? How are its different sources of information and ways of knowing mobilized in making decisions? To what extent does government consist in mobilizing knowledge and information?

Mental health in Scotland

Mental health in Scotland has been one of the hotspots of post-devolution policy making. Following an extensive consultation process, the Millan Review reported early in 2001, having served to establish a progressive consensus among disparate interests about the legal basis of compulsory treatment and the rights of users and carers as well as about such difficult issues as offenders with mental disorder. The Scottish government has made mental health a public health priority. Within a few years, mental health policy has been radically modernised, and has attracted widespread recognition elsewhere. Meanwhile, among health boards, researchers, user groups, think tanks and other service-based agencies, the policy community includes both individuals and organisations of international standing. Mental health in Scotland has come to be identified as a domain of extensive thinking and intensive action. But how has this transformation taken place? What is the process by which policy makers and others have come to think and act differently?

Themes, topics and methods

Our research has been designed to pursue three themes or orientations:

  • Orientation 1 - morphology - seeks to map the knowledge potentially available to decision makers in different countries and contexts, and trace the relationships between those who hold or produce such knowledge and those who take policy decisions.
  • Orientation 2 – policy making - analyses decision-making processes as such, paying special attention to the way information and understanding are deployed and learning takes place at different stages.
  • Orientation 3 – regulation - is focused on the growing use of regulatory instruments which entail the production and dissemination of information, studying their conception, reception and reappropriation by the decision-makers for whom they are intended.

Our research method consists principally of (i) documentary analysis, (ii) elite interviews with policy makers and other key actors and (iii) observation of consultation and deliberation processes.

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