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Dr. Andrey Makarychev,

Department of International Relations & Political Science,

Nizhny Novgorod Linguistic University


My paper is based on a combination of cognitivist/constructivist and institutionalist approaches to regionalism that by and large reflect two major analytical platforms that have emerged in Russian regional studies. One group of authors, who stick to a cognitivist/constructivist paradigm, equate region-building with the «imagining of a new region» (1). Ideas, in this interpretation, form «regimes of signification» (2) which are based upon remembering and forgetting as social institutions that justify the dominating memories (3). Other – and more traditional - scholars focus their attention on institutional factors, including existing policy making bodies, organizations and programs that shape the state of regional affairs, etc.

The gap between these two approaches could be bridged by introducing the concept of «learning regions» – the type of territorial actors in which cognitive capital becomes embodied in institutionalist frameworks and settings. The concept presumes that in the absence of ideas some institutions simply may not be formed at all. By the same token, through the intervention of institutions the impact of ideas can be reinforced (4).

The trans-national diffusion of information, ideas, interpretations, and experiences is an important part of a region’s way of dealing with the outside world. According to this approach, regionalism might be considered as a set of cognitive practices shaped by social, political, economic and cultural discourses which are embodied in metaphors, analogies, remembrances (5).

However, constructivist approaches are often criticized for being insufficiently able to prove their theoretical claim of the principal influence of ideas upon institutions and the policymaking process (6). In this respect, it is notable that there is a long Russian tradition of treating intellectuals as pure theorists who are prone to view society simply as an experimental ground for testing their ideas (7). In a similar way, in the West it has been said that «much of today’s scholarship is either irrelevant or inaccessible to policymakers… Academicians often appear caught up in an elite culture in which labels, categories, and even the humor have meaning for ‘members only’. Their writings are filled with references to other scholars’ writings; they speak to each other rather than to a wider public… Much of what is produced is intended to gain the kind of academic identification with a theory or equation that will lead to professional advancement. Little evidence exists of a direct effort to influence public policy through scholarly writing» (8).

In this paper my intentions are:

  • to show the ways in which the widely spread concepts of knowledge management, epistemic communities, forward thinking and intellectual capital are projected onto Russia’s regions;

  • to check whether knowledge agents (or cognitive actors) possess what could have been called «soft authority», or the power to persuade, which is indispensable for the region-building process.

  • to see in which way(s) the cognitive actors contribute to the instrumentalization of knowledge, i.e. the construction of legitimacy of policy judgments (9).

Cognitive Networking

My vision of the whole process of international actorship in Russian regions consists of several stages. The first one is cognitive networking by which I mean all forms of horizontal organization and management of expert resources that has to be based – in one way or another - on collaborative projects.

There are two understandings of networking. One is technical and deals basically with those facilities that enhance the communication flows and economic, financial, commercial and other exchanges (10). The second reading of networking is of social background. Networks are presented as relatively stable and on-going relationships which mobilize and pool dispersed resources so that collective (or parallel) action can be orchestrated toward the solution of a common policy (11).

I treat networking in a social sense as:

  • the method of professional communication which may conceal or compromise both cooperation and conflict within policy-oriented communities;

  • the way of managing the intellectual exchanges and information flows;

  • the tool of expanding the professional horizons and social spaces;

  • the source of new social resources that lay basically beyond the reach of the state.

Cognitive networking lead to formation of «epistemic communities», or trans-regional political/academic complexes. Community - with its shared beliefs, ethical and professional standards, notions of feasibility - is rightly considered to be the most stable form of cognitive network (12). Epistemic communities are important – in terms of my analysis – because they have much to say in benchmarking - the technique that allows for discovering the best practices (success stories) and comparing experiences. In fact, this is an essential part of discovering and boosting the social capital.

In a policy milieu, ideas can inspire innovations and require special kinds of «cognitive actors», whose role is to select the most viable pieces of thought and then promote them (13). Cognitive networking actors are important institutions that stimulate policy debate and set the political agenda. They deal with communicable knowledge, in other words - expertise that can be transmitted from one institution to another. Ideas, in this interpretation, are embodied in concepts, programs, strategies, memos, blueprints, policy prescriptions and advices that help decision makers chart a specific course of policy action. It is said that “research is not policy neutral but represents a discursive or ideational form of power that helps set and sustain development agendas” (14).

Cognitive actors not only inform but also alert political elites. The situation of uncertainty, however, has produced a demand for alternative sources of advice. In order to influence the political agenda, think tanks have to become ”policy entrepreneurs” and find their niches in the policy milieu. Giving priority to cognitive practices, the think tanks are, nonetheless, also embedded in normative approaches, since some of their arguments take a normative form. The major challenge they face is perhaps the politicization of knowledge (15), since both are eager to gain political influence.

Of course, cognitive networking actors in the Russian regions differ in terms of their:

  • strategies. In particular, there are some signs of divorce between think tanks (expert-driven and academic research units) and public policy centers (which are closer to advocacy groups with strong policy connections and background);

  • funding. Thus, centers working with foreign sources overwhelmingly get more operational freedom than those depending on domestic finances. Dependence on Russian sources makes you inevitably the part of administrative market with its peculiar rules of the game and politico-administrative bargaining;

  • intellectual output: there is a difference between innovative centers that are eager to creatively formulate themselves their own research agendas, and those that only do contract research following the pre-existing tracks and prescriptions from donors and sponsors;

  • worldviews (liberal – conservative divide is still here).

Nevertheless, what unites all networking actors in provincial Russia is that they:

  • create new communication domains that may be used for public expertise of the most acute issues (elections, the roles of the media and the big business, etc.);

  • look for instruments to solve practical problems of public interest (negotiations, engagement of political leaders into policy debates, etc.);

  • enhance – directly or reportedly – the voice of non-state sector in policy debates.

The following table provides an illustration of the role of cognitive actors in region building (16):

Roles of think tanks

Think tanks functions


Political infrastructure builders

Informally negotiating with key decision makers

Center for Strategic Research – North-West

Technical advisers

Providing contract services to the authorities

INDEM (“Information for Democracy”) Foundation

Agenda setters

Generating ideas and applying pressure for change of policy

SVOP (Council on Foreign & Defense Policy)

Facilitators of interactions between democracy-oriented groups

Multiplying the voices that are brought to bear on an issue and offering alternative routes

«Strategia» Center (St.Petersburg)

Due to dissemination of networking practices, a new phenomenon seems to appear – the networking regionalism. This is a type of regional governance that leads to construction of inclusive policy space with a variety of international and domestic actors. The concept of networking regionalism was born in Western Europe, but to some extent it could have been applied to Russia. Some authors prefer to speak about “policy transfer networks” which in a way may be compared with advocacy coalitions as the members of network are expected to be from different social layers and professional backgrounds (17).

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  • Cognitive Networking
  • Roles of think tanks Think tanks functions Examples