Meaning in Action
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Meaning in Action

Interpretation and Dialogue in Policy Analysis

Hendrik Wagenaar

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Meaning in Action

Interpretation and Dialogue in Policy Analysis

Hendrik Wagenaar

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This accessible book gives academics, graduate students, and researchers a comprehensive overview of the vast, varied, and often confusing landscape of interpretive policy analysis. It is both theoretically informed and clear and jargon-free as it discusses the specific strengths and weaknesses of different interpretive approaches--all with a practical orientation towards doing policy analysis

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Theory and Applications



Interpretation in Policy Analysis


As good a definition as any is the following: “Interpretive approaches to political studies focus on meanings that shape actions and institutions, and the ways in which they do so” (Bevir and Rhodes, 2004, 130). This comes close to being a standard definition of interpretive policy analysis in that it contains all the necessary elements: political actions, institutions, meaning, and the reality-shaping power of meaning. Meanings are not just representations of people’s beliefs and sentiments about political phenomena; they fashion these phenomena.
On the surface, giving shape to actions and institutions sounds innocent enough, and I imagine that few people will take issue with this description of the interpretive approach to policy analysis. It suggests that to study public policy it is sometimes useful to look beyond overt acts of political behavior such as voting or expressing a preference for party X or proposal Y. To understand, for example, why a particular policy fails to bring about its intended effects, or why people resist the reconstruction of their neighborhood, it may be important to gauge what that policy or neighborhood means to those people, what impact a change in one or the other has on their lives and their community. To this effect it is necessary to employ different methods than the standardized survey instrument or the quasi-experimental research design. We need methods that allow us to record and analyze the original language in which people express their feelings, beliefs, ideals, fears, and desires, in relation to themselves, their neighborhood, their community, or the impact of a particular public policy. Such methods have been available for many decades, of course. Qualitative research interviews, ethnographic observation, and the inductive generation of mid-level grounded theory from the rich data that such methods yield have provided researchers with invaluable insights into the experiential aspects of, for example, structural unemployment among black men (Liebow, 1967 [2003]), life in a youth gang (Whyte, 1943 [1993]), homelessness (Wiseman, 1979), or chronic mental illness (Estroff, 1981). Such studies explained, for example, why service programs for alcoholic homeless men or the chronically mentally ill are often less effective, or effective in a different way, than providers had hoped for.
It all comes down, it seems, to matching the method to the question. If we want a reliable estimate of how a political phenomenon is distributed in a population or the extent to which it is statistically associated with another phenomenon, we employ quantitative, empiricist research methods. If, on the other hand, we want to get an understanding of what a policy means to the people who are affected by it, how they experience the concerted efforts of a state agency to improve their lives, we employ interpretive research methods.
If only it were this simple. In fact, those who are attracted to an interpretive approach to policy analysis quickly run into a number of obstacles that stand in the way of an easy intellectual and practical grasp of the field.


First, interpretive policy analysis is not just a method or family of methods, something you take off the shelf to answer a particular research question. If anything, it is more like a doctrine, a tenet. I don’t mean this pejoratively, but in the technical sense of a set of more or less warranted beliefs about how to act; in this case, how to address a number of epistemological and methodological problems in the social sciences in a fitting manner. Doctrines deal with ought questions. You can muster good, even compelling, reasons for them, but in the end it is your argument against their argument, and there is no guarantee that you will be able to persuade the other (Hood & Jackson, 1991). Most interpretive analysts do not satisfy themselves with the modest claim that values, beliefs, and feelings are important political phenomena in their own right, well worth paying attention to if one desires to understand the formulation and implementation of public policy. In fact—as the definition by Bevir and Rhodes made clear—almost all interpretive analysts operate on the stronger philosophical claim that meaning does not merely put a particular affective or evaluative gloss on things, but that it is somehow constitutive of political actions, governing institutions, and public policies.
Constitutive is a concept that is simultaneously controversial and trite. It is trite in that it, and its synonyms “constructed” (with or without the prefix “socially”) and “contingent,” have become so pervasive in interpretive social science that they tend to function as shibboleths, symbolic markers that signal that you speak the right language and belong to the initiated. (Insert “created” or “made” for “constructed,” or “happenstance” for “contingent,” and you get a feel for the ritualistic, coded quality of these terms. This plain-speaking language conveys the same ideas, but sounds much less interesting.) It is controversial because it glosses over a slew of philosophical and practical difficulties that are usually more hinted at than explicated. I will discuss some of these later in this book (particularly chapter 7), but I want to mention here one point that is especially relevant to the subject of interpretation in policy analysis.
The word “constituted” contains a weak and a strong claim (see also Schwandt, 2000). The weak claim is as in the Bevir and Rhodes statement and consists of two parts: (1) all sorts of social influences shape how people understand, experience, and feel about any given social phenomenon; and (2) the “meaning” that people attach to social phenomena in turn influences the structure and functioning of common categories of social analysis such as institutions, social practices, and public policies. Meaning influences people’s behavior. For example, upon coming into office in 1997, the British Labour Party faced an administrative landscape that was fragmented and hollowed out by years of market-driven, conservative administration. Labour wanted to restore the traditional role of the state as provider of security and basic services to those in need, but at the same time take seriously the neoliberal critique that found inefficiency, welfare dependency, fiscal irresponsibility, and lack of competitiveness when the state took that role. This is the “meaning” that Labour attached to public administration upon coming into office. Its reaction was to modernize governance by creating outcome-focused, problem-driven administrative strategies that aimed at including citizens and other social actors in policy making by designing programs of “joined up” government (Bevir & Rhodes, 2003; Newman, 2001). This form of interpretivism is an important program in policy analysis. One could call it a sophisticated institutional analysis that includes beliefs and values (Scott, 2007). But it is not particularly novel or eyebrow-raising. It doesn’t challenge any deep-seated experience of reality.1
The strong claim also starts with part 1, but differs on part 2. Instead of stating that meaning influences institutions, practices, and policies that form the categories and objects of social analysis, it holds that meaning brings them into being. Buried in this is an epistemological and moral program. For example, mental illness is sometimes seen as “socially constructed” (Coulter, 1979). What is implied is a moral-analytical program that goes somewhat like this: there is no such thing as an immutable social object we can call “mental illness.” Whenever we speak of mental illness we impose a particular interpretation on a particular slice of behavior. That interpretation is driven by a hidden power configuration, and by bringing this configuration to light the analyst opens up the possibility of more benign or humane interpretations of the same behavior.2 This is a simplified reading, and there are many variants of it that I will discuss in due course, but what I want to draw out here are the moral aims of the strong claim. By engaging in constructivist work under the strong claim, you engage—implicitly or explicitly—in an emancipatory endeavor. One does not go without the other. Under the strong claim there is no morally neutral constructivist work. The purpose is to unmask, to reveal what is hidden (Hacking, 1999, 53). My purpose at this point is not more than to raise awareness of the programmatic quality that is intrinsic to constructivist talk. Attention should not go just to the rightness or justifiability of constructivist explanations, but also to the social goals that the analyst wants to achieve with them.


Policy analysis is a moral activity. This is a self-evident statement, but value issues make analysts, both of the empiricist and interpretivist stripe, uneasy. So, before we describe how both camps deal with the moral character of policy analysis, let’s first unpack the role of values in public policy.
The official line, espoused by Lasswell, one of the founding fathers of the discipline, is that policy analysis is a normative discipline in the service of spreading democracy in the world and defending it against the threat of tyranny (Lasswell, 1951). The motto of the journal Policy Sciences, the torchbearer of Lasswell’s program, is: “integrating knowledge and practice to advance human dignity for all.” This is an important statement, but most practitioners of the trade will consider it peripheral to their daily work and the kind of pious statement that one disperses at official occasions. In practice the choices of the analyst are much more mundane, driven by the exigencies of organizational reality. Here is an authoritative definition of everyday policy analysis: “[P]olicy analysis is a process of multidisciplinary inquiry designed to create, critically assess, and communicate information that is useful in understanding and improving policies” (Dunn, 2004, 1–2). And Dunn goes on to say that policy analysis aspires to generate knowledge that is relevant to the various stages of the policy-making process, from problem structuring, to policy implementation, to the evaluation of public policy. He concludes that the methodology of policy analysis is “based on scientific methods,” but in the end “policy analysis also rests on art, craft, and persuasion.” (2004,2). “Critically assess,” “useful,” “improving,” “art,” “craft,” “persuasion”—do I need to go on? Values shape the myriad unrecognized practical judgments that go into everyday analytical work: framing a problem, formulating a questionnaire, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, shaping arguments, presenting the report. Value judgments cannot be avoided. They extend to every aspect of the work of professional policy analysis. Just how to deal with the value dimension of policy analysis, however, is not so clear.
Perhaps those who still are reluctant to accept the normative dimensions of policy analysis will be persuaded by the following example from Dunn’s widely read textbook, Public Policy Analysis: An Introduction (2004). Dunn argues that policy analysis has an important role to play in “policy structuring.” In fact, in policy analysis “methods of problem structuring take priority over methods of problem solving.” The reason is that “lower-level questions” of problem solving assume that the analyst has a clear understanding of what the problem is. Dunn illustrates this with the problem of industrial pollution: “Lower-level questions about the net benefits … of alternative solutions for the control of industrial pollution already assume that industrial pollution is the problem.” At the “next-higher level” of problem structuring the analyst “may well find that the most appropriate formulation of the problem is closely related to the driving habits of Americans for whom gasoline and oil are comparatively cheap and heavily subsidized by the government” (72–73). No matter on which side of the issue analysts find themselves (for or against reducing air pollution by discouraging automobile use), each stance is, inescapably, a normative one.
There is nothing new here, but most policy analysts, particularly of the empiricist stripe, prefer to deny this inconvenient fact. They want it both ways: to be scientifically rational and to argue for a particular normative position. This conflict is resolved by sleight of hand. You relegate the value aspects to the periphery of the analytic process—to the formulation of the policy problem, where values enter unnoticed under the guise of policy goals, and to the recommendations at the end of the report. In the middle is the “objective” process of scientific research. Objectivity is guaranteed by an excessive focus on method. It is hoped that the value position that bookends the scientific analysis is carried by the allegedly rational research process. How do interpretive analysts deal with values in public policy? Much more directly and imaginatively. Values, or rather the inability of empiricist approaches to deal with values, formed the spearhead of the critical policy analysis movement of the mid-1970s (Rein, 1976; Taylor, [1967] 1985b; Tribe, 1972. The analysts of that movement rightly argued that values are not an add-on to the policy process, but are intrinsic to the very purpose and subject matter of the profession. Some critical analysts have translated this critique into imaginative programs of value-critical, interpretive policy analysis (Fischer, 1980; Rein, 1976; Stone, 1997).
The moral program that is implicit in the interpretive, constructivist approach should be highly relevant to the prospects of an interpretive form of policy analysis. Yet, the intrinsically normative nature of policy analysis raises difficult issues for the interpretive analyst. For, if the goal of policy analysis is to improve the quality and outcome of political decision making (Human Dignity for All!), then this goal extends by implication to whatever interpretive method the analyst applies in analyzing a specific policy. This then raises a number of further issues and challenges, such as the place and nature of knowledge in policy making, the practical, action-oriented nature of policy making, the position of the analyst in the institutional house of public policy making, the relation between policy making and democracy, and the relation of the analyst to the object of analysis. Clearly, these issues cannot be evaded by the stock phrase that policy analysis is an applied science, implying that the analyst is nothing more than a neutral scientific professional who supplies objective, academically credentialed knowledge to political decision makers. I will return to many of these issues in the final chapter of this book.
The opposite position, that the analyst is a critical voice for the downtrodden, outside the apparatus of government, I also consider somewhat of a cop out. Don’t get me wrong: promoter of social justice and amplifier of the voice of the powerless are important roles for policy analysts to play (Forester, 1999b; Greenwood & Levin, 1998; Reardon, 2000). In chapter 8, “Dialogical Meaning,” I will discuss a number of approaches in which the value of democratic equality is central to both the goal and the organization of the analytical work. But even in our decentered networks of governance, government institutions play a key role in public policy making, and if analysts want their critical analyses to have any influence with public officials, they eventually will have to converse with them (as is readily acknowledged in the dialogical approaches in chapter 8). In fact, as we will see in the next chapter, both conceptually and institutionally, interpretive analysis forms an integral part of the political-administrative institutions of liberal democracy. In addition, the origin of interpretive policy analysis as a critique of the hidden ideological quality of traditional analysis places a particular responsibility on the shoulders of interpretive analysts to live up to the critical, reflexive ambitions of their approach. One of the main arguments of this book, an argument that I will begin to develop in chapter 5, is that the design of interpretive policy analysis should not only reflect these circumstances, but address them head-on. Unraveling some of the thorny philosophical and ethical issues involved here is one of the purposes of this book.


This is not the last of the obstacles to grasping interpretive policy analysis. Even if we are comfortable with the normative, emancipatory stance of interpretive policy analysis, we still haven’t reached dry ground. For, once we venture past the introductory pages of the standard text on interpretive social research, we suddenly find ourselves in an intellectual landscape that is downright bewildering. First, interpretive policy analysis is not one but many approaches. Labels such as frame analysis, ethnomethodology, discourse analysis (with subdivisions named after its various proponents: Foucault, Laclau and Mouffe, Potter, Fairclough, Gee), narrative analysis, genealogical analysis, hermeneutics (with or without the adjective “philosophical”), phenomenology, structuralism and poststructuralism, and practice theory indicate an enormous variety of approaches to interpretation in social research. In addition, these approaches differ not only with regard to the object or method of analysis, but also in their philosophical assumptions. These assumptions concern a range of epistemological and even ontological issues—the nature of political reality, the role of language in our grasp of the world, the place of values in the constitution of political reality, the meaning of meaning, the position of the interpretive analyst versus his object of analysis, the relation between acting and knowing, or the balance between structure (and determination) and agency (or freedom to act)—each one of which is enough to awe a professional philosopher, let alone the graduate student who feels attracted to interpretive approaches in policy ...

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