Darren Halpin and I are working on a paper about ‘brand stretching’ (his phrase) in policy studies. It might begin like this:
“Baumgartner and Jones’ (1993) Agendas and Instability has become one of the most influential accounts of the policy process. They explain, in a convincing way, why stable political arrangements and policy continuity may be disrupted by often-sudden instability and potentially profound policy change. The book provides a rich study, of policymaking over several decades, to illustrate these mechanisms at work. While it contains case studies in US politics, many of the concepts it uses, and processes it identifies (such as ‘venue shopping’ and ‘framing’) can be described as ‘universal’; applicable to many (if not most) cases in the US and other countries. Indeed, Jones and Baumgartner’s (2005) Politics of Attention takes us in that direction by identifying the ‘general punctuation hypothesis’ and applying it to aggregate budget and legislative data. The US political system as a whole demonstrates these long periods of stasis and bursts of activity, producing a large number of minor policy changes and small number of major changes. Crucially, this quantitative exercise is theory driven and consistent with the original argument. It allows us to identify, systematically, these important policymaking patterns and explain why they occur. When driven by the original authors, the research agenda is clear and consistent and has stood the test of time.
However, the Policy Agendas Project has also become a multi-country, multi-author, comparative research program. Other authors examining over fifteen countries such as the US, UK, Denmark, Korea and Australia, are engaged in a comparative effort to understand the dynamics of policy change and stability. This expansion presents two major challenges. First, international brand expansion needs go hand in hand with coordination. The PAP is one of many comparative theories which originated from US studies of the US. A key question for scholars studying the political systems of other countries is: do their insights travel well? To answer the question, we need to know which aspects of US-based theories are derived from particular aspects of the US political system and which are ‘universal’ processes, concepts or causal factors broadly applicable to many systems. For example, ‘bounded rationality’ (Simon, 1976) limits the extent to which all policymakers can pay attention to issues – so they must ignore most while promoting a small number to the top of their agenda – while the processes, institutions and histories of specific political systems help explain how and why some issues are addressed and others ignored. The task for comparative policy scholars is to explore the extent to which we can separate, analytically, the universal from the specific elements and compare their effects on policy processes and outcomes. This requires a common language which is precise and clear enough to help us produce separate studies and compare them in a meaningful way.
Second, however, that coordination and common language may not always exist. While Jones and Baumgartner often play an important part in the coordination and direction of country-level studies, they also play a less direct role in the gathering, interpretation and presentation of the data. New approaches and research questions have developed, and the project appears to have taken on a life of its own. On the one hand, this is a good development – more people with their own ideas produce the potential for theoretical and empirical innovation. On the other, it produces the potential for confusion, as people start to use the original terms in different ways and/ or use ‘policy agendas’ as an umbrella term under which to pursue their own pet projects (often through separate conferences, internal codebooks, and bespoke terminology and forms of analysis). We use the phrase ‘brand-stretching’ to describe instances where the attractiveness of an original idea is used to support scholarship that, in many respects, shows increasingly tenuous links with the original.
What characterises the comparative project is the large scale collection of quantitative data sets that map the way institutions and actors – including the media, legislatures, administrative systems, and the public – prioritise attention to policy issues. Armed with code books that systematise and categorise policy areas, scholars have coded numerous aspects of policy activity in many countries. From a methodological and data perspective, the project seems to stand in stark contrast with the originating idea. In particular, we identify a tendency for quantitative data to be gathered without the same theory-driven approach. New authors may identify interesting patterns of behaviour or outcomes without demonstrating the same understanding of the policy process and what causes these outcomes. They may introduce the research and data without even showing a working knowledge of the original punctuated equilibrium concepts. In this context, we identify the potential for new work in comparative politics to undermine existing work in policy studies. For example, a comparative politics study may be set up on the assumption that the primary source of variation is by country rather than by policy area or issue.
Brand-stretching is not specific to the policy agendas project. Rather, it is a general unintended consequence of major theories ‘catching fire’ and (a) attracting the attention of a large group of scholars (b) in multiple countries, or (c) seeking to apply the same concept to many countries. For example, Poteete et al’s (2010) Working Together considers how to coordinate multiple research projects on the Institutional Analysis and Development framework (IAD), and Weible et al’s (2009) ‘Taking Stock’ considers how the Advocacy Coalition Framework (ACF) has changed after its application in over 80 studies.
We use this comparative theory-expansion experience to perform a similar ‘stock taking’ exercise for the comparative agendas project (CAP). First, we summarise the Baumgartner and Jones policy agendas project (PAP), identifying its main features: focus, concepts, methods, and findings. Second, we summarise the CAP and compare it to the original, considering the extent to which the original brand has been stretched. Third, we identify the main ways in which other theory/ project leaders have dealt with the potential for brand stretching – and apply these insights to the CAP”.
Hopefully it reads as a positive-but-concerned discussion – as a way to help protect the classics. Poteete et al provide a much more extensive discussion of this issue when discussing the management of the IAD.