Policy Concepts in 1000 words: Critical Policy Studies and the Narrative Policy Framework

(podcast download)

‘Critical policy analysis’ (or studies’) is a broad term to describe a wide collection of texts, and it is difficult to come up with a definitive account, beyond the idea that it is perhaps based on the equally broad description ‘post-positivism’ and methods such as discourse analysis (also note the phrase ‘argumentative turn’). However, a discussion of ‘post-positivism’ is incredibly valuable even if you wouldn’t see yourself as post-positivist.

One key account of the intellectual basis of this literature is by Fischer when he describes the failings of ‘positivist’ policy sciences to describe, aid and explain policymaking (at least if measured against certain, rather unrealistic, hopes). In particular, he takes to task the idea of objective science in which we can separate facts from values and accumulate knowledge using scientific tenets such as hypothesis generation, revision and falsification. This argument ties in to one of the big questions about the nature of the world and the extent to which it exists independently of our knowledge or experience of it. Fischer stresses the social context in which knowledge is produced, to argue that scientists do not produce what can meaningfully be called ‘objective truth’. Instead, they are part of communities which produce knowledge according to rules, and that some professions, following particular rules, receive more respect than others in a notional hierarchy of knowledge production. This shifts our focus to the idea of ‘interpreting’ the social world rather than uncovering its truths, and provides a case for considering the value of many (often less respected) approaches even if they do not follow the same ‘positivist’ rules.

This is an important conclusion when we consider that many of the theories discussed in the ‘1000 word’ series would be described by Fischer as ‘positivist’. In particular, debates between Fischer and Paul Sabatier (the ACF) were based largely on their very-different views about how you do science and which approaches deserve support in published academic texts.

On that basis, the Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) is interesting because a key aim is to take insights from critical policy analysis, about the importance of interpreting and framing the world, and use them to produce work that would satisfy the kinds of scientific requirements associated with Sabatier. They argue that, although the study of policy ‘narratives’ (often using discourse analysis) is associated strongly with post-positivist scholarship, they can be examined in a ‘systematic empirical manner’ – and that the study of narratives can be an important way to hep reconcile (to some extent) positivist/ post-positivist studies.

The NPF seeks to measure how narratives are used in policymaking. Narratives are stylized accounts of the origins, aims, and likely impacts of policies. They are used strategically to reinforce or oppose policy measures. Narratives have a setting, characters, plot, and moral. They can be compared to marketing, as persuasion based more on appealing to an audience’s beliefs than on the ‘facts’. People will pay attention to certain narratives because they are boundedly rational, seeking shortcuts to gather sufficient information, and prone to accept simple stories that confirm their biases, exploit their emotions, and/or come from a source they trust.

So far, so good – as discussed, this description would not look out of place within the literature on argumentation and persuasion. There is nothing inherently post-positivist about identifying how people use information selectively to persuade people about the merits of an argument. The same might be said for discourse analysis, if we define it broadly as the study of the meaning of language, by examining the use of statements within specific contexts. It might have become associated with one philosophy, but it need not follow inevitably that one’s choice, regarding ontology and epistemology, produces an inevitable link to a particular method, or that a method can be claimed by one group of scholars.

Nevertheless, this topic raises the problem about how we combine the insights of policy studies when they may be produced by people with fundamentally different (and potentially ‘incommensurable’) ways of understanding, describing, and seeking to explain the world. Two different scholars may study narratives, and even draw on a form of discourse analysis, but see their task very differently, and find it difficult to produce a common language (beyond the superficial) to determine the meaning and significance of their results. One might see themselves as the purveyor of value-free knowledge to settle policy debates, while another may describe socially constructed knowledge used to aid deliberation. These kinds of debates may seem exaggerated or artificial (particularly in relation to the way I just described a form of naïve empiricism that may not be practiced by many scholars), but we should not ignore them completely.

In my opinion, this discussion is crucial even if you end up rejecting critical policy analysis as an important way of seeing and researching the world. It should makes you pause and reflect about how you understand the world and re-examine the assumptions you make when you engage in research.

See also: Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Combining Theories

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Critical Policy Studies


Filed under 1000 words, public policy

11 responses to “Policy Concepts in 1000 words: Critical Policy Studies and the Narrative Policy Framework

  1. Great summary, thanks Paul. There’s a great reflection on narrative policy analysis in the back of Emery Roe’s book of the same name, where he points out that while the method is worthwhile, one has to be careful how to present it…especially to officials and practitioners who may find analysis grounded in literary theory a bit exotic.

    Of course, narratives are a more familiar concept nowadays, and civil servants write narratives for ministers to sit alongside new policy documents. However, the advice about knowing your audience remains good, especially when the methods contain assumptions which are fundamentally challenging to many.

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