Social Construction and Policy Design

This is an updated and expanded discussion of Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: the Social Construction of Target Populations . It’s the theoretical summary for a paper I’m writing with Jonathan Pierce on the (hopefully positive) future for this approach. I’ll add a post on empirical applications soon.

Policymakers articulate value judgements which underpin fundamental choices about which social groups should be treated positively or negatively by government bodies. When addressing highly politicised issues, they seek to reward ‘good’ groups with government support and punish ‘bad’ groups with sanctions (Schneider et al, 2014). This judgement is often described as ‘moral reasoning’ (Haidt, 2001) or ‘fast thinking’ (Kahneman, 2012: 20). Policymakers make quick, biased, emotional judgements, then back up their actions with selective facts to pursue their understanding of a policy problem and its solution:

Likes and dislikes are not the result of individual or collective reason and deliberation but mainly the product of emotion and heuristics … judgments begin with emotional reactions … and reason is used mainly to justify initial emotion responses (Schneider et al, 2014, drawing on Kahneman, 2012 and Haidt, 2001; 2012).

Yet, social constructions can also be based on conscious bias. Policies reflect the goal-driven use of constructions, ‘strategically manipulated for political gain … to create political opportunities and avoid political risks’ or, at least, an anxiety by politicians ‘not to be caught in opposition to prevailing values’ if it affects their performance in election (Schneider and Ingram, 1997: 6; 192). They aim to receive support from the populations they describe as ‘deserving’, as well as a wider public satisfied with describing others as ‘undeserving’ (1997: 6).

These judgements can have an enduring ‘feed-forward’ effect (Ingram et al, 2007: 112). Choices based on values are reproduced in ‘policy designs’, as the ‘content or substance of public policy’:

Policy designs are observable phenomena found in statutes, administrative guidelines, court decrees, programs, and even the practices and procedures of street level bureaucrats … [they] contain specific observable elements such as target populations (the recipients of policy benefits or burdens), goals or problems to be solved (the values to be distributed), rules (that guide or constrain action), rationales (that explain or legitimate the policy), and assumptions (logical connections that tie the other elements together) (Schneider and Ingram, 1997: 2).

Examples of feed-forward effects include policy designs: signaling that ‘elderly citizens are worthy of respect and deserving of the funds they receive’, prompting ‘a level of political participation rivaled by no other group’; introducing convoluted rules to diminish participation in areas such as housing entitlement; signaling to welfare recipients that they have themselves to blame and deserve minimal support; and, restricting voting rights directly (Schneider and Sidney, 2009: 110-11)

Policy designs based on moral choices often become routine and questioned rarely in government because they are ‘automatic rather than thought through’. Emotional assignments of ‘deservingness’ act as important ‘decision heuristics’ because this process is ‘easy to use and recall and hard to change’ (Schneider et al, 2014). They are difficult to overcome, because a sequence of previous policies, based on a particular framing of target populations, helps produce ‘hegemony’: the public, media and/ or policymakers take this set of values for granted, as normal or natural, and rarely question them when engaging in politics (Pierce et al, 2014; see also Gramsci, 1971; Bachrach and Baratz, 1970; Lukes, 2005).

This signal of limited deservingness impacts on citizens and groups, who participate more or less according to how they are characterised by government (Schneider and Ingram, 1993: 334). Only some groups have the resources to mobilise and challenge or reinforce the way they are perceived by policymakers (Schneider and Ingram, 1997: 21-4; 2005: 444; Pierce et al, 2014), or to mobilise to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy on their behalf. Some groups can be categorized differently over time, but this seems to be a non-routine outcome, at least in the absence of long term change in social attitudes, even though social constructions are – in theory – ‘inherently unstable’ (Ingram and Schneider, 2005: 10). For example, it can follow a major external event such as an economic crisis or game-changing election, exploited by ‘entrepreneurs’ to change the way that policymakers view particular groups (Ingram and Schneider, 2005: 10-11). Or, it can be prompted by policy design which, for example, is modified to suit powerful populations with spillover effects for the powerless (such as when drug treatment develops as an alternative to incarceration) (Schneider and Ingram, 2005: 639).

Ingram et al (2007: 102) depict this dynamic with a table in which there are two spectrums – one describes the positive or negative ways in which groups are portrayed by policymakers, the other describes the resources available to groups to challenge or reinforce that image – producing four categories of target population: advantaged, contenders, dependents, and deviants. The powerful and positively constructed are ‘advantaged’; the powerful and negatively constructed are ‘contenders’; the powerless and positively constructed are ‘dependents’; the powerless and negatively constructed are ‘deviants’ (Ingram et al, 2007: 102)

Schneider and Ingram (1997: 3) argue that, although the (US) political system may ‘meet some standard of fairness or openness’, the policies they produce may not be ‘conducive to democracy’. US public policies have failed to solve major problems – including inequality, poverty, crime, racism, sexism, and effective universal healthcare and education – and such policy failure contributes to the sense that the political process serves special interests at the expense of the general public (1997: 4-7). Policy designs ‘are strongly implicated in the current crisis of democracy’ because they have failed and they discourage many target populations (the ‘undeserving’, ‘deviant’, or ‘demons’) from public participation: ‘These designs send messages, teach lessons, and allocate values that exacerbate injustice, trivialize citizenship, fail to solve problems, and undermine institutional cultures that might be more supportive of democratic designs’ (1997: 5-6; 192).

Of course, although there is the unpredictable potential for issues to be politicised, many are not. Yet, low salience can exacerbate these problems of citizen exclusion. Policies dominated by bureaucratic interests often alienate citizens receiving services (1997: 79). Or, experts dominate policies (and many government agencies) when there is high scientific agreement and wider acceptance that the ‘public interest’ is served largely through the production and use of evidence. The process does not include ordinary citizens routinely. Rather, ‘experts with scientific credentials aid and abet the disappearance of the public sphere’, and this is a problem when issues ‘with important social value implications’ transform into ‘a matter of elite scientific and professional concern’ (such as when official calculations of economic activity override personal experiences) (1997: 153; 167).

Overall, they describe a political system with major potential to diminish democracy, with politicians faced with the choice of politicising issues to reward or punish populations or depoliticise issues with reference to science and objectivity, and policy designs uninformed by routine citizen participation. They describe an increasingly individualistic US system with declining rates of collective political participation (at least in elections), a tendency for actors to seek benefits for their own populations, and often ‘degenerative’ policy which produces major inequalities along sex, race, and ethnicity lines (Ingram and Schneider, 2005: 22-6).

Although SCPD began as a study of US politics, many of its concepts and insights are ‘universal’. In other words, they identify ‘policymaking issues that can arise in any time or place’ (Cairney and Jones, 2016: 38):

  1. The psychology of social construction: people make quick and emotional judgements about the populations of which they are a part, and other populations.
  2. Policymakers seek to exploit the ‘national mood’, or other indicators of social preferences, for political reward.
  3. These judgements inform policy design.
  4. Policy designs help send signals to citizens which can diminish their incentive to engage in politics.
  5. Low salience issues are often dominated by bureaucratic politics and scientific language, at a similar expense to citizen participation.

The time and place-specific nature of SCPD refers to specific social attitudes, the social construction of specific target populations (from a large list of potential constructions), and specific policy designs associated with each government.


Filed under 1000 words, public policy

2 responses to “Social Construction and Policy Design

  1. Pingback: Who are the most deserving and entitled to government benefits? | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

  2. Pingback: Why doesn’t evidence win the day in policy and policymaking? | Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

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