Policy Analysis in 750 words: Robbie Shilliam (2021) Decolonizing Politics

Please see the Policy Analysis in 750 words series overview before reading this summary. See also: Policy Analysis in 750 words: Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies

‘Political science remains indebted to approaches, debates, and categories that emerged to make sense of the challenges that imperial centers faced in ruling over the colonial margins that they had created’ (Shilliam, 2021: 3)

Shilliam (2018: 18) aims to ‘decolonize the academic study of politics’, partly by identifying the historic impact of Western imperialism (including the violence to centre one world or perspective) and colonialism (including ways to govern marginalised populations) on how we still think about politics. These legacies have helped to set limits on whose perspectives matter in political research and whose written knowledge we have treated as canonical (the sacred sources that we treat as foundational to our approach).

I would summarise part of Shilliam’s approach as follows:

First, ask: which sources are treated as canon in my field, and why?

Second, identify the political context in which that work was produced, re-engaging with conventional accounts of key texts.

Third, identify the legacy of past choices. For example, what limits do conventional accounts of key sources place on our understanding of political research? Whose knowledge and voices matter in these accounts? Whose knowledge is diminished and whose voices went unheard? What has been said, and what remains unsaid?

Shilliam’s examples include:

  • Political theory. The usual story of Aristotle helps to downplay – for example –  the limits on who would be treated as citizens entitled to deliberate and pursue ‘the good life’. The Enlightenment also took place at a time of imperialism and an assumption that only some humans were ‘properly human’ (2021: 21),
  • The study of political behaviour emerged during concern about the forms of social mixing (such as between races) that could undermine ‘democracy’.
  • Comparative politics developed during and after the Cold War, focusing on the acknowledgement of difference (as a basis for comparison) but also a belief that some differences should be discouraged (such as in the battle to ensure that decolonised states became liberal democracies, not communist).
  • Strands of international relations have focused on how to deal with international anarchy via globalised orders overseen by elites.

What is the relevance to the study of policy analysis?

We can tell a similar story about the development of post-war (US and UK) policy analysis, although ‘mainstream’ and critical/ interpretive accounts may tell it in different ways.  

On the one hand, both reject old stories of ‘rationalist’ policymaking which romanticised the idea of a centralised and exclusive policy process, where elite professional analysts translated the highest quality science to produce the correct diagnosis of a problem and an optimal solution (see Radin and Thissen/Walker).

On the other, note the potential for different take-home messages relating to their treatment of wider context:

  1. Rejecting the description or prescription? Mainstream approaches seek more accurate accounts of the policy processes in which analysts engage (e.g. 1000 series). Critical approaches also reject the ideal, or the assertion that policy analysis could or should be a depoliticised process driven primarily by experts and scientific evidence. Defining problems and establishing the feasibility of solutions is inevitably a political process and it should be based on citizen and stakeholder participation and deliberation, including steps to include marginalised groups.
  2. Rejecting rationalism in political science? ‘Mainstream’ tends to describe the largely-US ‘positivist’ approaches that also tend to dominate political science. Critical or interpretive approaches are not ‘canon’ in mainstream policy theory journals (such as Policy Studies Journal) or the influential Theories of the Policy Process series.

Decolonizing methodologies?

For example, to be included in TOTPP2:

‘Each framework must do a reasonably good job of meeting the criteria of a scientific theory; that is, its concepts and propositions must be relatively clear and internally consistent, it must identify clear causal drivers, it must give rise to falsifiable hypotheses, and it must be fairly broad in scope (i.e., apply to most of the policy process in a variety of political systems) … Each framework must be a positive theory seeking to explain much of the policy process. The theoretical framework may also contain some explicitly normative elements, but these are not required’ (Sabatier, 2007: 8).

This description – of what methods to gather knowledge should be included – should seem familiar if you read Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012), who describes:

  1. The exercise of power to determine whole rules – about knowledge and how to gather and use it – matter in research, and
  2. How scientific research (in the ‘European Enlightenment’ mould) went hand in hand with colonialism, to the extent that “the term ‘research’ is inextricably linked to European imperialism and colonialism” (2012: 1; 21-6).

Consequently, while it is relatively straightforward to consider (1) how we might share insights from knowledge based on mainstream or interpretive approaches, it is harder to (2) reconcile what each approach may represent in a wider political context. 

For example, mainstream accounts focus primarily on explanation, with normative issues an optional extra.

In contrast, critical accounts:

  1. Come with an explicit commitment to emancipation or social justice in relation to research (challenging the idea that scientific knowledge trumps all others) and politics (fostering more inclusive, participatory, deliberative approaches to knowledge gathering and use), and
  2. May see a challenge to the dominance of positivist approaches as part of that project.

If so, could scholars from each approach really share insights at a superficial level while ignoring the wider political context that underpins anything they discuss?

Other relevant posts:

Many posts in this (and other) series could be usefully read together, including:

Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) Decolonizing Methodologies 

Policy Analysis in 750 Words: policy analysis for marginalized groups in racialized political systems

Carol Bacchi (2009) Analysing Policy: What’s the problem represented to be? 

Who should be involved in the process of policy analysis?

Reflecting on your role as a policy analyst.

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

Policy in 500 Words: Power and Knowledge

Policy in 500 Words: Feminist Institutionalism

On the question ‘what is canon?’ see What is essential reading in policy process research? (although the workshop happened already)

See also:

The recent PAR editorial ‘Epistemic decolonization of public policy pedagogy and scholarship’ engages with a call to ‘reflect on the intrinsic whiteness, colonial legacies, and power imbalances implicit in knowledge production practices in the field of philosophy of science’.

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Filed under 750 word policy analysis, public policy, Social change

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