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How not to write a public policy article (combining theory & empirical study)*

There is no ‘general theory’ of public policy.

No theory can help explain or describe all of the details, of decisions and events, in a case study.

All theories have gaps and flaws.

So, what do we do about it?

The simplest strategy is to adopt a well-established theory (some examples here), get to know it in great detail, describe its literature comprehensively, and show how its insights help explain something important. You’d get a decent PhD from this approach and could, I think, build a solid academic career by keeping things this simple.

The alternative is to be more ambitious, to seek to make your mark on policy theory. In this case, it’s hard to say how to do it, but it is important to stress what not to do:

  1. Assert that existing theories should be rejected without demonstrating an inside-out knowledge of them.
  2. Propose a new hybrid theory without explaining its original elements or describing how the new study can be compared to the old.
  3. Build an argument for a new theory on the insights from one case study (not to be confused with scholars using cases as illustrative examples, to help give form to abstract concepts).

I say that as someone who: (a) reads 10-20 journal article submissions per year and sees the same combination of these three mistakes, and (b) reviews collections of articles, often struggling to see how they relate to each other, even when they claim to represent the same theory.

What I see is a tendency for scholars to underplay the importance of the old/ established literature and overreach when making claims for their new approach. Then, they provide a detailed case study, with elements not explained by the old theory, to justify the new.

I guess the driver is an incentive in academia that produces unintended consequences. When starting out as academics we soon get the sense that we need to establish our academic credentials by showing how we provide ‘added value’ to knowledge. So:

Who wants to read an article from someone who is just diligent and competent, can explain a theory in depth, and demonstrate its ability to help you ask the right questions and answer them well? I do.

Wouldn’t you rather read about a brand new theory that sweeps aside everything that came before? Usually, no. Not unless you can demonstrate its added value in a systematic way, rather than simply saying that other relevant theories fail to explain something and are flawed. There is no ‘general theory’ of public policy that explains everything. No theory can help explain or describe all of the details, of decisions and events, in a case study. All theories have gaps and flaws. So, building a new theory primarily on the back of the flaws of an old one shouldn’t really impress anyone.


*in my humble/ grumpy opinion/ Other opinions are available


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