Classic studies suggest that the most profound and worrying kinds of power are the hardest to observe. We often witness highly visible political battles and can use pluralist methods to identify who has material resources, how they use them, and who wins. However, key forms of power ensure that many such battles do not take place. Actors often use their resources to reinforce social attitudes and policymakers’ beliefs, to establish which issues are policy problems worthy of attention and which populations deserve government support or punishment. Key battles may not arise because not enough people think they are worthy of debate. Attention and support for debate may rise, only to be crowded out of a political agenda in which policymakers can only debate a small number of issues.
Studies of power relate these processes to the manipulation of ideas or shared beliefs under conditions of bounded rationality (see for example the NPF). Manipulation might describe some people getting other people to do things they would not otherwise do. They exploit the beliefs of people who do not know enough about the world, or themselves, to know how to identify and pursue their best interests. Or, they encourage social norms – in which we describe some behaviour as acceptable and some as deviant – which are enforced by the state (for example, via criminal justice and mental health policy), but also social groups and individuals who govern their own behaviour with reference to what they feel is expected of them (and the consequences of not living up to expectations).
Such beliefs, norms, and rules are profoundly important because they often remain unspoken and taken for granted. Indeed, some studies equate them with the social structures that appear to close off some action. If so, we may not need to identify manipulation to find unequal power relationships: strong and enduring social practices help some people win at the expense of others, by luck or design.
In practice, these more-or-less-observable forms of power co-exist and often reinforce each other:
Example 1. The control of elected office is highly skewed towards men. Male incumbency, combined with social norms about who should engage in politics and public life, signal to women that their efforts may be relatively unrewarded and routinely punished – for example, in electoral campaigns in which women face verbal and physical misogyny – and the oversupply of men in powerful positions tends to limit debates on feminist issues.
Example 2. ‘Epistemic violence’ describes the act of dismissing an individual, social group, or population by undermining the value of their knowledge or claim to knowledge. Specific discussions include: (a) the colonial West’s subjugation of colonized populations, diminishing the voice of the subaltern; (b) privileging scientific knowledge and dismissing knowledge claims via personal or shared experience; and (c) erasing the voices of women of colour from the history of women’s activism and intellectual history.
It is in this context that we can understand ‘critical’ research designed to ‘produce social change that will empower, enlighten, and emancipate’ (p51). Powerlessness can relate to the visible lack of economic material resources and factors such as the lack of opportunity to mobilise and be heard.
I’m working on a ‘show, don’t tell’ approach, leaving some of the story open to interpretation. As a result, much of the meaning of this story – and, in particular, the focus on limiting participation – depends on the audience.
For example, consider the impact of the same story on audiences primarily focused on (a) scientific evidence and policy, or (b) participation and power.
Normally, when I talk about evidence and policy, my audience is mostly people with scientific or public health backgrounds asking why do policymakers ignore scientific evidence? I am usually invited to ruffle feathers, mostly by challenging a – remarkably prevalent – narrative that goes like this:
We know what the best evidence is, since we have produced it with the best research methods (the ‘hierarchy of evidence’ argument).
We have evidence on the nature of the problem and the most effective solutions (the ‘what works’ argument).
Policymakers seems to be ignoring our evidence or failing to act proportionately (the ‘evidence-policy barriers’ argument).
Or, they cherry-pick evidence to suit their agenda (the ‘policy based evidence’ argument).
In that context, Isuggest that there are many claims to policy-relevant knowledge, policymakers have to ignore most information before making choices, and they are not in control of the policy process for which they are ostensibly in charge.
Limiting participation as a strategic aim
Then, I say to my audience that – if they are truly committed to maximising the use of scientific evidence in policy – they will need to consider how far they will go to get what they want. I use the metaphor of an ethical ladder in which each rung offers more influence in exchange for dirtier hands: tell stories and wait for opportunities, or demonise your opponents, limit participation, and humour politicians when they cherry-pick to reinforce emotional choices.
It’s ‘show don’t tell’ but I hope that the take-home point for most of the audience is that they shouldn’t focus so much on one aim – maximising the use of scientific evidence – to the detriment of other important aims, such as wider participation in politics beyond a reliance on a small number of experts. I say ‘keep your eyes on the prize’ but invite the audience to reflect on which prizes they should seek, and the trade-offs between them.
Limited participation – and ‘windows of opportunity’ – as an empirical finding
I did suggest that most policymaking happens away from the sphere of ‘exciting’ and ‘unruly’ politics. Put simply, people have to ignore almost every issue almost all of the time. Each time they focus their attention on one major issue, they must – by necessity – ignore almost all of the others.
For me, the political science story is largely about the pervasiveness of policy communities and policymaking out of the public spotlight.
The logic is as follows. Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of their responsibilities. They delegate the rest to bureaucrats at lower levels of government. Bureaucrats lack specialist knowledge, and rely on other actors for information and advice. Those actors trade information for access. In many cases, they develop effective relationships based on trust and a shared understanding of the policy problem.
Trust often comes from a sense that everyone has proven to be reliable. For example, they follow norms or the ‘rules of the game’. One classic rule is to contain disputes within the policy community when actors don’t get what they want: if you complain in public, you draw external attention and internal disapproval; if not, you are more likely to get what you want next time.
For me, this is key context in which to describe common strategic concerns:
Should you wait for a ‘window of opportunity’ for policy change? Maybe. Or, maybe it will never come because policymaking is largely insulated from view and very few issues reach the top of the policy agenda.
Should you juggle insider and outsider strategies? Yes, some groups seem to do it well and it is possible for governments and groups to be in a major standoff in one field but close contact in another. However, each group must consider why they would do so, and the trade-offs between each strategy. For example, groups excluded from one venue may engage (perhaps successfully) in ‘venue shopping’ to get attention from another. Or, they become discredited within many venues if seen as too zealous and unwilling to compromise. Insider/outsider may seem like a false dichotomy to experienced and well-resourced groups, who engage continuously, and are able to experiment with many approaches and use trial-and-error learning. It is a more pressing choice for actors who may have only one chance to get it right and do not know what to expect.
Where is the power analysis in all of this?
I rarely use the word power directly, partly because – like ‘politics’ or ‘democracy’ – it is an ambiguous term with many interpretations (see Box 3.1). People often use it without agreeing its meaning and, if it means everything, maybe it means nothing.
However, you can find many aspects of power within our discussion. For example, insider and outsider strategies relate closely to Schattschneider’s classic discussion in which powerful groups try to ‘privatise’ issues and less powerful groups try to ‘socialise’ them. Agenda setting is about using resources to make sure issues do, or do not, reach the top of the policy agenda, and most do not.
These aspects of power sometimes play out in public, when:
Actors engage in politics to turn their beliefs into policy. They form coalitions with actors who share their beliefs, and often romanticise their own cause and demonise their opponents.
Actors mobilise their resources to encourage policymakers to prioritise some forms of knowledge or evidence over others (such as by valuing scientific evidence over experiential knowledge).
They compete to identify the issues most worthy of our attention, telling stories to frame or define policy problems in ways that generate demand for their evidence.
However, they are no less important when they play out routinely:
Governments have standard operating procedures – or institutions – to prioritise some forms of evidence and some issues routinely.
Certain ideas, or ways of understanding the world and the nature of policy problems within it, becomes so dominant that they are unspoken and taken for granted as deeply held beliefs. Still, they constrain or facilitate the success of new ‘evidence based’ policy solutions.
In other words, the word ‘power’ is often hidden because the most profound forms of power often seem to be hidden.
In the context of our discussion, power comes from the ability to define some evidence as essential and other evidence as low quality or irrelevant, and therefore define some people as essential or irrelevant. It comes from defining some issues as exciting and worthy of our attention, or humdrum, specialist and only relevant to experts. It is about the subtle, unseen, and sometimes thoughtless ways in which we exercise power to harness people’s existing beliefs and dominate their attention as much as the transparent ways in which we mobilise resources to publicise issues. Therefore, to ‘maximise the use of evidence’ sounds like an innocuous collective endeavour, but it is a highly political and often hidden use of power.
In policy studies, there is a profound difference between uncertainty and ambiguity:
Uncertainty describes a lack of knowledge or a worrying lack of confidence in one’s knowledge.
Ambiguity describes the ability to entertain more than one interpretation of a policy problem.
Both concepts relate to ‘bounded rationality’: policymakers do not have the ability to process all information relevant to policy problems. Instead, they employ two kinds of shortcut:
‘Rational’. Pursuing clear goals and prioritizing certain sources of information.
‘Irrational’. Drawing on emotions, gut feelings, deeply held beliefs, and habits.
I make an artificially binary distinction, uncertain versus ambiguous, and relate it to another binary, rational versus irrational, to point out the pitfalls of focusing too much on one aspect of the policy process:
Policy actors seek to resolve uncertainty by generating more information or drawing greater attention to the available information.
Actors can try to solve uncertainty by: (a) improving the quality of evidence, and (b) making sure that there are no major gaps between the supply of and demand for evidence. Relevant debates include: what counts as good evidence?, focusing on the criteria to define scientific evidence and their relationship with other forms of knowledge (such as practitioner experience and service user feedback), and what are the barriers between supply and demand?, focusing on the need for better ways to communicate.
Policy actors seek to resolve ambiguity by focusing on one interpretation of a policy problem at the expense of another.
Actors try to solve ambiguity by exercising power to increase attention to, and support for, their favoured interpretation of a policy problem. You will find many examples of such activity spread across the 500 and 1000 words series:
A focus on reducing uncertainty gives the impression that policymaking is a technical process in which people need to produce the best evidence and deliver it to the right people at the right time.
In contrast, a focus on reducing ambiguity gives the impression of a more complicated and political process in which actors are exercising power to compete for attention and dominance of the policy agenda. Uncertainty matters, but primarily to describe the role of a complex policymaking system in which no actor truly understands where they are or how they should exercise power to maximise their success.
In the 24 other posts in this series, I know the material well and am thinking primarily about communicating it to a new audience. In this post, I would like to (a) admit my limited understanding of topics such as feminist and postcolonial studies, and concern about oversimplifying key points, but (b) set out some thoughts about the links between them and the topics I discuss on this site. I would appreciate your comments and suggestions on relevant further reading for students of public policy.
Let’s begin with a transition from two other posts: combining theories, and critical policy studies/ the NPF. Both posts raise the same basic question: what is science? This question leads to a series of concerns about the criteria we use to determine which theories are most worthy of our investment, and the extent to which social scientific criteria should emulate those in natural science.
One set of criteria, which you can find in the ‘policy shootout!’, relates to the methods and principles we might associate with some branches of natural science (and use, for example, to support astronomy but not astrology):
A theory’s methods should be explained so that they can be replicated by others.
Its concepts should be clearly defined, logically consistent, and give rise to empirically falsifiable hypotheses.
Its propositions should be as general as possible.
It should set out clearly what the causal processes are.
It should be subject to empirical testing and revision
If we were to provide a caricature of this approach, we might associate it with other explicit or implicit principles, such as:
The world exists independently of our knowledge of it, and our role is to develop theories to help us understand its properties (for example, discover its general laws).
These principles help us produce objective science: if the methods and results can be replicated, they do not depend on individual scientists.
In other words, the caricature is of a man in a white lab coat gathering knowledge of his object of study while remaining completely separate from it. Such principles are generally difficult to maintain, and relatively tricky in the study of the social world (and it seems increasingly common for one part of PhD training to relate to reflexivity – see what is our role in social scientific research)? However, critical challenges go far beyond this point about false objectivity.
The challenge to objective science: 1. the role of emancipatory research
One aspect of feminist and postcolonial social science is to go beyond the simple rejection of the idea of objective social science: a further key (or perhaps primary) aim is to generate research with emancipatory elements. This may involve producing research questions with explicit normative elements and combining research with recommendations on social and political change.
The challenge to objective science: 2. a rejection of the dominant scientific method?
A second aspect is the challenge to the idea that one dominant conception of scientific method is correct. Instead, one might describe the scientific rules developed by one social group to the exclusion of others. This may involve historical analysis to identify the establishment of an elite white male dominance of science in the ‘West’, and the ‘Western’ dominance of science across the world.
To such scientists, a challenge to these criteria seems ridiculous: why reject the scientific principles that help us produce objective science and major social and technological advances? To their challengers, this response may reflect a desire to protect the rules associated with elite privilege, and to maintain dominance over the language we use to establish which social groups should be respected as the generators of knowledge (the recipients of prestige and funding, and perhaps the actors most influential in policy).
The challenge to objective science: 3. the democratisation of knowledge production
A third is the challenge to the idea that only well-trained scientists can produce valuable knowledge. This may involve valuing the knowledge of lived experience as a provider of new perspectives (particularly when people are in the unusual position to understand and compare their perspective and those of others). It also involves the development of new research methods and principles, combined with a political challenge to the dominance of a small number of scientific methods (for example, see rejections of the hierarchy of knowledge at which the systematic review of randomised control trials is often at the top).
Revisiting the live debate on the NPF and critical/ interpretive studies
This seems like good context for some of the debate on the NPF (see this special issue). One part of the debate may be about fundamentally different ideas about how we do research: do we adhere to specific scientific principles, or reject them in favour of a focus on, for example, generating meaning from statements and actions in particular contexts?
Another part may reflect wider political views on what these scientific principles represent (an elitist and exclusionary research agenda, whose rules reinforce existing privileges) and the role of alternative methods, in which critical policy studies may play an important part. In other words, we may be witnessing such a heated debate because critical theorists see the NPF as symbolic of attempts by some scholars to (a) reassert a politically damaging approach to academic research and (b) treat other forms of research as unscientific.
Where do we go from here?
If so, we have raised the stakes considerably. When I wrote previously about the problems of combining the insights and knowledge from different theories, it often related to the practical problems of research resources and potential for conceptual misunderstanding. Now, we face a more overt political dimension to social research and some fundamentally different understandings of its role by different social groups.
Can these understandings be reconciled, or will they remain ‘incommensurable’, in which we cannot generate agreement on the language to use to communicate research, and therefore the principles on which to compare the relative merits of approaches? I don’t know.
Initial further reading
Paying attention to this intellectual and political challenge provides a good way ‘in’ to reading that may seem relatively unfamiliar, at least for students with (a) some grounding in the policy theories I describe, and (b) looking to expand their horizons.
First, we know that policy problems do not receive policymaker attention because they are objectively important. Instead, actors compete to define issues and maximise attention to that definition. Second, we do the same when we analyse public policy: we decide which issues are worthy of study and how to define problems. Bacchi argues that the ‘conventional’ policy theorists (including Simon, Bardach, Lindblom, Wildavsky) try to ‘stand back from the policy process’ to give advice from afar, while others (including Fischer, Drysek, Majone) “recognise the analysts’ necessarily normative involvement in advice giving” (p200). Combining both points, Bacchi argues that feminists should engage in both processes – to influence how policymakers and analysts define issues – to, for example, challenge ‘constructions of problems which work to disempower women’ (p204). This is a topic (how should academics engage in the policy process) which I follow up in a study of EBPM.
For a wider discussion of feminist studies and methods, have a look at:
Fonow and Cook’s ‘pragmatic’ discussion about how to do feminist public policy research based on key principles:
‘Our original analysis of feminist approaches to social science research in women’s studies revealed some commonalities, which we articulated as guiding principles of feminist methodology: first, the necessity of continuously and reflexively attending to the significance of gender and gender asymmetry as a basic feature of all social life, including the conduct of research; second, the centrality of consciousness-raising or debunking as a specific methodological tool and as a general orientation or way of seeing; third, challenging the norm of objectivity that assumes that the subject and object of research can be separated from each other and that personal and/or grounded experiences are unscientific; fourth, concern for the ethical implications of feminist research and recognition of the exploitation of women as objects of knowledge; and finally, emphasis on the empowerment of women and transformation of patriarchal social institutions through research and research results’ (Fonow and Cook, 2005: 2213).
Lovenduski on early attempts to reinterpret political science through the lens of feminist theory/ research.
Note the links between our analysis of power/ideas and institutions as the norms and rules (informal and formal, written and unwritten) which help produce regular patterns of behaviour which benefit some and exclude others (and posts on bounded rationality, EBPM and complexity: people use simple rules to turn a complex world into manageable strategies, but to whose benefit?).
With feminist research comes a shift of focus from sex (as a primarily biological definition) and gender (as a definition based on norms and roles performed by individuals), and therefore the (ideal-type) ‘codes of masculinity and femininity’ which underpin political action and even help define which aspects of public policy are public or private. This kind of research links to box 3.3 in Understanding Public Policy (note that it relates to my discussion of Schattschneider and the privatisation/ socialisation of conflict, which he related primarily to ‘big business’).
A good way into the study of feminist activism, and to explore the fact that ‘feminism’ sums up a wide range of activity and approaches (just like, say, ‘new institutionalism’) is to read Elizabeth Evans’ The Politics of Third Wave Feminism. You might also read Evans’ discussion of method (comparing the UK and US) with my post on comparative public policy research.
Of course, another good way ‘in’ to a discussion is to begin with something really well written, thoughtful, and informative. For example, see bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody
Then see two articles which continue our theme of combining theories and insights carefully:
Kenny’s discussion of feminist institutionalism, which seems like one of many variants of new institutionalism (e.g. this phrase could be found in many discussions of new institutionalism: ‘seemingly neutral institutional processes and practices are in fact embedded in hidden norms and values, privileging certain groups over others’ – Kenny, 2007: 95) but may involve ‘questioning the very foundations and assumptions of mainstream institutional theory’. Kenny argues that few studies of new institutionalism draw on feminist research (‘there has been little dialogue between the two fields’) and, if they were to do so, may produce very different analyses of power and ‘the political’. This point reinforces the problems I describe in combining theories when we ignore the different meanings that people attach to apparently identical concepts.
So far, I provide one link between postcolonial studies and public policy, since this seems like the best way ‘in’.
Munshi and Kurian’s identify the use of ‘postcolonial filters’ to reinterpret the framing of corporate social responsibility, describing ‘the old colonial strategy of reputation management among elite publics at the expense of marginalized publics’ which reflects a ‘largely Western, top-down way of doing or managing things’. In this case, we are talking about frames as structures or dominant ways to understand the world. Actors exercise power to reinforce a particular way of thinking which benefits some at the expense of others. Munshi and Kurian describe a ‘dominant, largely Western, model of economic growth and development’ which corporations seek to protect with reference to, for example, the ‘greenwashing’ of their activities to divert attention from the extent to which ‘indigenous peoples and poorer communities in a number of developing countries “are generally the victims of environmental degradation mostly caused by resource extractive operations of MNCs in the name of global development”’ (see p516).
It is also worth noting that I have, in some ways, lumped feminism and postcolonialism together when they are separate fields with different (albeit often overlapping and often complementary) traditions. See for example Emejulu’s Beyond Feminism’s White Gaze.
Hopefully some more suggested readings will appear in the comments section …
‘Framing’ is a metaphor to describe the ways in which we understand, and use language selectively to portray, policy problems. There are many ways to describe this process in many disciplines, including communications, psychological, and sociological research. There is also more than one way to understand the metaphor.
For example, I think that most scholars describe this image (from litemind) of someone deciding which part of the world on which to focus.
However, I have also seen colleagues use this image, of a timber frame, to highlight the structure of a discussion which is crucial but often unseen and taken for granted:
Intentional framing and cognition.
The first kind of framing relates to bounded rationality or the effect of our cognitive processes on the ways in which we process information (and influence how others process information):
We use major cognitive shortcuts to turn an infinite amount of information into the ‘signals’ we perceive or pay attention to.
These cognitive processes often produce interesting conclusions, such as when (a) we place higher value on the things we own/ might lose rather than the things we don’t own/ might gain (‘prospect theory’) or (b) we value, or pay more attention to, the things with which we are most familiar and can process more easily (‘fluency’).
We often rely on other people to process and select information on our behalf.
We are susceptible to simple manipulation based on the order (or other ways) in which we process information, and the form it takes.
In that context, you can see one meaning of framing: other actors portray information selectively to influence the ways in which we see the world, or which parts of the world capture our attention (here is a simple example of wind farms).
Think about the extent to which we take for granted certain ways to understand or frame issues. We don’t begin each new discussion with reference to ‘first principles’. Instead, we discuss issues with reference to:
(a) debates that have been won and may not seem worth revisiting (imagine, for example, the ways in which ‘socialist’ policies are treated in the US)
(b) other well-established ways to understand the world which, when they seem to dominate our ways of thinking, are often described as ‘hegemonic’ or with reference to paradigms.
In such cases, the timber frame metaphor serves two purposes:
(a) we can conclude that it is difficult but not impossible to change.
(b) if it is hidden by walls, we do not see it; we often take it for granted even though we should know it exists.
Framing the social, not physical, world
These metaphors can only take us so far, because the social world does not have such easily identifiable physical structures. Instead, when we frame issues, we don’t just choose where to look; we also influence how people describe what we are looking at. Or, ‘structural’ frames relate to regular patterns of behaviour or ways of thinking which are more difficult to identify than in a building. Consequently, we do not all describe structural constraints in the same way even though, ostensibly, we are looking at the same thing.
They might get it wrong, and suffer the consequences, but it still makes sense to say that they have a choice to interpret and adapt to such ‘structural’ constraints.
Framing, power and the role of ideas
We can bring these two ideas about framing together to suggest that some actors exercise power to reinforce dominant ways to think about the world. Power is not simply about visible conflicts in which one group with greater material resources wins and another loses. It also relates to agenda setting. First, actors may exercise power to reinforce social attitudes. If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. The classic example is poverty – if most people believe that it is caused by fecklessness, what is the role of government? In such cases, power and powerlessness may relate to the (in)ability of groups to persuade the public, media and/ or government that there is a reason to make policy; a problem to be solved. In other examples, the battle may be about the extent to which issues are private (with no legitimate role for government) or public (and open to legitimate government action), including: should governments intervene in disputes between businesses and workers? Should they intervene in disputes between husbands and wives? Should they try to stop people smoking in private or public places?
Second, policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny amount of issues for which they are responsible. So, actors exercise power to keep some issues on their agenda at the expense of others. Issues on the agenda are sometimes described as ‘safe’: more attention to these issues means less attention to the imbalances of power within society.
These posts introduce you to key concepts in the study of public policy. They are all designed to turn a complex policymaking world into something simple enough to understand. Some of them focus on small parts of the system. Others present ambitious ways to explain the system as a whole. The wide range of concepts should give you a sense of a variety of studies out there, but my aim is to show you that these studies have common themes.