Relational Approaches to Policy Analysis: Knowing, Intervening and Transforming in a Precarious World
Endorsed by the ECPR Standing Group on Theoretical Perspectives in Policy Analysis
The Interpretive Turn (Fischer and Forester, 1993; Wagenaar, 2011) has introduced hermeneutic and discursive methods in the analysis of public policy. Approaches such as narrative analysis, frame analysis, governmentality, Critical Discourse Analysis and poststructuralist political theory are increasingly common in the discipline and practice of policy studies. These foster a politically and socially relevant policy analysis that is both appreciative and critical of daily policy practice and the argumentative and discursive processes that constitute it.
Of these, a ‘second wave’ of interpretive approaches is distinctive in incorporating anti-dualist or relational elements. Examples are practice theory (Shove et. al, 2013; Nicolini, 2013; Schatzki et al., 2001; Cook and Wagenaar, 2012), process philosophy (Stout & Love, 2015), critical pragmatism (Forester, 2013; Healey, 2007; Griggs et al., 2014, Ansell, 2011), collaborative governance (Ansell and Gash, 2008; Innes and Booher, 2011), discursive institutionalism (Carstensen 2015), the strategic-relational approach (Jessop, 2005) and co-production and action research (Reason, 1988; Bartels & Wittmayer, 2014). At the same time, the relational element within this body of research has not been fully articulated. Drawing on ideas from the new relational sociology (Emirbayer 1997) would contribute to developing this dimension of policy research by contributing to a more fully-fledged relational policy analysis, with the potential to integrate interpretive, constructivist and other new institutionalist theories of policymaking.
Although seemingly disparate and originating in different philosophical traditions, these approaches share a number of ontological and epistemological principles that set them apart from first-generation interpretive policy analysis:
• Relational approaches attempt to overcome the traditional dualisms of social and political science (structure vs. agency, knowing vs. acting, human vs. material) by conceiving of the world in terms of ongoing events and dynamic processes generated by recursively related elements (e.g. while action is shaped by structure, structure is reproduced trough action).
• Ontologically our world is a world of becoming. It is open-ended, complex and unpredictable. Therefore, strong control is a misguided ideal; harnessing complexity is a more realistically prospect.
• Knowledge is not aimed at finality and (intellectual or physical) control. Knowledge is fundamentally bilateral, dialogical, and provisional). It aims as much at shared understanding as at joint transformation.
• We know the world by acting on it. In the epistemology of anti-dualism knowledge is performative. Relational approaches do not play down the importance of language, but they emphasize the primacy of practice, and the way that practice mediates language and vice versa. Intervening, knowing, learning and transformation are inextricably linked in practice and inquiry.
• Experience is central in our dealings with the world. Experience is not an individual feeling, but instead a web of relations that ties individuals into the world. In relational approaches there is a fundamental awareness that we are inescapably woven into ecological and social webs.
• Materiality is central. Things, technologies the stuff the word is made of, are repositories of understandings, competences, meaning and traditions. They make our actions possible, and constrain and afford them, by structuring them but also by resisting our interventions.
• In their emphasis on joint acting, warranted assertability (exposure to recalcitrant experience), the fusion of practical and moral judgment, and the importance of open, deliberative forums, relational approaches bring out the ‘intelligence of democracy’.
Relational, non-dualist approaches to policy analysis are important in addressing some of the most vexing issues of our age. A central feature of relational approaches to policy analysis is that they operate in close interaction with the everyday world of public policy and the society. This is especially important in a world that is characterized by dynamic complexity, urgency and unpredictability. Problems such as climate change, migration, the erosion of democracy and the ascent of relatively successful non-democratic forms of governance, the difficulty of transnational governance, mass surveillance and the demise of privacy, the governance of pluralist and conflicted urban spaces, and massive private and national debt, are not only beyond the pale of traditional policy approaches and instruments but also do not have much margin for error nor allow for procrastination. While diagnoses of the antecedents of these issues abound, we lack a framework that ties critical analyses to a clear and consistent conceptual vision that inspires practical transformations. We believe that relational approaches to policy analysis promise to take us in this direction.
Last year, this Section attracted a great amount of interest and stirred up a lot of debate. We had nine Panels with a total of 26 Paper presentations, an author meets critics session and a roundtable, which attracted an audience of 22 persons on average. The goal of this year’s Section is to build on the enthusiasm and insights that emerged last year. In particular, we are keen to clarify what we mean by relationality, how we use it, and what it helps us do by addressing the following issues:
• how should we understand and use a relational approach: as an analytical focus, a philosophical programme, a normative commitment, a method, ...?
• what types of relationships are there, in which settings, and to what effect?
• how does relational thinking make a difference in the world?
• how can we understand and improve relationships between researchers and practitioners?
• how can we think relationally and embody it in research and practice?
• do we have or can we develop a style or genre of writing relationally?
• how can we pitch it as a clear and policy relevant approach?
• what is the potential of a relational approach to lead us into a ‘post-control oriented’ world of policy making and analysis?
Thus, we invite scholars to propose Panels that are based on relational approaches to policy analysis and public administration. Such Panels can be organized around applications and extensions of one of the relational approaches identified above, or they can have a more theoretical character in that they explore the theoretical landscape of non-dualism in policy analysis. The overall aim is to facilitate, widen and deepen understandings of the theoretical, empirical, and methodological ways in which relational approaches to policy analysis enable us to understand, intervene in, and transform our precarious world.