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Interpretive Approaches to Policy Studies: Developments, Challenges and Ways Forward

Policy Analysis
Political Methodology
Political Theory
Public Policy
Section Number
Section Chairs
Koen Bartels
University of Birmingham
Hendrik Wagenaar
Kings College London
Section Co-Chair

About 40 years ago, in the wake of the disappointing results of the Great Society evaluation programs, a number of policy scholars, including Martin Rein, Aaron Wildavsky and Frank Fischer, began to question the epistemic foundations of positivist research in policy analysis. Picking up on a general interest in non-foundational social theory (Fay, 1975; Bernstein 1978; Hawkesworth, 1988), these scholars challenged positivist research methods that promised epistemic certainty and emphasized the fact-value dichotomy, one of the cornerstones of these methods. They observed the inability of ‘facts’ to settle policy controversies (Rein, 1976). And they were receptive to the generative role of language in policy debates, foregrounding metaphor (Schön, 1993) and narrative (Roe 1994) as factors that shaped and not just represented policy issues.

Since then, interpretive approaches to policy studies have taken wing. According to a number of academic criteria, these approaches have become an established part of the vocabulary and repertoire of the policy analyst. A large repertoire of interpretive methods is now available that suits analysis of every possible policy issue. Some of these methods, such as discourse analysis, qualitative research or collaborative governance have become accepted tools in policy analytic practice. There is a dedicated journal (Critical Policy Studies) and significant conference activity (the bi-annual IPA conference, plus sections in political science and public policy conferences). There are domain-defining monographs and edited volumes (Fischer and Forester, 1993; Yanow, 1996; Bevir & Rhodes, 2003; Fischer, 2003; Hajer & Wagenaar, 2003; Glynos & Howarth, 2007), handbooks (Fischer et al., 2015; Bevir & Rhodes, 2016; Hoppe & Colebatch, 2018), and ‘methods’ books (Yanow, 2000; Wagenaar, 2011; Yanow & Schwartz-Shea, 2011; Schwartz-Shea & Yanow, 2012). Finally, a wave of recent publications seem to indicate that the field has now come of age (Fischer & Gottweis, 2012; Griggs et al., 2014; Bevir & Blakely, 2018; Boswell et al., 2019; Li & Wagenaar, 2019).

At the same time, we cannot speak of a unified field guided by a single theoretical perspective on how to study and analyse policies. Instead, these publications identify various approaches and streams that have taken the field in different directions. Wagenaar (2011) for example distinguishes between hermeneutic, discursive, and dialogical approaches, while Fischer et al. (2015) differentiate interpretive, critical, and post-structuralist perspectives. Moreover, in the last 15 years or so, the field has seen a remarkable number of significant developments, such as:

• critical discourse analysis (Farrelly et al., 2019),
• relational approaches (Bartels & Turnbull, 2019),
• integrative governance (Stout & Love, 2019),
• critical policy analysis (Fischer et al., 2015),
• conflict resolution & collaborative governance (Ansell & Gash, 2007; Laws & Forester 2015),
• action research (Bartels & Wittmayer, 2018),
• ethnographic analysis (Rhodes, 2018),
• practice theory (Cook & Wagenaar, 2012; Shove et al., 2012),
• theory and practice of deliberative democracy (Ercan et al., 2017)
• deliberative policy analysis (Li & Wagenaar, 2019; Wagenaar, forthcoming; Bartels, Li & Wagenaar, forthcoming)
• interpretive analysis of emotions (Durnovà, 2019)
• the role of scale in policy analysis (Papanastasiou, 2019)
• comparative interpretive research (Boswell et al., 2019)
• policy conflict (Dodge and Metze 2017; Wolf and Van Dooren, 2017)
• Queer Theory (Matthews et al 2019)

This Section is co-organized by Koen Bartels, Kathrin Braun, Selen Ercan, Anna Durnová, Tamara Metze and Hendrik Wagenaar. Its goal is to advance both the unity and diversity of interpretive approaches to policy studies. We invite panels and papers that represent one of the many strands or approaches in the field to focus on:

• advancing and illustrating a particular method or conceptualization;
• interpretive analysis of pressing policy issues;
• cross-fertilization between different interpretive approaches; and/or
• evaluating key advances and ambitions of the field.

In the current political and societal climate of democratic deficit, climate change, continuing discrimination of women, hostility towards refugees and migrants, rising global inequality and widespread epistemic injustice, it could not be more pressing for the field to further enhance its prominence and impact. Therefore, the Section will bring together interpretive policy analysts to take stock of the development of their field, celebrate its achievements, examine its challenges, and propose ways of moving forward.

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