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3rd International Conference in Interpretive Policy Analysis

When: 19-21 June 2008

Where: Essex (UK)

Organisation: University of Essex


Interpretivism today comes in many shapes and sizes. It is a broad church that challenges mainstream positivism and scientism in the name of a methodological pluralism that is sensitive to meaning, historical context, and the importance of human subjectivity. Following two successful conferences in Birmingham, UK (2006) and Amsterdam (2007), the Third International Conference in ‘Interpretive Policy Analysis’ was held at the University of Essex on 19-21 June 2008. This conference focused on the relationship between governance, democracy, and critical policy analysis, as well as methodological and practical research issues in the interpretive tradition. These themes were particularly evident in the plenary sessions, which were focused on new forms of governance and their impact on various modes of policymaking, rethinking the theory and practice of democracy, and debating different methods of interpretation and critical explanation.

The relationship between governance, democracy, and critical policy analysis raises a host of interesting questions. Consider the precise character and configuration of new forms of governance and their impact on policymaking. How can we characterize new forms of governance today? What is decentered governance? What is the relationship between governance and issues of representation, deliberation and novel forms of political engagement? How can we explain and evaluate the rise of network governance? At the same time, new issues pertaining to the environment, bio-politics, security, multiculturalism, and so on, pose important challenges to the articulation and evaluation of policies. How are issues of risk and novelty factored into our understandings of policy change? What is the role of performativity and engagement in policymaking and democratic governance? Do new forms of governance suffer a democratic deficit? In short, a range of new issues and problems have led to a questioning of traditional models of government, administration and policy-making.

It is clear, then, that the issue of democracy and democratization is a pressing issue in the present. Not only are there worries about a growing democratic deficit, but there is much talk about democratizing policymaking and governance today. How do different models of democracy impact on critical policy analysis? What are the similarities and differences between aggregative, discursive, and agonistic conceptions of democracy? How do these accounts of democracy speak to issues of representation, participation, and conflict in modern societies? What is radical democracy? Do critical models of democracy suffer from an institutional and policymaking deficit? What is the relationship between normative/evaluative and descriptive/explanatory research in this field? How does one think about democracy, policymaking and public spaces? In short, the issue of democracy not only raises a crucial set of normative, evaluative and explanatory issues in conducting policy analysis, but it also poses questions about the role of the interpretive researcher and practitioner and their community.

An equally important set of methodological issues is posed by new forms of democratic governance, especially in the interpretive tradition. Interpretivists have elaborated a range of innovative methods and research techniques to challenge mainstream positivism and unthinking quantitative approaches. They have also stressed the role of reflexivity and subjectivity in the process of conducting research and analyzing social processes. Yet, there is still a range of approaches that are compatible with the interpretivist outlook. Some stress the role of self-interpretations or focus exclusively on the beliefs and desires of individual agents; others emphasize the role of mechanisms in explaining policy change; yet others have developed the role of logics, discourse theory and rhetorical analysis to critically explain policy processes and specific outcomes. What is the difference between self-interpretations, mechanisms and logics? What is the relationship between qualitative and quantitative methods? What new qualitative approaches and methodologies are becoming available for interpretive policy analysis?

Conference papers engaged the following themes:

  • The contribution of a particular theoretical or philosophical approach to critical policy analysis (e.g., pragmatism, hermeneutics, post-structuralism)
  • Clarification of approaches in use (e.g., varieties of discourse analysis or narrative analyses; the role of rhetoric and metaphor)
  • Case studies from particular policy issue arenas (e.g., the new challenges of environmental politics and policymaking; bio-politics; local governance; asylum or immigration policy; food policy; urban and regional planning)
  • Methodological issues in doing critical policy analysis (e.g., reflexivity in policy analytic practices; getting, and using, feedback from ‘informants’; issues in using new recording technologies; evaluating software programmes)
  • The relationship between policy analytic practices and democratic and/or other theories of governance
  • Interpretive perspectives on key topics (e.g., community conflict resolution practices; policy evaluation; leadership; network organizations; other public management questions)

The conference organizers welcomed individual papers; full panels (with papers); and roundtables (focused on discussion of a common theme rather than the formal presentation of papers). Some of the sessions were devoted to methodological workshops. The methodology workshops were facilitated by early career researchers, and the discussants were established and renowned names in the field of interpretative policy analysis, such as Frank Fischer, Maarten Hajer, Navdeep Mathur, Jacob Torfing, Henk Wagenaar.

Keynote speakers

Professor Jean Hillier (University of Newcastle, UK)
Professor Ernesto Laclau (University of Essex, UK/Northwestern University, US)
Professor Eva Sørensen (Roskilde University, Denmark)
Professor Keith Topper (Northwestern University, US)
Professor Mark Warren (University of British Columbia, Canada)


David Howarth
Aletta J. Norval