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IPA 2007

Interpretation in Policy Analysis: Research & Practice

When: 31 May – 2 JUNE 2007

Where: Amsterdam (Netherlands)

Organisation: Free University and University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam


Although new labels come and go, the interpretive tradition has by now established itself in such a way as to inform a broad and growing community of scholars in fields such as public policy, organizational studies, political science, conflict resolution, and public administration. Influenced by the “interpretive turn” in the social sciences during the latter half of the 20th century, interpretive policy analytic approaches draw on a broad spectrum of philosophical and analytic inquiries, among them phenomenology, hermeneutics, critical theory, symbolic interactionism, pragmatism, and ethnomethodology, plus methods analyzing discourse, rhetoric, frames, the fact-value distinction, categories, metaphors, and so on.  They offer an alternative to more positivistically-informed analytic tools such as survey research, regression and cost-benefit analyses.   Interestingly, we have recently seen many successful ‘crossovers’ in which scholars from different fields have collaborated in searching for a new agenda. ‘Deliberative democracy’ has met ‘Dispute resolution,’ for example, and many public policy scholars have also become acquainted with the work of the STS (Science, Technology, and Society) and Science Studies communities.  These cross-epistemic community interactions are further evidence of the solidity of interpretive approaches within the practice-oriented social sciences, and they raise possibilities for new research agendas. Yet a word of caution is needed. Our creativity in finding new concepts (narrative, discourse, more recently ‘performance’ and ‘performativity’) could also lead to a proliferation of ‘fresh starts.’  We might thereby run the risky of forgetting, first, that the various concepts and approaches under the broad interpretive umbrella share a set of underlying ontological and epistemological assumptions, and, second, that the ‘added value’ of new concepts needs to be rigorously interrogated.  Arguing from a position of confidence, these risks can be avoided; we can, and should, be precise about how new sets of questions emerge and also about how this builds upon established scholarship(s).  Of course, new questions are often informed by new societal developments that raise our awareness of new ways of thinking; but this is something that needs to be addressed explicitly.  Work in interpretive policy analysis has drawn explicit attention to the ways in which ontological and epistemological presuppositions, particularly those of a positivist hue, have shaped public policy research, public administration, and management without this influence itself being addressed explicitly in the research agenda.  Reflexivity on ways of knowing and analyzing is central to interpretive approaches, which also call on all researchers and practitioners to be more reflective in their theorizing and analytic practices. What might all of this mean for our work nowadays? Is there, or can we create, a stable set of assumptions that informs our work?  How do public policy scholars deal with their role in society?  How do we relate to the political, and what analysis of the context of our research should we keep in mind while striving for superior scholarship?

In the 2007 Amsterdam Conference on Interpretation in Policy Analysis, we took the solid existence of interpretive scholarship as our foundational ‘given,’ and from that starting point we wished to explore the advances that had been made in that scholarship and the possibilities for a research agenda for the years to come. This included, for example, a consideration of the way in which interpretation in policy analysis now impacts on social and political developments, the role of the analyst, and emerging relationships between scholarly and practitioner communities.  Building on the first conference held in Birmingham, UK in June 2006, the Amsterdam conference was intended to further establish the parameters of interpretive policy analysis and its practice, as well as the community of researchers and practitioners engaged in such analysis. Conference papers engaged one or more of the following:

  • the contribution of a particular theoretical or philosophical approach to policy analysis (e.g., pragmatism)
  • clarification of approaches in use (e.g., varieties of discourse analysis or narrative analyses)
  • case studies from particular policy issue arenas (e.g., local governance; asylum or immigration policy; food policy)
  • methodological issues in doing interpretive policy analysis (e.g., reflexivity in policy analytic practices; getting, and using, feedback from ‘informants’; issues in using new recording technologies; evaluating software programs)
  • the relationship between policy analytic practices and deliberative democracy 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 proposals for: individual papers; full panels (with papers); and roundtables focused on discussion of a common theme (rather than the formal presentation of papers).  In addition, several of the sessions were devoted to methodological and/or doctoral student workshops, on the model of a “Master Class” as used in musical instrument studies.


Prof. Dvora Yanow

Prof. Maarten Hajer