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IPA 2009

Discourse and Power in Critical Policy Studies

When:  25-27 June 2009

Where: Kassel (Germany)

Organisers: University of Kassel


The interpretive orientation in the social sciences is a methodological perspective that has  evolved to challenge  mainstream empiricism and scientism. It is, as such, the basic cornerstone of a critical approach to policy analysis. Attentive to human subjectivity and social meaning, it places policy research in its relevant political and historical contexts. This 4th conference (following the Birmingham, Amsterdam, and Essex conferences) focused broadly on discourse and interpretive methods in critical policy analysis, with particular emphasis on the relationship of discourse to power.

Conference papers engaged one or more of the following themes:

  • Analytic and empirical case studies of discourse and power, especially in relation to policy practices, deliberation, and governance, both local and global.
  • Interpretive case studies from particular policy issue arenas, both local and global (e.g., political economy, global policy, global inequalities, gender relations, environmental policymaking, governance, bio-politics, and immigration policy).
  • Interpretive methodological issues in doing critical policy analysis (e.g., reflexivity in policy-analytic practices; issues in using new recording technologies; getting, and using, feedback from ‘informants’ evaluating software programs).
  • Clarification of interpretive approaches such as discourse analysis, narrative analysis, deliberative policy inquiry, framing, rhetoric, and metaphor.
  • The contribution of a particular theoretical or philosophical approach to policy discourse, power, and critical policy analysis, including the emerging focus on global policy.

Although the conference was open to all topic relevant to discourse and interpretation in policy oriented research, special attention was given to power through a range of substantive topics, such as participatory governance and deliberative policymaking, gender relations and cultural politics, social and political inequalities, political economy and global policy.  As a theme, discourse and power was the prominently featured in the plenary sessions and numerous panels.

Discourse refers fundamentally to historically specific systems of meaning that interpret the identities of subjects and objects. Discourse theory starts from the assumption that all actions, objects, and practices are socially meaningful and that the interpretation of these meanings is shaped by the social and political struggles in specific socio-historical contexts. Through a range of linguistic and non-linguistic materials—verbal statements, historical events, ideas, political programs, policy documents, and interviews, among others—the goal of a discourse perspective is to show how these actions and objects are interpretively constructed and what they mean for social and political interaction, as played out through organizations, institutional practices, argumentation and deliberative processes. Insofar as the discursive constitution of society is rooted in social structures and ideological practices, and thus the social tensions and political conflicts they reflect, it is always connected to the practices that constitute – naturalize, sustain, and change – basic social and political signification. Politically, such discursive practices not only construct but also support and alter specific power relationships between collective entities – classes, groups, communities, and so on – through which they are expressed. The ideological significations of these entities are generated within power relations as part of the struggle over the control of society. Discourse in politics and policymaking is thus not only an activity in a power struggle, but also a stake in it as well.

This relationship of discourse to power operates on a number of levels. On the broadest level, it involves the contest to establishment and maintains an ideologically hegemonic discourse capable of governing the basic operations—political, social and economic—of society. Toward this end, discursive analysis focuses on the discourse coalitions that develop, maintain, and manage these coalitions, as well as the counter discourses that challenge them. It also examines the ways in which these discourse become imbedded the specific institutional and organizational practices that influence more instrumentally oriented policy decision processes.

Particularly important, in this regard, is an examination of the technically-oriented expert discourses of these institutions and their relationships to the ordinary language discourses of citizens. Such discourses specify what knowledge is, who has it, as well as who is included and excluded from participation in policy deliberations. In debates and arguments about political goals and strategies, discourses will influence which items can legitimately be placed on the political or policy agenda. At the same time, academic discourses, including theoretical discourses about deliberative democracy, participatory governance, gender relations, and globalization, also compete for attention.

Because multiple social meanings co-exist, often in tension with one another, critical policy analysts ask how and why specific practices govern in particular contexts. The regular actions to which these interpretations give rise are referred to as ‘practices,’ with discourses being language, narratives and texts employed to maintain and reproduce them. Given the intersubjective nature of these relationships, interpretive methods require to investigate them. As such, they were featured in the conference program in two ways. First, and most generally, the focus was on the range of innovative methods and research strategies that have emerged to challenge mainstream neo-positivist and empiricist approaches to social scientific inquiry. Such approaches emphasize the role of reflexivity and subjectivity in the analysis of social and political processes. Some focus on the role of self-interpretations or the beliefs and desires of individual agents; others emphasize the subjective dimension as a factor in explaining policy change; and yet others have turned to discourse theory and rhetorical analysis to critically analyze policy processes and their outcomes. Underlying these considerations is also the more fundamental question of the relationship of interpretive methods to quantitative investigation and how they might be productively integrated in the research process.

Second, and more specifically, the organizers were looking for presentations that explore these issues in terms of the relationship of discourse and discursive practices in the exercise of power. Interpretation plays an especially important role in the analysis of power. With the exception of military interventions and police actions, power in modern societies usually does not present itself in visible form. It is lodged in official routines, institutional practices, various forms of expertise, or symbolic references and, as such, seldom directly available to the empirical observer. Power can typically only be inferred by gathering related pieces of information and interpretively drawing inferences about it. How is that done by both social actors and social researcher? And how does discourse and power shape and influence these processes?

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 Dvora Yanow, Maarten Hajer, Henk Wagenaar, Frank Fischer, Jacob Torfing, and Navdeep Mathur.

Keynote speakers

Mary E. Hawkesworth
Ngai-Ling Sum
Bob Jessop
John Dryzek


Christoph Scherrer
Helen Schwenken
Christian Möllmann
Frank Fischer