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What is Interpretive Policy Analysis?

Interpretive approaches to research and analysis of policies and policy processes —methodologies and methods concerned with situated meaning(s), historical context(s), and the importance of human subjectivity—are experiencing renewed interest and revitalisation in the social sciences broadly. They constitute the basic cornerstone of a critical approach to policy analysis which challenges the positivism and scientism that still characterize much policy analytic research.

Interpretive policy analysis start from the assumption that policies and policy processes do not address ‘real’ societal problems in a planned, rational and coherent way. Instead interpretive policy analysis rests on the presupposition that the societal issues that are addressed in policymaking have different meanings for different groups of people. The engagement with these situated meanings, and how those meanings – often plural, at times clashing – are enacted, lies at the heart of interpretive policy analysis. This leads interpretive policy analysts to ask questions that are often not addressed in other approaches, such as how the different perspectives that people have on an issue affect what they see, how they see it, and how they act with respect to it, as well as the intended and unintended consequences that their perspectives and associated actions may have on others. Interpretive policy analysis thereby gives insight into dimensions of knowledge, lived experience, and power that often remain hidden in other approaches. Some interpretive policy analysts move beyond explanation and engage in an intervention of some sort intended to improve the situation being studied, for example for marginalised actors.

Origen and historical development

About 40 years ago, in the wake of the disappointing results of the Great Society evaluation programs, a number of policy scholars, including Donald Schon, Martin Rein and Aaron Wildavsky, 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). 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 – such as discourse analysis, frame analysis, narrative research, metaphor analysis, category analysis, practice based approaches or collaborative governance – is now available that suits analysis of every possible policy issue. Some of these methods have become accepted tools in policy analytic practice. There is a dedicated journal (Critical Policy Studies) and significant conference activity. There are domain-defining monographs and edited volumes, handbooks, and ‘methods’ books. Finally, a wave of recent publications seem to indicate that the field has now come of age (see Resources).

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.

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 Interpretive Analysis Network aims to offer a forum for interpretive policy analysts to share knowledge, information, skills and experience and functions as a communication and support network between members and institutions sharing similar aspirations and challenges.