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What is Interpretive Policy Analysis?

Interpretive approaches to research and analysis—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.