What Interpretive Policy Analysis Can Do

Koen Bartels, Senior Lecturer @ INLOGOV and Co-Convener ECPR Standing Group Theoretical Perspectives in Policy Analysis 

An earlier draft of this blog was posted on the blog of the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham  

What do Covid-19, salmon fishing, post-earthquake resilience, the circular economy, and internet blackout have to do with each other? They were among the wide variety of issues addressed at the virtual event ‘Interpretive Approaches to Policy Studies: Developments, Challenges and Ways Forward’ that organised by the Standing Group in collaboration with several colleagues from the Interpretive Policy Analysis (IPA) community.  

To many people, IPA is, as one newcomer mentioned at the event, a nice beer. But for us it is a well-established and compelling way of doing research. The origins of IPA are in the 1970s, when a number of policy scholars began to question the dominant way of analysing policy. Inspired by recent advances in social theory, they pointed out that ‘facts’ cannot settle policy controversies, while language was not just used to represent policy issues but to shape them along the lines of particular values, interests and agendas. Since then, IPA has developed and spread so extensively that a large repertoire of interpretive methods is now available that suits analysis of every possible policy issue. There is also a dedicated journal, significant conference activity across the world, and a huge collection of publications indicating that the field has come of age.  

The virtual event aimed to bring together the wide variety of interpretive approaches to policy studies to take stock of the development of the field, celebrate its achievements, examine its challenges, and propose ways of moving forward. Far from a self-congratulatory exercise, we did so to identify ways to approach the pressing policy issues of our time, such as climate change, continuing discrimination of women, hostility towards refugees and migrants, and rising global economic and health inequalities. In this context, panel discussions examined: 

  • how we can better understand and address policy conflict,  
  • what it means to be critical of policy,  
  • how to analyse policy discourses,  
  • in which ways we can approach ‘malign’ policies, and  
  • how action research can make IPA more transformative.   

A common thread in these discussions was that interpretive approaches reveal the underlying problems and unintended consequences of policies and identify innovative ways of addressing these. Policies are inevitably understood in different ways, ways which are bound to conflict and come with significant differences in power, values and interests. If we are unaware of this diversity in interpretations, and its impact, we are bound to get stuck or do more damage than good. As Heidrun Åm of the Norwegian University of Science & Technology aptly put it in her paper, “we need an interpretive approach that is sensitive to meaning making …, multiplicity and struggles over ideas …, seeking to understand and explain the practical bearings of specific meanings expressed and mobilized”. 

So, what can IPA do? Let’s return to the examples from the start to illustrate. By critically analysing current Covid-19 policy discourse in the UK, it can predict that health inequalities will arise from the underlying behavioural ‘nudge’ approach. By revealing how what is constituted as ‘common’ or ‘public’, it can explain why big companies have managed to prevent an ecologically sustainable system for salmon fishing in Norway from taking hold. By identifying and integrating different ‘theories of change’ together with stakeholders, it can mobilise shared reflection, responsibility and future visions for community resilience in post-earthquake areas in Italy. By problematising ‘circular economy’ policy, it can foretell that economic interests will take precedence over environmental sustainability in Victoria (Australia). And by analysing how new technologies are mobilised by those in power, it can expose how an internet blackout was used in the armed conflict in Myanmar.  

There are many other examples we could think of to illustrate the significant value of IPA for critically analysing the complex policy issues of our age. The Standing Group invites you to join us as we move forward with addressing these, together finding answers to some of the pressing conceptual, methodological and practical questions that we now face: How can we go beyond thinking of policy conflict as an escalation that needs to be resolved by creating consensus? How can we critically reconstruct policies to address ‘meta-changes’? And how should we conceptualise and inspire transformative policy change?  

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