What is the role of IPA in a post-truth world?

Second Virtual Community of Practice meeting for Interpretive Practitioners

By Severine van Bommel  

Prof. Frank Fischer at the CoP meeting

On Monday 7 December 2020 at 5pm AEST, 8am CET, the second meeting of the Virtual Community of Practice for Interpretive Practitioners was held. After discussing new trends in IPA in general (meeting 1), this meeting specifically focussed on the contemporary context in which Interpretive Practitioners are finding themselves as well as the specific challenges that this context presents for policy researchers that are working in an interpretive tradition. Our special guest was Prof. Frank Fischer, who kindly offered to introduce the papers and who also provided us with a short reflection on our discussion at the end of the meeting. In preparation for the meeting everyone read two publications:

  • Fischer, F., 2019. Knowledge politics and post-truth in climate denial: on the social construction of alternative facts. Critical Policy Studies, 13(2), pp.133-152.
  • Fischer, F., 2020. Post-truth politics and climate denial: further reflections. Critical Policy Studies, 14(1), pp.124-130.

Frank Fischer explained that his work on this topic came about almost accidentally when a German editor asked him to write something about Trump and fake news. When he then started thinking about this topic, he discovered that in the literature it was stated that the critics were blaming post-modernism and its social-constructivist perspective. But he couldn’t believe people such as Steve Bannon sitting around a table discussing post-modernism and then coming up with the idea of how to generate fake news and win an election. He felt that this was also distorting our understanding away from the underlying public politics that was driving this phenomenon. He also found that many of these writers in fact didn’t know much about post-modernism and post-modernism was rather used as something to pin the blame on. When he looked further into the literature, he found that it says that post-modernism has died and its parts – such as discourse – have moved to other places. He wanted to separate social constructivism from post modernism, arguing that social constructivism doesn’t belong to post modernism as it already had a life of its own earlier. He then used social constructivism as a way to discover what post modernist arguments were about and how they were constructed.

He noticed that the standard solution to fake news is to argue that we need better facts and better fact checking as a solution. He realised that this is a positivist mindset that is implicit and often explicit. When he took a closer look at the argument, he noticed that it is not the numbers perse that worried the deniers but rather their concern was about the social implications of those numbers and that the numbers often served as a proxi for something else. His original inspiration was an essay on climate denial by Naomi Klein. She went to the annual conference at which all climate deniers meet annually and she observed them almost as an anthropologist. She discovered that the worries of the deniers are not fundamentally about the facts but rather they are worried about the social and political implications of these numbers for individual freedoms, free markets and they are worried about environmental regulations more in general. She concludes that the deniers are not as irrational as generally portrayed, even if their conclusions are misguided. She compared them to the greens who raise Armageddon types of scenarios with the image of the end of civilisation as we know it and then propose green groceries and clever carbon markets as solutions. She argues that the greens are just as out of touch with reality as the deniers are and the deniers at least recognise the profound implications that climate change will have. So Frank argued that numbers get their meanings from the social contexts in which they are applied.

So he thought that this was an excellent opportunity to not only defend constructivism but also illustrate the importance of Interpretive Policy Analysis by applying it to some very worrisome modern day problems such as post-truth climate denial. He also became interested in illustrating how in the process it demonstrates Foucault’s concept of truth regimes. For Frank this also relates to our IPA/CPS community’s long term struggles with positivist social science which has tried to exclude social meanings. According to Frank it is not that numbers are unimportant but rather that they get their meaning in the policy world from social and political interpretations which are constructed in situational contexts to which they are applied and shaped in turn by dominant ideologies in play. Therefore Frank argued that the social subjective meanings that factual information carry for political participants need to be brought back into the analysis. He wanted to show that social meanings embedded in political narratives and articulated through policy arguments are crucial explanatory material. He emphasised that it is such meanings that interpretive policy analysis seeks to bring back in.

He recounted how he presented a draft of this paper at several conferences and got a positive response. One of the people present at one of the ECPR meetings was from the CPS journal and they suggested to Frank to write a special essay on this. He was now quite versed in this topic and then during a taxi ride in Brazil one of the editors of the Cambridge Elements of Public Policy asked him for a small monograph on truth and post-truth in public policy. It became clear to him that he would have to expand the book and he couldn’t just stay with this one case. He realised that there was another issue staring him right in the face and that was COVID denial. So he augmented the core climate case with the COVID denial and he argued that climate change shows that better facts and fact checking will not persuade the deniers as they are more fundamentally concerned with the way in which the data are interpreted and interpretively translated into political and social arguments than concerned with the numbers themselves. Frank Fischer noticed that the arguments for COVID were remarkably similar to the climate change arguments, namely worry about individual freedoms, too much government, regulations, etc. In the COVID case, he turned specifically to the construction of policy arguments to examine the way in which these meanings and ideological orientations are employed to interpret the meaning of factual data in the denial arguments. After looking into the data of the COVID statistics, he discovered that there is significant discussion among statisticians on social constructivism of statistics which played right into his hands. So he tried then to show how denial narratives and arguments drawn from them are politically and methodologically constructed. He then concluded by offering a few thoughts about how to deal with this phenomenon, which is not easy because there is a wall between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

After this introduction, the participants went into break-out rooms of 4-5 people to discuss the challenging questions that Frank Fischer raised. The discussions centred on three issues: the contribution of IPA to these issues, the positionality of the researcher and the role of emotions.

First of all, discussions focussed on what the specific contribution of interpretive policy analysis could be in dealing with these topics. How can social constructivism create a negotiated settlement? What mechanisms can you use to bring together two groups that are fundamentally opposed to each other? Participants noted how some of the arguments by Frank Fischer resonated with the early contribution of Schon and Rein on how to solve controversies in making arguments – or frames – more explicit. Participants used their own experiences from their own countries and contexts to reflect on what it means to have these disagreements on facts and they asked themselves how to make sense of the role of interests and the way some facts are fabricated in some of the discussions on environmental degradation. How can we deal with these fabricated facts? These discussions came down to three core questions: whose methods are valid or acceptable? Whose data is and is not acceptable to whom? Who counts and whose perspectives matter? This led to a discussion on how we as social researchers are first and foremost responsible for understanding the situation. Participants concluded that if that then leads us to understand certain mechanisms and how to intervene is another question.

Second of all, this led to a discussion on positionality of the researcher. If we accept that all these arguments are socially constructed – whether we like them or not – then where do we find our foothold if we want to make sound arguments? If relativity swept over then where would we be? What would be left? How do we give our arguments the strength to be accepted for the different audiences recognising the constructed nature of everything? Would a weak conception of constructivism offer us a way out? How would that be different from critical realism? How much do we still have to rely on a concept of truth in our work? So if, for example, a leader of a country denies certain facts about COVID and this leads to statistics no longer being published, then how do we deal with that as Interpretive Practitioners? We discussed how resolution does require some sort of a consensus on facts. We did agree that consensus on facts requires a certain amount of trust in the institution and method that produced them because we simply cannot all go out to check all facts ourselves. When trust breaks down then we get into these post truth situations. We did not agree to what extent they have some sort of a connection to a ‘hard’ reality and if this even matters.

Third of all, we discussed how emotions are tied in with all of this. We discussed the work of Nussbaum and her view that emotions have a kind of intelligence and that they involve a mix of beliefs and information. We discussed how emotions and motivated reasoning run through all of this and if and how deliberation can very often change this. If people have really entrenched themselves to the extent that it doesn’t really matter what the other side says, then would we need a fundamental crisis for people to overcome these polarised positions? We discussed that if someone gets deadly ill with COVID then that could be the kind of crisis in which people change their minds. We concluded that emotion is a topic that we need to think about and theorise about more. If emotional expression has a discursive dimension then the role of Interpretive Policy Analysis could be to bring that out. We concluded that this might be the opening for us.

As this meeting of the Community of Practice of Interpretive Practitioners brought up questions around the transformative potential of IPA in these contemporary issues, we decided the next meeting of the Community of Practice of Interpretive Practitioners would focus on ‘action research’ as a new trend in IPA literature.

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