Opinion-Policy Nexus

Last week I was in Milan, Italy attending the International Conference on Public Policy.  Unlike many of my colleagues, I had yet to attend an international conference so this was a very exciting experience for me on a number of levels.

Anyway, a number of things struck me as a result of this conference (and I don't mean the unbearable heat of Italy in July!).  One was the sheer number of people from different disciplines studying public policy.  On the one hand, it's a strong sign of a healthy subfield, right?  On the other hand, it seems that a powerful consequence of size and diversity is theoretical and conceptual fragmentation.  In almost every panel I attended, there was significant disagreement about concepts and assumptions within very established theoretical traditions.  For instance, in the panels on "co-production", presenters and audience members used the terms "co-management", "co-creation", "co-construction", among many others, interchangeably or as meaning different yet similar things.

In one of the plenary sessions, political scientist Bryan Jones noted a similar phenomenon.  He believed that the literature on agenda setting, a concept that he helped invent and pioneer, had seemingly lost its way.  Much of the new literature on the topic, he argued, was no longer in sync with the original theoretical micro assumptions that he and others had originally grounded the work in, with predictably negative consequences.

It seems to me that the trends Prof. Jones noted in his talk and the lack of conceptual agreement at the panels I attended were partly the result of the growth and democratization of the academy.  In the past, there were fewer journals, fewer scholars, and fewer students entering and finishing PhD programs.  The result, I think, was a smaller set of high performing scholars writing about public policy (and political science) issues. The demands to keep up with the literature were smaller and the people contributing were the best of the best (I think?!).  As a result, political science and public policy fields and subfields perhaps had more internal conceptual consistency or at least more consistency in terminology. Today, however, with the explosion of new journals and PhD programs, the sheer amount of literature is impossible to read and keep up with.  As a result, you get conceptual fragmentation.

In that same plenary panel, Grace Skogstad gave a powerful defence of methodological and theoretical pluralism and to some extent I agreed with her. Who doesn't like pluralism when it comes to publishing our research!?  On the other hand, an important and negative consequence of pluralism that rarely gets mentioned is this trend towards fragmentation.  Embracing pluralism means embracing conceptual blurriness, to some extent. For instance, I use co-production but Bob uses co-construction. Do we mean different things? Well, it doesn't matter.  What matters is that I cite and speak to the people who favour co-production and Bob cites and speak to the co-construction people.  I may try to come up with a new definition of co-production that encompasses co-construction, or I might invent a new term, but there's no guarantee that anyone will adopt my new definition or term.  Even if some people do, others will continue with their preferred term or definition.  Why? Because we embrace methodological pluralism.

What's the alternative to methodological pluralism? I'm not sure.  Maybe radically fewer journals?  Then again, if you believe in the work of John Stuart Mill, then methodological pluralism is perhaps the only way to ensure truth wins out eventually.

Comments

I wonder if public policy, which often emphasizes pragmatic problem-solving, is particularly prone to this problem. Scholars pick up concepts and arguments that *seem* to work, without asking whether they are in fact compatible within a given ontological/epistemological framework.

Good post! I had a similar experience when I presented research on media framing at a European conference a few years ago. The bulk of the discussant's comments had to do with whether my definition of "framing" was actually correct (or more to the point, whether my definition was the same as his definition). Terminological and conceptual consistency are good, sure, but prizing that at the expense of the substance of the research is silly. This is especially the case in research that crosses not just international borders, but also disciplinary ones, and here it's even less likely that everyone is going to agree; public policy is one of those areas, but so is research on political communication, identity politics, and a whole host of other fields. Let's not waste too much time insisting in the use of this label, instead of that, or my definition instead of yours. Instead, how about a brief primer on how each of us defines our concepts and terms, and then move on to what we actually learn from the research. Arguing over definitions is about as ivory tower as it gets.

I found this post very thought-provoking, thanks!