chapter  9
Interpretivism and Public Policy Research
ByHELEN SULLIVAN
Pages 21

Introduction This chapter is about the value of interpretivism to public policy research and by extension to public policymakers. This is a challenging chapter to write in the prevailing context of policy research, which is dominated by positivism and experimental approaches. However, interpretivism offers an important alternative perspective that can help us understand why actors might not always act in the way that positively derived evidence might suggest. Bevir’s and Rhodes’s work, beginning with Interpreting British Governance (2003), provides a helpful account of the value of interpretivism in practice as well as theory and it also offers pointers to the application of interpretivism. However, while Bevir and Rhodes are prolific authors who have separately and together reminded political science students of governance of interpretivism’s potential, it is important to acknowledge the ongoing contribution of the broader interpretivist academic community to public policy research. This community brings together scholars from a wide variety of disciplines including political science and includes many who see interpretivism as making a vital contribution to public policy understanding. The community is supported by the annual international conference – ‘Interpretive Policy Analysis’ – while the journal Critical Policy Studies offers an important home for the development of interpretivist ideas, alongside and in conversation with other approaches. This chapter draws on ideas from that broader community in its discussion of interpretivism and public policy. The chapter begins with a discussion of the place of interpretivism in public policy research, focusing specifically on the limits of positivism in a political context where argument is key to decision making. The chapter then offers some examples of the way in which interpretivism can be operationalised in public policy research and its value to policymakers. Drawing on the work of the author, the chapter explores three aspects of interpretivism: traditions (following the work of Bevir and Rhodes), situated agency, and practices. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the potential and dilemmas of interpretive approaches and outlines some lines of enquiry for the future that could benefit public policy research.