Chapter One: Purposes and paths in drawing practical lessons from policy theories

We challenge policy theory scholars to change the way we produce and communicate research: translate our findings to a wider audience to gauge the clarity and quality of our findings. Policy theories have generated widespread knowledge of the policy process, but the field is vast and uncoordinated, and too many scholars hide behind a veil of jargon and obfuscation. Some of the most visible outcomes – such as limited relevance to practitioners, and anxiety and confusion among students or early career researchers with a limited grasp of a complex field – reflects a less visible but more worrying academic problem: we often assume, rather than demonstrate, that policy process research contains insights that add cumulative and comparable knowledge to the field.

Yet, if we do not take the time to check if we understand the state of the art, and can share a common understanding with our peers, how can we state that we are accumulating knowledge collectively rather than producing work of limited relevance beyond our own narrow individual concerns? Is there genuinely a cohesive, advancing, field of policy theories or are we each producing our own theories and assuming they are useful to others? We need to ask these searching questions more often and place them front and centre of academic debate.

Some thematic reviews already try to compare insights across many theories (Heikkila and Cairney, 2017) but they only scratch the surface and provide limited assurance about a coherent policy process research agenda. We need more work from theory-specific experts to explain their theories and empirical knowledge clearly enough to help others gauge progress and compare it to progress among other approaches.

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