Chapter Four: Using cultural theory to navigate the policy process


Lasswell’s (1951) seminal notion of effective policy analysis combines the ‘technical’ tasks of ‘the scientific study of problems’ and ‘policymaking around these problems’ (Turnbull, 2008). Yet uncertainty and complexity are widely acknowledged to structure contemporary policy-making environments (for example, Geyer and Cairney, 2015). Phenomena such as bounded rationality (Simon, 1955) and ‘wicked’ policy problems (Rittel and Webber, 1973) mean that sense-making often relies on more than simply scientific analysis. Grint (2005, 1473) therefore observes that to make progress in confronting often intractable problems, ‘the task is to ask the right questions rather than provide the right answers’. Complexity therefore places a premium on not only evidence and judgement, but also the ability to question, learn and adapt.

In the face of this complexity, institutions matter. Policymakers use institutions to establish and prioritise particular values, norms, rules and roles, thereby reducing the complexity of choice. Sometimes this can be a very positive process, inspiring a flow of ideas and fast-thinking-type solutions to policy problems that ‘fit’ with the policy context. However, sometimes institutions can get in the way – reinforcing values, systems and practices that no longer fit so well, and acting as blinders to emerging issues. So how do policymakers develop effective policymaking strategies when they are so limited by bounded rationality? Do their ‘cognitive frailties’ make them over- reliant on a combination of rational and irrational informational shortcuts to act quickly and make adequate decisions? If so, should institutions be designed to limit their autonomous powers, or instead should their ability to develop such heuristics be celebrated, and work be undertaken with them to refine such techniques? This chapter mobilises Cultural Theory (CT) to address such questions, allowing researchers to examine the role of institutions in structuring how policy actors make sense of their environment.

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