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Making sense of policy practices:

Interpretation and meaning

Dvora Yanow
Visiting Professor
Communication Studies Department
Wageningen University

The modes of analysis established at the beginning of the policy studies

movement in North America chief among them cost-benefit analysis and

other forms that sought to evaluate policies in light of their planning objectives

and budgetary allocations might be said to have worked well enough for

assessing policies whose goals could unproblematically be translated into

measurable quantitative terms. These evaluative tools rested on the assumption

that social values, whether or not they were translatable into assessable

measurements, could be separated out from the realm of facts, which were so

it was assumed capable of being easily established. But when public policies

entailed competing values that were not reconcilable with the passage of

legislation; when debates and contention entailed complex political relationships;

and, even more significantly, when the conceptual ground shifted concerning the

possible separation of values from facts and the ghettoization of the former

outside of the realm of policy analysis,1 some researchers, both academic and

practice-based, began to see that these tools did not always work well for

assessing the central features of policy enactments and related practices. If

Hawkesworth, M. E., Theoretical issues in policy analysis, Albany, NY, SUNY Press,
1988; Rein, Martin, Social science and public policy, New York, Penguin, 1976.

these approaches and tools, based on notions of rational, economic man,

were experienced as inadequate, to what might one turn for a more adequate

understanding of the successes or failures of public policies to achieve their

intended and stated purposes? Moreover, might policy purposes include other

than such explicitly stated intentions?

Here is where interpretive policy analysis began. It took its name from

the interpretive turn in social sciences more broadly,2 which had begun to

develop at around the same time and which drew on ideas from a range of

different sources. These included phenomenological and hermeneutic

philosophies, along with critical theorys engagement with power; attention to

symbols and their meanings within symbolic-cultural anthropology, semiotics,

and literary studies; and pragmatism, ethnomethodology, and symbolic

interactions everyday action-meaning links. Interpretive policy analysis shifted

the analytic focus in policy studies to meaning-making its expression as well as

its communication as an alternative to instrumental rationality in explaining

human action.3 It also incorporated elements from various other turns that

became central to social scientific thinking in the latter part of the 20th century:

the linguistic turn,4 the historical turn,5 the metaphoric turn,6 the practice turn,7

Geertz, Clifford, The interpretation of cultures, New York, Basic Books, 1973; Hiley,
David R., Bohman, James F., and Shusterman, Richard., eds., The interpretive turn:
Philosophy, science, culture, Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 1991; Rabinow, Paul,
and William M. Sullivan, eds., Interpretive social science, Berkeley, University of
California Press, 1979, 2nd ed. 1985.
See Hawkesworth, loc. cit., for a detailed critique.
Fraser, Nancy, Pragmatism, feminism, and the linguistic turn, in Seyla Benhabib,
Judith Butler, Drucilla Cornell, and Nancy Fraser, eds., Feminist contentions, New York,
Routledge, 1995, 157-72.
McDonald, Terrence J., ed., The historic turn in the human sciences, Ann Arbor, MI,
University of Michigan, 1996.

the pragmatist turn,8 and so forth. At the same time that it tak[es] language

seriously9 as one of the ways in which policy and implementing organizations

meanings are communicated, interpretive policy analysis also treats of acts

(Taylors text analogues10), such as nonverbal communication during meetings,

policy evaluation,11 and agency routines,12 and of objects (physical artifacts),

such as programs and built spaces,13 seeing these, too, as communicative


Interpretive policy analysis draws, then, as much on participant-observer

ethnographic methods14 as it does on textual and other language-focused ones.

Interpretation, in this account, takes certain ideas from hermeneutics mainly

Lorenz, Chris, Can histories be true? Narrativism, positivism, and the metaphorical
turn, History and Theory, 37, 1998, 30930.
Schatzki, Theodore R., Karin Knorr-Cetina, Karin, and Eike von Savigny, Eike von, eds.,
The practice turn in contemporary theory, New York, Routledge, 2001.
White, Stephen K., The very idea of a critical social science: A pragmatist turn, in Fred
Rush, ed., The Cambridge companion to critical theory, New York, Cambridge University
Press, 2004, 31035.
White, Jay D., Taking language seriously: Toward a narrative theory of knowledge for
administrative research, American Review of Public Administration, 22, 1992, 7588.
Taylor, Charles, Interpretation and the sciences of man, Review of Metaphysics, 25,
1971, 351; see also Ricoeur, Paul, The model of the text, Social Research, 38, 1971,
Colebatch, Hal K., Organizational meanings of program evaluation, Policy Sciences,
1995, 18/2: 149-64.
Freeman, Richard, Learning by meeting, Critical Policy Analysis 2/1, 2008, 1-24;
Yanow, op. cit., 1996, chapter 7.
Yanow, Dvora, Built space as story: The policy stories that buildings tell, Policy
Studies Journal, 23/3, 1995, 407-22.
Dubois, Vincent, Towards a critical policy ethnography: Lessons from fieldwork on
welfare control in France, Critical Policy Studies, 3/2, 2009, 22139; van Hulst, Merlijn
J., Quite an experience: Using ethnography to study local governance, Critical Policy
Analysis, 2/2, 2008, 143-59.

its focus on meaning, on epistemic (or interpretive) communities, on the

recursiveness of the hermeneutic circle, and on the possibility for multiple

meanings/interpretations of policy-related elements without getting caught in

its historically-situated insistence on a specific, and thereby limiting, set of rules

for interpreting. Joined with phenomenologys insistence on the role of lived

experience in shaping meaning-making/interpretation, these ideas have proved

generative to the understanding of public policies, their processes and practices,

from affirmative action to whaling.15

This article expounds on this background, highlighting the ontological and

epistemological presuppositions that lie at the heart of interpretive policy

analysis and their methodological implications.

Theoretical background: Authoritative instrumentalism

As a field of research, public policy studies developed in the US in the

1960s-1970s, when the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, supported by

legislatures and courts, began to use policies ever more actively as social change

instruments (consider, for example, the civil rights policies attacking entrenched,

discriminatory educational, employment, and other practices).16 In the

academy, the policy sciences and policy analysis emerged out of a disciplinary

base in departments of politics, political science, and government (nomenclature

across US departments varies). Policy and political scientists initial

On the former, see Yanow, Dvora, Constructing race and ethnicity in America:
Category-making in public policy and administration, Armonk, NY, M E Sharpe, 2003; on
whaling, Epstein, Charlotte, Power of words in international relations: Birth of an anti-
whaling discourse, Cambridge, MIT Press, 2008.
Parts of this section were adapted from Narrative and practice in public policy
analysis, presented at the International Conference on Narrative & Metaphor across the
Disciplines, Auckland NZ, 8-10 July 1996.

conceptualization of policy processes was, not surprisingly, framed by the

disciplines intellectual history. The institutional approach that is the starting

point of US studies of government three branches, in balance, with policy-

making falling in the domain of the legislative branch17 initially restricted the

conceptualization of policy-making to legislative actions and legislators

decision-making. (Even legislative staff were an analytic non-entity until

Redmans empirical case study of the crafting of the National Health Service

Corps policy appeared.18)

Under Robert S. McNamaras leadership as Secretary of the US

Department of Defense (DoD), which began in 1960, various analytic tools were

developed which later became central to the new field of policy analysis. Under

the heading of systems analysis, which saw its initial development in the US

military toward the end of World War II (implementing Norbert Weiners

cybernetics thinking, among other ideas), these included PPBS (Policy-Planning-

Budgeting System), itself leading to the development of other cost-benefit

modes of analyzing proposed policies. Such analytic tools entered the academic

curricula, research, and advising-consulting practices of the time. It was not

uncommon, for instance, even into the 1980s (and later, following those works),

to find both policy developers and academics talking about people as the

targets of public policies.19 That unfortunate term suggests that the only

For a brilliant treatment of US legislative politics and processes of making policy,
including the role of the President, see Redman, Eric, The dance of legislation, Seattle,
University of Washington Press, 2001 [orig. 1973].
Sapolsky, Harvey M., The Polaris system development: Bureaucratic and programmic
success in government, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1972; Schneider, Anne
and Ingram, Helen, Social construction of target populations, American Political Science
Review, 87, 1983, 334-47.

persons with agency in a policy situation are policy actors legislators,

lobbyists, implementers, and the like. The metaphor positions those on the

receiving end of policy decisions as sitting ducks just waiting for policy solutions

to hit them, like the missiles of McNamaras DoD.20 Such a formulation denies

them agency over their own acts and the legitimacy of their local knowledge of

the circumstances and contexts of those acts. That top-down theoretical and

analytic model is still the point of departure of most textbooks today.

Such a model is quite in keeping with the top-down, paternalistic mode of

governmental policy-making inherited, and then maintained, by 1960s and

1970s administrations (such as in the Ford Foundations Grey Areas Programs,

forerunners of the Great Society programmes, including the Peace Corps and its

domestic counterpart, VISTA). These, for all their social justice concerns and

good intentions, defined the good in ways that denied policy recipients

expertise in their own local knowledge and their own agency.21 Even the

participatory planning movement of this era,22 intended to bring that local

knowledge into policy processes, was later critiqued for its frequent top-down

treatment of participation and participants.

In its theoretical conceptualization, policy-making was expanded in the

DeHaven-Smith also comments on the missile imagery of social policies; Error! Main
Document Only.DeHaven-Smith, Lance, Philosophical critiques of policy analysis.
Gainesville, University of Florida Press, 1988.
This pattern continues in some of the recent social constructionist treatments in policy
analysis which see policy targets themselves, rather than policy-makers and others
ideas about policy recipients, as socially constructed. For a critique of the widespread
inclination to treat objects as social constructions, rather than seeing that it is the ideas
about those things that are socially constructed that is, of substituting a noun for what
should be a verb and a process see Ian Hacking, The social construction of what?
Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1999.
E.g., Arnstein, Sherry R., A ladder of citizen participation, Journal of the American
Institute of Planners 35/4, 1969, 21624.

early 1970s to include agenda-setting on the front end of the process and

implementation on its back end. The policy process was still conceived of in a

linear, assembly-line fashion, marked by a politics-administration dichotomy that

vested politics and power exclusively in the hands of elected decision-makers

and treated the executive branch as a realm of a-political management.

Analyzing such management processes, policy implementation studies focused

on the actions through which policy ideas were put into practice, assessing the

degree to which implementory action matched legislative intent. Articulated

initially by Pressman and Wildavsky and quickly joined by others,23 these

analyses sought to account for the failures of public policies to do what they

were supposed to, largely out of a normative sense that those policies the

Great Society programs and their successors should be, and needed to be,

successful, given their social justice aims.24 Failures were seen as deriving from

poor policy design (either a logic of problem solution that was erroneous or

policy language that was ambiguous) or from inept bureaucrats and

bureaucracies (including faulty organizational design, lack of proper motivational

incentives, poor information and communication, or interfering agency

Pressman, Jeffrey L. and Wildavsky, Aaron, Implementation: How great expectations
in Washington are dashed in Oakland; Or, why it's amazing that federal programs work
at all, this being a saga of the Economic Development Administration as told by two sympathetic
observers who seek to build morals on a foundation of ruined hopes, Berkeley, University of
California Press, 1973. The literature in policy implementation is fairly extensive. For a
collection of essays that chart the development of thinking in the field, see Error! Main
Document Only.Palumbo, Dennis J. and Calista, Donald J., eds., Implementation and
the policy process, New York, Greenwood Press, 1990.
See, e.g., Robert S. Weiss and Martin Rein, The evaluation of broad-aim programs:
Experimental design, its difficulties, and an alternative, Administrative Science
Quarterly, 15/1, 1970, 97-109.

politics).25 Implementation studies concerns were encapsulated in the

question, also from the US of the 1970s: If we can get a man on the moon,

why can't we win the war on poverty?26

Such theorizing about legislative and implementation processes

manifested the understanding of authority embedded in Weberian bureaucracy

theory, thereby routinizing the power dimensions of post-legislative policy

implementation and rendering them invisible. The model of the policy process

that emerged, based on this separation of politics and power from organizational

action, was instrumental-rational in character: it treated the policy process as a

set of stages in a linear, assembly-line fashion marked by a top-down decision-

making authority, the instrumental, goal-oriented rationalism that Shore and

Wright call authoritative instrumentalism.27 Moreover, this thinking typically

assumed that legislative intent is (or should be) capable of being made clear and

known; that language itself is capable of being made transparent (with respect

Public policies are primarily implemented by organizations, and these analyses largely
reflected theoretical developments in organizational studies. Implementation failures
have been sourced to structural impediments (improper bureaucratic design); problems
in human relations (insufficient incentives to motivate personnel); systems constraints
(the structural problems of an intergovernmental system that bridges national and local
levels of government); and political dimensions (reflecting the exigencies of coalition-
building across stakeholders). See Error! Main Document Only.Yanow, Dvora,
Tackling the implementation problem: Epistemological issues in policy implementation
research, in Dennis J. Palumbo and Donald J. Calista, eds., Implementation and the
policy process, New York, Greenwood Press, 1990, 213-27.
See, e.g., Nelson, Richard R., Intellectualizing about the moon-ghetto metaphor: A
study of the current malaise of rational analysis of social problems, Policy Sciences 5/4,
1974, 375-414; Nelson, Richard R., The moon and the ghetto, New York, W. W. Norton,
1977. This concern has apparently not abated: while writing this article, I stumbled
upon a 2007 newspaper column reporting on Nelsons later research on the topic with
Daniel Sarewitz; see Caruso, Denise, Knowledge is power only if you know how to use
it, The New York Times (11 March 2007), (accessed 6 April

Shore, Cris and Wright, Susan, Conceptualising policy, in Cris Shore, Susan Wright,
and Davide Per, eds., Policy worlds, Oxford, Berghahn, 2011, 1-25.

to its referent) and unambiguous; and that the policy process (meaning from

policy formulation through implementation) is exclusively rational and

instrumental. In this view, there is no reason for governmental bodies to

legislate policies that are incapable of being implemented, nor should they.

The instrumental-rational model, and the conceptualisations associated

with it, including assumptions of language transparency, were exported to the

world of practice in a newly created professional degree, the Master of Public

Policy (MPP), established at a number of US universities, as well as in MPA

(Master of Public Administration) and other undergraduate and post-graduate

degrees. Through training for mid-career policy-makers, public administrators,

and other decision-makers, many of whom held positions in Washington, DC, the

model spread also to practice-focused conferences and journals although many

practitioners themselves admitted that their worlds did not operate in such

exclusively rational-instrumental ways. Redmans reflection, nearly 30 years

after it was first published, on audience responses to the legislative processes

described in Dance of Legislation captures some of what from todays vantage

point seems the same political, organizational, and conceptual innocence and

nave belief in Weberian theorizing that characterized policy implementation

theorizing at the time:

What strikes many readers of this book most forcefully was

something I hadnt expected: surprise that bills do not advance
strictly on their merits, that complex calculations of self-interest
perhaps having nothing to do with the merits, in fact can be
decisive in influencing a chairman or chief counsel or sponsor or
staffer to aid this bill and not that, to choose one and drop others.
This apparent revelation, the seeming arbitrariness of it all,
provoked fascination and revulsion, sometimes in the same

Redman, op cit., 304.

Empirically-grounded research emerging out of implementation studies

began to challenge the usefulness of the instrumental-rational model for

analyzing public policies. The added chapters in the 1984 third edition of

Pressman and Wildavskys ground-breaking study seem less astonished by the

mismatch between legislative intentions and implementation realities, including

their political dimensions. Other work building on that critique, as well as other

developments across the social sciences, joined in sparking the development of

interpretive policy analysis.

The interpretive turn in policy studies

The challenge to the top-down, instrumental-rational model of policy-

making and implementation began to develop out of field-based studies of the

work practices of implementers in various settings, including street-level

bureaucrats.29 These insights led Lipsky to argue in a major critique of

Weberian bureaucracy theory as applied to public policy processes that the

conceptualization of implementation needed to be inverted30: as experienced

and observed, rather than as theorized absent empirical input, policies that were

supposed to be being implemented in a-political administrative fashion were

Lipsky, Michael, Street-level bureaucracy, New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 1980;
Prottas, Jeffrey M., People-processing, Lexington, MA, D.C. Heath, 1979; Weatherley,
Richard, Reforming special education, Cambridge, MIT Press, 1979. For two recent
studies that extend the theorizing, see Maynard-Moody, Steven and Musheno, Michael,
Cops, teachers, counselors: Stories from the front lines of public service, Ann Arbor,
University of Michigan Press, 2003, and Dubois, Vincent, La vie au guichet, Paris,
Economica, 1999 [English translation, The bureaucrat and the poor, London, Ashgate,
2010]. From a somewhat different angle, see Stein, Sandra J., The culture of education
policy, New York, Teachers College Press, 2004.

Lipsky, Michael, Standing the study of public policy implementation on its head, in
Walter Dean Burnham and Martha Weinberg, eds., American politics and public policy,
Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1978, 391-402.

actually subject to local interpretation at the hands of street-level bureaucrats

(given particular structural constraints), and through these acts the latter were

understood by their clients as themselves making governmental policy. The

whole conceptual apparatus, in other words, needed to be re-thought, including

with respect to what bureaucracy and other organizational theorists had argued

was and should be a-political administrative practices.

Interpretive policy analysis grew out of these critiques, supported by still

another source, the so-called interpretive turn across the social sciences:

conceptual and philosophical works developing along parallel lines at the same

time, some in other branches of political science,31 some in anthropology and

sociology,32 others in philosophy, psychology, economics, and literary studies.33

In political theory, for instance, see Edelman, Murray, The symbolic uses of politics,
Urbana, University of Illinois, 1964; Edelman, Murray, Politics as symbolic action,
Chicago, Markham, 1971; Fay, Brian, Social theory and political practice, Boston, George
Allen & Unwin, 1975; Taylor, loc. cit.

Geertz, loc. cit.; Brown, Richard Harvey, Social theory as metaphor, Theory and
Society, 3, 1976, 16997; Gusfield, Joseph R., The culture of public problems: Drinking-
driving and the symbolic order, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1981; Rabinow and
Sullivan, loc. cit.
E.g., Bernstein, Richard J., The restructuring of social and political theory,
Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1976; Bernstein, Richard J., Beyond
objectivism and relativism, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983;
Polkinghorne, Donald, Methodology for the human sciences, Albany, SUNY Press, 1983;
Polkinghorne, Donald, Narrative knowing and the human sciences, Albany, SUNY Press,
1988; McCloskey, Donald, The rhetoric of economics, Madison, University of Wisconsin
Press, 1985; Fish, Stanley, Is there a text in this class? The authority of interpretive
communities, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1983. An account of this intellectual
genealogy would be remiss without mentioning two other works: Kuhn, Thomas S., The
structure of scientific revolutions, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 1970
[1962], which started many thinking about the ways in which scientific discoveries are
made and the role of epistemic communities in that ideas that encapsulate the two
meanings of paradigm in the work, parallel to understandings of the hermeneutic circle
as both a way of knowing and the interpretive community that follows that logic of
inquiry (see also Postscript1969 in the 2nd ed., 174-210, or Kuhn, Thomas S., Second
thoughts on paradigms, in The essential tension: Selected studies in scientific tradition
and change, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1979); and Berger, Peter L. and
Luckmann, Thomas, The social construction of reality, New York, Doubleday, 1966,
which introduced phenomenological ideas and the notion of social constructionism (or

Several of these arguments were sounded by sequential editors of Policy

Sciences or in articles on its pages.34 One of the points of critique centered on

the potential for multiple possible interpretations of lived social realities, which

emerges from a hermeneutic phenomenology. Subsequently, engaging

Habermasian theorizing and theoretical developments in other fields, a

significant section of interpretive policy analysis took a discursive, dialogical

turn,35 which, among other things, counters the denial of agency to those on the

receiving end of policies. That move has, for several theorists, re-linked policy

analysis to forms of governance that are more democratic and participatory,36

constructivism; the terms are used differently in different disciplines) to the English-
reading academy.
In Policy Sciences: Ascher, William, Editorial, Policy Sciences 20, 1987, 3-9; Brunner,
Ronald D., The policy sciences as science, Policy Sciences 15, 1982, 115-35; Brunner,
Ronald D., Key political symbols, Policy Sciences 20, 1987, 53-76; Dryzek, John S.,
Policy analysis as a hermeneutic activity, Policy Sciences 14, 1982, 309-29; Healy, Paul,
Interpretive policy inquiry, Policy Sciences 19, 1986, 381-96; Torgerson, Douglas,
Contextual orientation in policy analysis, Policy Sciences 18, 1985, 241-61; Torgerson,
Douglas, Between knowledge and politics, Policy Sciences 19, 1986, 33-59; Torgerson,
Douglas, Interpretive policy inquiry, Policy Sciences 19, 1986, 307-405. Elsewhere, see
DeHaven-Smith, loc. cit.; Fox, Charles J., Biases in public policy implementation
evaluation, Policy Studies Review 7/1, 1987, 128-41; Fox, Charles J., Implementation
research, in Dennis J. Palumbo and Donald J. Calista, eds., Implementation and the
policy process, New York, Greenwood, 1990, 199-212; Goodsell, Charles T., The social
meaning of civic space, Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 1988; Hawkesworth, loc.
cit.; Jennings, Bruce, Interpretive social science and policy analysis, in Daniel Callahan
and Bruce Jennings, eds., Ethics, the social sciences, and policy analysis, New York,
Plenum, 1983, 3-35; Jennings, Bruce, Interpretation and the practice of policy analysis,
in Frank Fischer and John Forester, eds., Confronting values in policy analysis, Newbury
Park, CA, Sage, 1987, 128-52; Maynard-Moody, Steven and Stull, Donald, The symbolic
side of policy analysis, in Frank Fischer and John Forester, eds., Confronting values in
policy analysis, Newbury Park, CA, Sage, 1987, 248-65; Rein, Martin and Schon, Donald
A., Problem setting in policy research, in Carol Weiss, ed., Using social research in
policy making, Lexington, MA, Lexington Books, 1977, 23551; Yanow, Dvora, Toward a
policy culture approach to implementation, Policy Studies Review, 7/1, 1987, 103-15.

See, e.g., Fischer, Frank and Forester, John, eds., The argumentative turn in policy
analysis and planning, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 1993; Hajer, Maarten A. and
Wagenaar, Hendrik, eds., Deliberative policy analysis, New York, Cambridge University
Press, 2003.

Dryzek, John S., Discursive democracy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,
1990; Schneider, Anne Larason and Ingram, Helen. Policy design for democracy,

especially in their discursive focuses.37 In these approaches, policies may be

viewed as texts, with implementers, clients, potential clients, and other policy-

relevant publics, near and far, as readers of these texts. Still, policy analysis

and especially implementation analysis is grounded in action, and there is a

strong desire on the part of most analysts to move beyond identification and

description of communities of interpretation around specific policy issues and the

understanding of what goes wrong (or right), to an exploration of communities

of practitioners and the specific practices that are entailed in the communication

of policy meanings.38 Beyond seeing policy actions as text analogues,39 some

theorists also want to establish grounds for intervention in order to improve the

problems targeted by policies, which puts their work close to that of

(participatory) action researchers.40

In their various approaches, interpretive policy analyses focus on meaning

both its expression and its communication. They seek to take into account the

local knowledge of those on policies receiving end, in addition to that of

policy-makers and implementers. This may include essaying to make what is

Lawrence, University Press of Kansas, 1997.

Fischer, Frank, Reframing public policy: Discursive politics and deliberative practices,
New York, Oxford University Press, 2003; Fischer, Frank, Democracy and expertise:
Reorienting policy inquiry, New York, Oxford University Press, 2009; Fischer and
Forester, loc. cit.; Hajer and Wagenaar, loc. cit.

Error! Main Document Only.Hajer, Maarten, Discourse coalitions and the
institutionalization of practice, in Frank Fischer and John Forester, eds., The
argumentative turn in policy analysis and planning, Durham, NC, Duke University Press,
1993, 43-76; Yanow, Dvora, ed., Practices of policy interpretation, Policy Sciences, 29,
1995, 111-26; Freeman, Richard, Griggs, Steven, and Boaz, Annette, eds., The practice
of policy-making, Special Issue, Evidence & policy, 7/2, 2011, 127-227.
Taylor, loc. cit.; Yanow, Dvora, The communication of policy meanings:
Implementation as interpretation and text, Policy Sciences, 26, 1993, 41-61.
For an extensive overview of this area, see Greenwood, Davydd and Levin, Morten,
Introduction to action research, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage, 2006 [1998].

known tacitly, in Polanyis sense, more explicit.41 Interpretive policy analysis

asks not only what a policy means a context-specific question about a specific

policy but also how policies mean questions about the processes by which

meanings are communicated.42 Interpretive policy analysts study various policy-

relevant manifestations of the three broad categories of human artifacts that,

through symbolic representation, give expression to their creators meanings:

language, clearly, but also acts and the objects drawn on and/or referenced in

both language and acts. Borrowing a term from recent developments in

cognitive linguistics, we might say that this focus on how leads to a multimodal

form of analysis, looking at various sources and genres of evidence and

corresponding analytic modes.43 In addition, interpretive forms of policy analysis

have shifted attention from the search for (and belief in the promise of finding)

one correct policy formulation (correct in its definition of the policy problem, a

narrative which entails the seeds for problem resolution) to engage, instead, the

possible multiplicities of problem definition resulting from different interpretive

communities experiences and perceptions. This includes exploring the

possibility that conflicts among policy-relevant groups may reflect

epistemological differences and not simply contests over facts: what is

perceived and accepted as a relevant fact is often part of the contestation, as

Polanyi, Michael, The tacit dimension, New York, Doubleday, 1966.
Yanow, loc. cit., 1993; Yanow, Dvora, How does a policy mean? Interpreting policy
and organizational actions, Washington, DC, Georgetown University Press, 1996.
On multimodality in cognitive linguistics, see Mller, Cornelia, Metaphors dead and
alive, sleeping and waking, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2008. And this leads
further to the mapping for exposure and intertextuality that characterizes interpretive
methodologies and methods more broadly; see Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine and Yanow,
Dvora, Interpretive research design: Concepts and processes, New York, Routledge,

Rein and Schon argued in respect of policy framing.44 Language, objects, and

acts that are symbolic that is, which represent underlying meanings (values,

beliefs, and/or feelings/sentiments) enable multiplicities of (possible) meaning-

making and a demarcation among communities of interpretation and of practice.

Recognizing the agency of those previously seen as targets and, perhaps

even more importantly, treating their local knowledge as itself an important

source of expertise repositions the expertise of policy analysts from purely

subject-matter knowledge to knowledge of inquiry processes. In this fashion,

the practice of interpretive policy analysis intertwines its conceptual-theoretical

approach with a set of methodological concerns that themselves engage and

legitimize local knowledge. Associated methods generate data through the close

reading of policy-relevant texts and other kinds of documents, formal and

conversational interviewing, and participant-observer ethnography. To analyze

those data, interpretive policy analysts draw on a range of meaning-focused

methods, as appropriate to the character of the data.45

Data in the form of language predominate in interpretive policy analysis,

in part due to its reliance on documentary and interview sources. Researchers

recognize the requisite ambiguity of language indeed, ambiguity in policy

matters is often purposeful and its centrality to multiple possible meanings.

One stream of research investigates the work of metaphors in policy language,

much of it building on theories from cognitive linguistics.46 Other work looks at

Rein and Schon, loc. cit.; Schn, Donald A. and Rein, Martin, Frame reflection: Toward
the resolution of intractable policy controversies, New York, Basic Books, 1994.
For a suggestive, but not exhaustive list of some two dozen analytic methods, see
Yanow, Dvora and Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine, eds., Interpretation and method: Empirical
research methods and the interpretive turn, Armonk, NY, M E Sharpe, 2006, xx.
For a cognitive linguistics approach, see Error! Main Document Only.Lakoff, George

categories, story-telling or other forms of narrative.47 Framing is central to

interpretive policy analysis, building on the work of Martin Rein and Donald

Schon, whose theorizing pointed to the extent to which intractable policy

controversies are often so not because of failures in policy design, but instead

because of the particular way that the policy issue itself has been framed.48

More recently, interpretive policy analysts have taken up discourse theories of

and Johnson, Mark, Metaphors we live by, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980;
Lakoff, George, The contemporary theory of metaphor, in Andrew Ortony, ed.,
Metaphor and thought, 2nd ed., New York, Cambridge University Press, 1993, 202-51.
More recent work in this area looks at conceptual blending and multimodal metaphor;
see Mller, loc. cit. For applications to policy, see Miller, Donald F., Social policy: An
exercise in metaphor, Knowledge 7, 1985, 191-215; Error! Main Document
Only.Schon, Donald A., Generative metaphor, in Andrew Ortony, ed., Metaphor and
thought, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979, 254-83 (also in 2nd ed., 1993);
Yanow, Dvora, Supermarkets and culture clash: The epistemological role of metaphors
in administrative practice, American Review of Public Administration 22, 1992, 89-109;
see also Edelman, Murray, Political language, New York, Academic Press, 1977; Carver,
Terrell and Pikalo, Jernej, eds., Political language and metaphor, London, Routledge,
On categories, see Keeler, Rebecca, Analysis of logic: Categories of people in U.S.
HIV/AIDS policy, Administration & Society 39/5, 2007, 612-30; Lakoff, George, Women,
fire, and dangerous things, Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press, 1987; Yanow, loc.
cit., 2003. On stories, see Forester, John, Learning from practice stories: The priority of
practical judgment, in Fischer, Frank and John Forester, eds., The argumentative turn in
policy analysis and planning, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 1993, 186-209; van
Hulst, Merlijn, Town hall tales: Culture as storytelling in local government, Delft, Eburon,
2008; Yanow, Dvora, Error! Main Document Only.Public policies as identity stories:
American race-ethnic discourse, in Tineke Abma, ed., Telling tales: On narrative and
evaluation, Stamford, CT, JAI Press, 1999, 29-52. On narrative, Error! Main
Document Only.Kaplan, Thomas J., Reading policy narratives, in Frank Fischer and
John Forester, eds., The argumentative turn in policy analysis and planning, Durham,
NC, Duke University Press, 1993, 167-85; RoeError! Main Document Only., Emery,
Narrative policy analysis, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 1994.
Rein and Schon, loc. cit.; Schn and Rein, loc. cit. See also Abolafia, Mitchel Y.,
Framing moves: Interpretive politics at the Federal Reserve, Journal of Public
Administration Research and Theory, 14, 2004, 349-70; Linder, Steven H., Contending
discourses in the electromagnetic fields controversy, Policy Sciences 18/2, 1995, 209-
30; Schmidt, Ronald, Sr., Value-critical policy analysis: The case of language policy in
the United States, in Dvora Yanow and Peregrine Schwartz-Shea, eds., Interpretation
and method: Empirical research methods and the interpretive turn, Armonk, NY, M.E.
Sharpe, 2006, 300-15; Swaffield, Simon, Contextual meanings in policy discourse: A
case study of language use concerning resource policy in the New Zealand high country,
Policy Sciences, 31, 1998, 199224.

various sorts.49

Language is not the only form of data generated or analyzed in

interpretive policy analysis. To analyze policy-related acts, such as the act of

choosing or declining to regulate EMF (electro-magnetic frequency) emissions,

ethnographic analysis of the various groups involved might be drawn on, adding

observational data to interview and/or documentary data. A meaning-focused

approach to policy acts, for instance, leads to unsettling another assumption

built in to positivist modes of policy analysis: it highlights the social reality that

policy processes may also be an avenue for human expressiveness (of identity,

of meaning), leading to the legislating of policies that are, in one way or

another, unimplementable. To take one clear example, several city councils in

the US Santa Cruz, Hayward, Oakland, and Berkeley in California; Cambridge,

Massachusetts; and others passed legislation declaring themselves to be

nuclear free zones. Nuclear material, however, is transshipped over federal

highways; and federal law, which regulates traffic on those roadways, takes

precedence over local law. Whereas from the perspective of rational-

instrumental policy-making, the bills are irrational, from an interpretive point of

view, they can be understood as embodying stories each polity tells itself and

other publics, near and far, about its identity its values and beliefs, what is

meaningful in private and in public.50

See, e.g., Howarth, David J., Discourse, Buckingham, Open University Press, 2000;
Epstein, loc. cit., 2008.
There is nothing to suggest that expressive acts cannot also be instrumental (or vice
versa). Raymond Nairn (personal communication, July 1996) related the example of
how a campaign that included hanging anti-nuclear signs on numerous homes, streets,
schools, and offices across New Zealand influenced then-newly-elected Prime Minister
David Lange's decision to change his stance on the matter, with a subsequent change in
national policy.

Thirdly, language and acts also often refer to or use objects in the

material world. Examples might include particular programs or the specific

design of policy-relevant spaces, or the meaning of home, whether ownership

or occupancy, in a particular housing policy enabling either purchase or rental.

For such data, analysis might focus on the ways in which programmatic activities

or built spaces communicate policy and wider societal meaning(s), and which

meanings are being communicated and to what audiences, near and far.51

All of these and other analytic devices would be used to try to elicit

understandings of what specific policies might mean to various issue-relevant

publics, as well as exploring how those meanings are developed, communicated,

and (potentially) variously understood.52 Through them analysts seek to map

the architecture53 of policy arguments. The three categories of symbolic

artifacts are useful for heuristic purposes, even though they are not always, in

practice, distinct: language, acts, and objects are intertwined and mutually

implicating, and whether one designates a bit of policy evidence as belonging in

one rather than another category may at times make sense only from the

perspective of the analysis one is trying to mount.

See, e.g., Goodsell, loc. cit.; Goodsell, Charles T., ed., Architecture as a setting for
governance, Special issue, Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, 10/4, 1993;
Yanow, Dvora, loc. cit., 1995; Yanow, Dvora, Error! Main Document Only.How built
spaces mean: A semiotics of space, in Dvora Yanow and Peregrine Schwartz-Shea,
eds., Interpretation and method: Empirical research methods and the interpretive turn,
Armonk, NY, M E Sharpe, 2006, 349-66.
Yanow, Dvora, Conducting interpretive policy analysis, Newbury Park, CA, Sage, 2000;
Yanow, Dvora, Interpretation in policy analysis: On methods and practice, Critical
Policy Analysis 1, 2007, 109-21.

Pal, Leslie, Competing paradigms in policy discourse: The case of international
human rights, Policy Sciences, 18/2, 1995, 185-207.

In these analytic treatments, the notion of policy, whether legislative

document or state intention, as a single, authored text is implicitly or explicitly

replaced by the constructed texts of multiple readings at the hands of

various policy-relevant publics. The notion of a singular legislative author is

expanded by multiple discourse communities in the form of collective readers.

Analyses emphasize the context-specificity of meaning. They are specific to

events and times the what of a policy and hue closely to the meanings

made by policy-relevant actors although an analysis may be, and often is,

more broadly contextualized, whether by reference to multiple evidentiary

sources or to the context of some theoretical literature to which the research

question and analysis speak. Any generalization relates to the how, and it is a

methodological or philosophical generalization: how legislators, implementers,

clients, and other publics make policy meanings in thus and such ways; how

some of these interpretations may conflict with each other; how analysts may

make sense of those meanings and conflicts.

One final methodological point. Although phenomenology, in particular,

has been criticized, especially by critical theorists, for being so involved with the

individual Self as to neglect power, this criticism, although perhaps holding at

the philosophical level, seems not to obtain when phenomenological inquiry is

directed toward policy matters. In such applications, interpretive policy analysts

cannot help but include power dimensions, including of organizations and other

institutions, especially when they consider voices that have been silent, by

choice, or silenced, by forces beyond them.

Looking forward

Interpretive policy analysis seems at this point secure within the

academy, at least outside of the US: the 6th international conference, based in

Europe and the UK, takes place in June 2011 and draws attendance also from

North America, South Africa, India, and Oceania; its associated journal is in its

fifth volume. As a way of knowing, interpretive policy analysis continues to

enable a generative engagement with some of the problems that seem

analytically intractable from a positivist perspective. It is also generative in

theoretical terms, as in the definitional problem found in policy studies

textbooks. Is policy the formal document that is the outcome of a legislative

act? Is it a set of inclinations, as in The governments policy is ...? Is it a

specific program? From an interpretive policy analytic perspective, the key

question to ask may be not, What is a policy? but instead, What work is a policy

and/or its elements, including its legislation and implementation, attempted or

achieved, doing, in this particular setting, situation or other context, at this

particular time? That kind of question, the sort of focus found in science studies,

leads to a dynamic definition of policies as working to classify and organise

people and ideas in new ways.54 It shifts analytic attention to the constructed

character of concepts such as policy, in a broader, governance discourse

or of specific terms in particular policy issues such as integration or housing

decay and their potential for multiple interpretations.55

The more interpretive policy analysis stands on its own, clearly

Shore and Wright, loc. cit.
On integration, see Yanow, Dvora and van der Haar, Marleen, forthcoming, People out
of place: Allochthony and autochthony in Netherlands identity discourse B metaphors
and categories in action, Journal of International Relations and Development; on
housing decay, Schn, op. cit., 1979.

articulated, ontological and epistemological feet, the less it has to do

defensive battle looking over its shoulder at positivist-informed ways of knowing,

and the more it can engage and explore its own philosophical-theoretical

grounding, perhaps in concert with interpretive methodologies and methods

more broadly. Part of this grounding, currently enjoying increased attention, is

the abductive logic of inquiry that is increasingly being seen as lying at the heart

of interpretive ways of knowing: analysis begins with a puzzle or surprise, often

occasioned by the mis-match between the researcher-analysts expectations and

policy-specific lived realities, and looks for likely conditions that would

normalize it.56

Interpretive policy analysis scholars might turn their attention to other

matters, as well. One of these is the fields substantive policy domain. Public

policy studies, at least in the US, has long meant domestic legislative processes

and policies only welfare, housing, transportation, and so forth; foreign policy

has more commonly been left to international relations (IR). The establishment

of the European Union, along with environmental issues and terrorism, has made

the limitations of this boundary-making abundantly clear: environmental and

other problems, after all, cross state lines, and policies and, hence, their

analyses must do likewise. This is increasingly done today in IR, where

Schwartz-Shea and Yanow, op. cit., chapter 2; see also Agar, Michael, On the
ethnographic part of the mix: A multi-genre tale of the field, Organizational Research
Methods, 13/2, 2010, 286303; Locke, Karen, Golden-Biddle, Karen, and Feldman,
Martha S., Making doubt generative: Rethinking the role of doubt in the research
process, Organization Science, 19/6, 2008, 907-18; Van Maanen, John, Srensen,
Jesper B., and Mitchell, Terence R., The interplay between theory and method,
Academy of Management Review, 32/4, 2007, 114554. Cf. Glynos, Jason and Howarth,
David, Logics of critical explanation in social and political theory. NY, Routledge, 2007,
on retroduction, which they use in the same sense. In a parallel field of study, see
Friedrichs, Jorg and Kratochwil, Friedrich, On acting and knowing: How pragmatism can
advance international relations research and methodology, International Organization,
63, 2009, 701-31.

scholars many of them drawing on the full panoply of post-positivist

methodologies and methods, ranging from a phenomenological social

constructivism and metaphor, narrative, and other language-focused studies to

critical discourse, feminist, and practice-focused analyses are developing

policy-making theories with respect to, for instance, security or securitization

concerns. But they do so largely in ignorance of established interpretive policy

analytic theorizing and vice versa. Both policy and IR scholars stand to benefit

from crossing the hitherto existing disciplinary boundaries between domestic and

supranational entities in their analytic work. Whereas European scholars seem

already more likely to do so,57 many departments and faculties are under

pressure to adopt the US model, a development that could lead to re-

balkanization of this analytic terrain.

Second, interpretive policy analysis scholars are increasingly drawing on

methods that have not been widely used in recent years, and these need to be

given a fuller account. Few researchers were engaging participant-observer

ethnography at the time that the field was developing (although it had been

fairly common in earlier policy and administrative research58), and studies have

been biased toward policy documents and elite or expert interviews. But

attention to policy ethnography is growing, and interpretive ethnographic

See, e.g., Rowell, Jay, Campana, Aurlie, and Henry, Emmanuel, eds., La construction
des problmes publics en Europe, Strasbourg, PUS, 2007.

E.g., Blau, Peter, The dynamics of bureaucracy, Chicago, University of Chicago Press,
1963 [orig. 1953]; Crozier, Michel, The bureaucratic phenomenon, Chicago, University of
Chicago Press, 1964; Gouldner, Alvin W., Patterns of industrial bureaucracy, Glencoe, IL,
Free Press, 1954; Kaufman, Herbert, The forest ranger, Baltimore, MD, Published for
Resources for the Future by Johns Hopkins University Press, 1954; Selznick, Philip, TVA
and the grass roots, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1949; Selznick, Philip,
Leadership in administration: A sociological interpretation, New York, Harper & Row,

approaches could well be cultivated further.59

For a field that wants at least to know about, if not also to include, those

living out others policy decisions, methods that enable studying-up, such as

ethnography or participant observation, are key. Traditional policy analysis, as

with nearly all political science, has largely engaged its subject matter at the

top. That is where power, the leitmotif of the disciplines work, is widely

presumed to reside. This might partially explain the disinclination among

interpretive policy studies scholars, until recently, to undertake ethnographic

work, despite an orientation toward wanting to understand what is happening

with policies on the ground. Beyond this, Cris Shore has argued that policies

require not so much studying up as studying across and every which way in a

network sort of fashion. This is what following a policy and its relevant actors,

objects, acts, and language promises, teasing out connections and observing

how policies bring together individuals, discourses and institutions ... and the

new kinds of networks, relations and subjects this process creates.60

Following policy components in these ways, another developing method

in interpretive policy analysis or, perhaps, a new way to talk about an older

method can lead analysts to trace the sites of agenda-setting, decision-

making, and other sources of power and of silent and/or silenced voices without

pressure to constrain the study to the borders of a specific physical setting.

Tracing how a policy issue might be framed at one moment and reframed at

another can transcend both physical boundaries and those of time. The policy

See, e.g., Dubois, loc. cit.; van Hulst, loc. cit. On political ethnography more broadly,
see Schatz, Edward, Political ethnography: The difference immersion makes, Chicago,
University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Cris Shore, Espionage, policy and the art of government: The British Secret Services
and the war on Iraq, in Shore, Wright, and Per, op. cit., chapter 9.

itself is the site, not some geographically bounded entity, as is amply evident

in, for instance, Charlotte Epsteins study of whaling (mentioned earlier). A

similar sort of logic appears to provide a scientific rationale for comparative

analysis from an interpretive perspective. When research is animated by a

concern for situated meaning, most similar or most different logics of case

selection which require a priori designation of what is locally meaning-ful

seem an insufficient rationale. Instead, pursuing an abductive logic of inquiry,

the policy analyst would follow policy issues to additional settings relevant to the

policy element being tracked, which might shed further light on the initial


Such following also brings physical artifacts back into analytic focus,

alongside language and acts. Science studies and actor-network theoretic

approaches such as these, which rematerialize the world of policy analysis, are

appearing on the interpretive policy analytic horizon, perhaps joined by

increasing attention to spatial domains.61 A more systematic account needs to

be made of these and other methods as they figure in interpretive policy

analysis. By contrast, discourse analyses, increasingly central to the fields

research, call for a different sort of attention. For one, researchers need to be

clear about which among the several forms of discourse analysis they are

engaging. Additionally, to the extent that treating language as the sole carrier

of policy and implementing agency meanings, as many of these studies do,

excludes an exploration of other forms of policy enactment, such as physical

artifacts and acts, analysis runs the risk of further removal from the world of

See, e.g., van Marrewijk, Alfons and Yanow, Dvora, eds., Organizational spaces:
Rematerializing the workaday world, Cheltenham, Edward Elgar, 2010.

practice. If our initial question was what and/or how policies mean, we must

acknowledge that logocentrism, while a key characteristic of academic work,

does not do justice to the panoply of meaning-communicative elements in policy

practices: language is but one mode of meaning-making, and theoretical and

analytic room must be created for acts and objects as well. As noted above,

Taylor provides the philosophical grounds for considering not only literal texts

but text analogues in his case, acts as vehicles for the communication of

meaning; the point holds as well for objects. Both have a place in interpretive

policy analysis.

Moreover, an exclusive concern with written and spoken language

constitutes a denial of the non-verbal, of the immediacy and accuracy of

aesthetic and emotive responses, and of the fullest reality of tacit knowledge. It

inclines us toward a privileging of explicit knowledge, and in particular the

assumption that we cannot make sense of experience without converting it into

verbal language. But in the world of practice, such reflection and conversion

often halts, if not stymies, action, much like the centipede in response to being

asked, "What is your 37th leg doing when your 83rd is up?" Even more, in the

world of practice there are many times when meanings are made, conveyed, and

acted upon without such explicit, intentional, conscious reflection: we do

communicate, through the symbolic representations of meaning in metaphors,

stories, and so on, much that we know only tacitly. The emphasis on explicit

language as the (only) way to communicate meaning privileges cognitive

understandings over non-verbal ones, and explicitly communicable


understandings over tacitly known ones.62 Despite the fact that narrative and

other language-focused turns create a space for tacit knowledge, they seem not

to accord it the fullest weight and attention that it merits. An interpretive policy

analysis that encompasses discursive spaces in documents and policy talk

without abandoning observed acts and/or material artifacts can enhance its

analytic purchase.

Lastly, if interpretive policy analysts are serious about questions of

knowledge and its power dimensions, they are going to have to take on board

the methodological concerns with reflexivity and positionality personal as well

as physical situatedness in the generation of truth claims. Although

increasingly de rigueur in interpretive methodologies quite broadly, these are

still very much contested methodological spaces in policy studies, where

researchers are much more likely to consider the positionalities, without using

that term, of those researched than to explicitly engage their own. Reflexivity

links directly to issues of power in this case, with respect to researchers and

those researched and not just to the subjectivities of knowledge generation.

It should be central to interpretive policy analysis.

Interpretive policy analysis has been increasingly central in recent years in

various branches of environmental policy, and it is claiming a place within IR

security studies. A newly developing subfield within anthropology that engages

See, e.g., Cook, Scott D. N. and Yanow, Dvora, Culture and organizational learning,
Journal of Management Inquiry, 2, 1993, 373-90 (reprinted in Error! Main Document
Only.Barbara Czarniawska, ed., Organization theory, Cheltenham, UK, Edward Elgar,
2006, v. 1, 259-76); Davide Nicolini, Silvia Gherardi, and Dvora Yanow, Error! Main
Document Only.Introduction: Toward a practice-based view of knowing and learning
in organizations, in Davide Nicolini, Silvia Gherardi, Dvora Yanow, eds., Knowing in
organizations: A practice-based approach, Armonk, NY, M E Sharpe, 2003, 3-31;
Yanow, Dvora and Tsoukas, Haridimos, What is reflection-in-action? A phenomenological
account, Journal of Management Studies 46/8, 2009, 1339-64.

public policy is similarly interpretive, and it will be interesting to see how the

two fields engage one another. Interpretive understandings of policy processes

is proving generative for practitioners, as well, among them, in the US,

Congressional Research Service analysts and staff at one of the Forest Service

agencies. The challenge before us is to continue to explore and develop the

several practices that fall within this meaning-focused, context-specific analytic