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by Professor Paul Cairney
Understanding Public Policy (in 1000 and 500 words)

Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Combining Theories

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From Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Combining Theories

The combination of multiple theories in policy studies is like a valence issue in politics: few would disagree with the idea, largely because the sentiment is rather vague. Who would not want to combine the insights of a wide range of theories and studies to advance our knowledge? The more problematic and debatable part of this task relates to the details: how do we do it? I outline three main ways in which scholars address this issue and highlight the problems that may arise in each case:

Synthesis. We combine the insights of multiple theories, concepts or models to produce a single theory.  One key problem is that when we produce a synthetic theory, from a range of other theories or concepts, we have to assume that the component parts of this new hybrid are consistent with each other. Yet, if you scratch the surface of many concepts – such as ‘new institutionalism’ or ‘policy networks’ – you find all sorts of  disagreement about the nature of the world, how our concepts relate to it and how we gather knowledge of it. There are also practical problems regarding our assumption that the authors of these concepts have the same thing in mind when they describe things like ‘punctuated equilibrium’.  In other words, imagine that you have constructed a new theory based on the wisdom of five other people.  Then, get those people in the same room and you will find that they will share all sorts of – often intractable – disagreements with each other.  In that scenario, could you honestly state that your theory was based on accumulated knowledge?

The ‘Complementary’ Approach. In this case, you accept that people have these differences and so you accommodate them – you entertain a range of theories/ concepts and explore the extent to which they explain the same thing in different ways.  This is a popular approach associated with people like Allison) and used by several others to compare policy events.  One key problem with this approach is that it is difficult to do full justice to each theory.  Most theories have associated methods which are labour intensive and costly, putting few in the position to make meaningful comparisons.  Instead, the comparisons tend to be desktop exercises based on a case study and the authors’ ability to consider how each theory would explain it.

The ‘Contradictory’ Approach.  In that context, another option is to encourage the independence of such theories.


For more see Policy Concepts in 1000 Words: Combining Theories

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Episode 23

by Professor Paul Cairney