Social Science and Public Policy

Richard Freeman

Frequently Asked Question

What is 'interpretive policy analysis'?


Policy makers tell stories of problems and processes, interests and interventions. They give versions and accounts, make claims and justifications. They do so by reading, writing and speaking in myriad forms in reporting, drafting, consulting, presenting, planning, auditing and evaluating. To make policy is to make representations, in both political and pictorial senses. By the same token, to represent is to intervene.

Interpretive policy analysis begins with observations which are themselves representations like these. It is informed by postpositivist social theory which attends to matters of representation through language, text and symbol in the constitution of social life. But it is also relentlessly empirical, concerned with what policy makers do, with 'the work of policy', in Hal Colebatch's phrase. Its principal methods are ethnographic (both observation and interviews) and text-based.

Interpretive policy analysis is interpretive. What else could analysis be? But it is distinctive in attending to the interpretations policy makers themselves make. If the work of policy is to make representations or interpretations, the work of analysis is to interpret those interpretations.

What is it for?

Policy analysis conceived in this way is a source of reflection rather than direction or prescription. Its contribution to policy making lies in helping actors (policy makers) 'learn what they do'. It gives counsel, and in this is both very traditional and very radical, using counsel in both its therapeutic and non-therapeutic senses.

Its likely outcomes are renewed attention to the process rather than the product of policy making. Its questions are not 'What should we do?' but 'What are we doing?', 'How do we do what we do?' and perhaps 'How do we work out what we should be doing?'. Its focus is on the assumptions and practices of policy. In this way, it generates among policy makers a second order of awareness of what they do and what they might do differently.

This begs the question of how its findings should be communicated, how such awareness might be inculcated. Interpretive policy analysis is not in the first instance concerned with findings or outcomes, though of course they can be communicated in that way. Its effects are felt in process, as research is conducted, in interviews, conversations and communications with policy makers and practitioners. The later stages of research are marked by increased formalization of those exchanges, in seminars, workshops and conferences, in reports, briefings and journal articles. The 'end' of research is arbitrary, an interpretation agreed by participants and recorded and represented in documents. In this way, it's just like policy.