Introduction Public Policy

An Historical Perspective

The idea of developing social knowledge for the purpose of social betterment took the form in which we still know it today during the Enlightenment. In many respects, the American and French revolutions were a culmination of that development and the first large scale “application” of modern social and political theory.

At the same time, the revolutions were often interpreted as having brought about a social situation in which good social knowledge would permit the gradual but incessant amelioration of social life. The ways of thinking of the social sciences were also created in that context (Heilbron, Magnusson, and Wittrock 1998; see also Therborn 1976; Hawthorn 1976).1

The new, post-revolutionary situation altered the epistemic position for the social sciences,even though this was only gradually being acknowledged. Any attempt at understanding the social and political world now had to deal with the basic condition of liberty; but an emphasis on liberty alone as in the tradition of early modern political theorizing during the seventeenth and eighteenth century was insufficient to understand a social order.

For the sake of the discussion, let us quickly set out the central touchstones of the policy sciences approach.1 The policy sciences approach and its advocates deliberately distinguished themselves from early scholars in (among others) political science, public administration, communications, psychology, jurisprudence, and sociology by posing three defining characteristics that, in combination, transcended the individual contributions from those more traditional areas of study:

1. The policy sciences were consciously framed as being problem-oriented, quite explicitly addressing public policy issues and posing recommendations for their relief, while openly rejecting the study of a phenomenon for its own sake (Lasswell 1956); the societal or political question-So what?—has always been pivotal in the policy sciences’ approach. Likewise, policy problems are seen to occur in a specifi c context, a context that must be carefully considered in terms of the analysis, methodology, and subsequent recommendations. Thus, necessarily, the policy approach has not developed an overarching theoretic foundation.

2. The policy sciences are distinctively multi-disciplinary in their intellectual and practical approaches. This is because almost every social or political problem has multiple components closely linked to the various academic disciplines without falling clearly into any one discipline’s exclusive domain. Therefore, to gain a complete appreciation of the phenomenon,many relevant orientations must be utilized and integrated. Imagine, if you can, policy research in urban redevelopment (or, for that matter, international terrorism) that did not entail a constellation of disciplinary approaches and skills.

3. The policy sciences’ approach is deliberately normative or value oriented; in many cases, the recurring theme of the policy sciences deals with the democratic ethos and human dignity.2 This value orientation was largely in reaction to behavioralism,
i.e., “objectivism,” in the social sciences, and in recognition that no social problem nor methodological approach is value free. As such, to understand a problem, one must acknowledge its value components. Similarly, no policy scientist is without her/his own personal values, which also must be understood, if not resolved, as Amy (1984) has discussed. This theme later achieved a central role in the policy sciences’ movement to a post positivist orientation (see, among others, Dryzek 1990, and Fischer 2003).

Public Policy History

Making Public Policy More Fun | Vasiliki (Vass) Bednar | TEDxToronto

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1. Greater detail and explanation can be found in deLeon (1988); “archival” materials might include Lasswell 1951a, 1951b, and 1971; Lasswell and Kaplan 1950; Dewey 1927; Merriam 1926; and Merton 1936.