CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1The editors of this special issue set me the somewhat self-referential task of elucidating the interpretive approach to governance in Anglophone scholarship. This interpretive approach focuses on the beliefs of policy actors and the meanings of their actions. It decentres governance by highlighting the diversity and contingency of the meanings and actions that inform new patterns of public administration and service delivery. In many cases, it also has a critical effect, revealing the contestability and the limitations of the narratives, rationalities, and expertise that inform public policy, especially the spread of markets and networks. One critic has suggested that this decentred view of governance “may be becoming the new orthodoxy”. [1] Certainly, the interpretive approach has become widespread in studies of public sector reform [2] and policy networks. [3] It has spread through studies of local and urban governance, [4] British governance, [5] comparative governance, [6] and foreign policy and global governance. [7] It has inspired methodological studies of the uses of ethnography in political analysis. [8] It has produced theoretically informed studies of democracy and the state. [9] And it has generated a burgeoning critical literature concerned to identify its advantages and disadvantages. [10]

2Interpretive social science is sometimes associated principally with particular topics such as meanings and particular methods such as ethnography and textual analysis. Yet, all kinds of social scientists show an interest in meanings, and there is no reason why social scientists should not study meanings and beliefs using large-n statistical analysis and experiments. So, although the interpretive approach to governance typically favors ethnography and textual analyses, its most distinctive feature is a decentred theory. This decentred theory draws on post-positivist and hermeneutic philosophies dating back at least to the 1970s. [11]

3I begin my elucidation of the interpretive approach to governance, therefore, by briefly summarizing the philosophy on which it draws. The first section of the paper explores the contrast between positivism and a hermeneutic emphasis on the ideas of intentionality, historicism, and reflexivity. The second section discusses early work on governance with its lukewarm positivism. The third and fourth section show how the interpretive approach drew on the ideas of intentionality and historicism to decentre governance. The final section shows how the interpretive approach also draws on the idea of reflexivity to rethink knowledge and policy-making.

4Throughout, my concern is less to survey the massive literature on governance, than to focus – as requested – on that bit of it in which the interpretive approach is most present. [12] I concentrate, in other words, on “governance as networks” and “public sector reform”, and only indirectly address related topics such as “good governance”, “multi-level governance”, and “urban governance”.

Interpretivism contra positivism

5The dazzling achievements of the natural sciences have exerted an enormous pressure on the social sciences to model themselves on the former. Positivists believe that we should study the social world in the same way we do the natural world. Initially, in the nineteenth century, positivists wanted only to exclude appeals to supernatural causes. But later, by the middle of the twentieth century, they began to argue that the social sciences should search for causal and predictive explanations akin to those in the natural sciences. [13] This positivism suggests the social sciences study fixed objects that have observable and to some extent measurable properties. Social scientists explain these objects by general laws, albeit general laws that assign probabilities to different outcomes.

6Philosophers have increasingly turned against positivism. They argue that the intentional nature of action requires an interpretive social science, aiming for historical understanding (verstehen). This defense of interpretation appears in the hermeneutic tradition, starting with the work of Wilhelm Dilthey at the turn of the twentieth century, and extending more recently to philosophers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricœur. [14] A similar defense of interpretation now dominates Anglophone philosophy, following the leads provided by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Charles Taylor. [15]

7Interpretive philosophers argue that social science cannot take natural science as a model. Human life is intentional, holistic, and historical in ways that set it apart from the rest of## nature. In what follows, I will explore holistic intentionality and historicity before suggesting that they apply to social scientists as well as those they study. My aim is not to provide a definitive history of positivism and its alternatives. Scholars can adopt, define and classify approaches to social science in various ways depending on their purpose. I associate positivism with a neglect of the holistic and historical nature of intentionality. Interpretive philosophers recognize holism and historicism. The point of these definitions is merely to highlight the philosophical ideas that are most important to the interpretive approach to governance.

Intentionality and holism

8Some positivists argue that we confirm explanations by their fit with observations, and meanings are irrelevant because we cannot observe them. [16] Few social scientists still believe in this strong positivism. Most accept that people act for reasons of their own even if these reasons may be irrational or unconscious. Today, what divides positivists and interpretivists is the role they give to meanings in explaining actions. Positivists want meanings to drop out of these explanations. They argue that to give the reasons for an action is only to redescribe that action. If we want to explain an action, they add, we have to show how it – and so agents’ reasons – conforms to a general law referring to social facts. [17]

9Interpretivists refuse to let meanings drop out of explanations in the social sciences. They argue that meanings are constitutive of human action. As Clifford Geertz wrote, social science is “not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning”. [18] Positivists respond by saying that social science concerns structures, such as traffic jams, which are unintended consequences of actions. However, the existence of structures such as traffic jams does not undermine interpretivism. [19] Most of what social scientists want to know about these structures comes down to intentional actions. To explain why people are driving when and where they are, we need to know if they intend to go to work, a sports game, shopping, or visit relatives. Alternatively, we may explore the meanings that define the social practices to which their beliefs refer. Why do people believe that driving to work is better than using public transport ? All such questions concern intentionality. An account of traffic jams that ignored intentionality would be thin and inadequate. It would tell us only in purely physical terms that a traffic jam arose because a given number of people tried to drive cars along a stretch of road of given dimensions. It would tell us nothing about the actions that had these physical results. It would not tell us why these people were driving their cars or why the roads were as they were.

10Crucially, although positivists often accept intentionality, they atomize it, failing to recognize the holistic nature of meanings and beliefs. The centrality of meanings in social science reflects the fact not only that actions are intentional but also that beliefs are holistic. Social scientists can properly explain a belief or attitude only by placing it in a wider web of beliefs. They cannot reduce beliefs to social facts, for the content of a belief depends on its place among other beliefs. Social science needs contextual explanations. Contextualization consists here not in specifying the scope conditions of a causal relation, nor in identifying the social context of some phenomena ; it consists in grasping the nature of a belief by reconstructing the whole web of beliefs to which it belonged.

11Interpretivism draws here on holistic theories of meaning. The idea of a hermeneutic circle implies, in Gadamer’s words, that “as the single word belongs in the total context of the sentence, so the single text belongs in the total context of a writer’s work”. [20] Semiotics likewise treats signs as getting content from their place in a system of signs. [21] Analytic and post-analytic philosophers often argue, similarly, that concepts refer only in webs of belief or language games. [22] Most philosophers now agree that we explain beliefs by reference to wider webs, not by reference to objective categories such as social class or institutional position, and not by construing meanings as “independent variables” in naturalist forms of explanation.


12When positivists let meanings drop out of social explanations, they point to classifications, correlations, and regularities that hold across various cases. Even when they renounce the ideal of a universal theory, they still regard historical contingency and contextual specificity as obstacles to be overcome in the search for cross-temporal and cross-cultural regularities. Positivists characteristically search for ahistorical causal connections that bestride time and space.

13Interpretivists argue, in contrast, that the role of meanings in social life precludes ahistorical explanations. However, we should be careful how we phrase what is at issue here. Interpretivists do not reject all talk of “causes”. They merely insist that in the social sciences causes are historically particular so explanations must take the form of historical narratives. Even here, moreover, interpretivists have no reason to deny social scientists can make general claims covering diverse cases. They merely object to two specific features of positivist generalizations.

14First, interpretivists deny that general statements are a uniquely powerful form of social knowledge. They consider statements about the unique and contingent features of social life to be as valuable as general statements. Generalizations often deprive our understanding of social life of what is most distinctly and significantly human about it.

15Second, interpretivists reject the claim that ahistorical generalizations can explain particular cases. Such generalizations are merely descriptions. Just as we can say that various objects are red without explaining anything else about those objects, so we can say various countries are democracies without explaining any other feature they have in common. Because interpretivists believe actions are inherently contingent, they reject explanations of actions that rely on transhistorical generalities.

16Most philosophers now argue that the social sciences use languages that assume choice and contingency and so are incompatible with the forms of explanation found in the natural sciences. [23] In this view, the intentionality of actions means that to explain them we must invoke the reasons of the actors in a way that implies the actors could have reasoned and acted differently. Actions are the products of decisions, not the determined outcomes of general laws. Thus, social science needs narrative explanations that work by unpacking the contingent and particular conditions of actions and events, rather than by searching for transhistorical models, classifications, or correlations.


17Interpretivism highlights the holistic nature of intentionality and the historical contingency of action. These emphases apply to social scientists as well as the objects they study. Social scientists come to hold particular webs of belief against a background of contingent traditions. Positivists usually treat the situatedness of the social scientist as an obstacle to be overcome in creating knowledge. They want social scientists to abstract themselves from their historical perspectives. Positivists argue that social scientists can produce scientific knowledge only if they divest themselves of their prejudices. In contrast, interpretivists deny the possibility of our abstracting ourselves from our prior webs of beliefs. They suggest that social science always takes place from within particular linguistic, historical, and normative standpoints. The questions social scientists ask and the concepts they use always reflect their existing webs of belief.

18The situatedness of the social scientist makes the study of governance dialogical. Positivists construe explanation as a unidirectional subject-object relationship. Their neglect of the constitutive role of meanings leads them to think of the social scientist as the only agent involved in crafting explanations. The objects of social science are just that – passive objects. In contrast, interpretivists argue that explanations involve a dialogue between the social scientist and those she studies. Social science involves an interaction in which scholars respond to the interpretations of the actors they study. This interaction with the beliefs of social actors always has the potential to send out ripples through a scholar’s own beliefs, altering their understanding of their research agenda, the traditions in which they work, and their normative commitments.

The rise of governance

19The point of my discussing philosophy was to introduce the ideas that inspire the interpretive approach to governance. Interpretivism uses the ideas of intentionality and historicity to shift the literature on governance from a lingering positivism to a decentred theory. And it uses the idea of reflexivity to shift policy-making from scientific expertise to storytelling, learning by analogy, and dialogue.

20Much of the literature on governance focuses on the public sector reforms begun in the late twentieth century. It suggests that these reforms created a differentiated polity characterized by a hollowed-out state, a core executive fumbling to pull rubber levers of control, and a massive growth of networks. Although the governance literature focuses on recent administrative reforms, it extends earlier studies of pressure groups and policy networks. [24] Of course, the governance literature includes work indebted to rational choice studies of institutions or pursuing topics such as regionalism and multi-level institutions. Nonetheless, the interpretive approach has most taken hold in studies that relate public sector reforms to the rise of governance as networks.

21Political scientists began to focus on pressure groups in the late nineteenth century and more dramatically between the world wars. [25] Earlier they had concentrated on the theory of the state, constitutional law, and institutional history. At the end of the nineteenth century, political scientists began to argue that this old agenda was inadequate to the politics of mass societies with a fuller suffrage. They began to explore new empirical topics that were collectively described as political behavior. They suggested that modern democracies could be understood only by paying as much attention to public opinion, political parties, and pressure groups as to formal laws and government institutions.

22The interest in political behavior arose earlier than and independently of the shifts in methodology and theory that constituted the “behavioral revolution”. As early as 1888, James Bryce’s pioneering study The American Commonwealth moved unusually quickly through historical and legal material before devoting hundreds of pages to public opinion and political parties. [26] Later, between the world wars, this focus on political behavior combined with the rise of pluralism to inspire American scholars such as Peter Odegard and Pendelton Herring to work on pressure groups. [27] By the 1950s American and British scholars alike were reinterpreting British politics in terms of pressure groups. [28] Pluralist and neo-corporatist perspectives on groups and state –society relations flourished through the 1960s to 1980s. Political scientists described a process of interest intermediation among groups using new phrases such as clientelism, group subgovernment, and iron triangles. By the 1990s political scientists were using “policy network” as a generic label for diverse forms of interest intermediation. They devised new typologies that classified policy networks according to number of participants, stability, and internal consensus. [29]

23Much of the Anglophone literature on governance arose as political scientists interested in pressure groups and policy networks responded to neoliberal reforms of the public sector. The rise of neoliberalism brought concerted efforts to transform the public sector through the spread of contracting-out and the new public management. Neoliberals tried to reduce the power of policy networks by using markets to deliver services. They attempted to bypass existing networks and to reduce the privileges of the professions by subjecting them to rigorous financial and managerial controls. Policy networks and public administration seemed less relevant than markets and business studies. Political scientists interested in policy networks responded by arguing that these neoliberal policies had the unintended effect of creating a new governance characterized less by functioning markets than proliferating networks. The reforms had fragmented the public sector and eroded central control. [30]

24The literature on governance thus placed the old idea of policy networks at the heart of governance. [31] It associated governance with the changing nature of the state following neoliberal reforms of the public sector. These reforms created new networks and increased the membership of existing networks, incorporating both the private and voluntary sectors. Complex packages of organizations now deliver most public services. The resulting fragmentation means the state increasingly depends on other organizations to carry out its policies and secure its goals. The state has swapped direct for indirect controls. Central departments are no longer invariably the fulcrum of a network. The state may set limits to network actions, but it has increased its dependence on other policy actors. State power is scattered among spatially and functionally distinct networks. The state is characterized by baronies, policy networks, and intermittent and selective coordination. Marketization has fragmented service delivery, multiplying networks and diversifying the membership of networks. The state has been hollowed-out from above by international interdependence, from below by marketization and networks, and sideways by agencies.

25If the governance literature offers a compelling picture of the state, it still faces important challenges. One challenge might as accurately be described as a debate within the governance literature. This debate is an empirical one about the extent to which the state has been hollowed out. Proponents of metagovernance argue that although the state’s mode of operation has changed, it remains the dominant actor. Governance can “increase public control over society” as states “rethink the mix of policy instruments”. [32] Under governance, “coercive or regulatory instruments become less important” while “softer instruments gain importance”. [33] Far from being hollowed out, the state has reasserted its capacity to govern by regulating the mix of governing structures, including markets and networks, and by using indirect instruments of control. Metagovernance thus refers to the role of the state in governance. The present-day state secures coordination by negotiation, diplomacy, and informal steering. The state increasingly steers and regulates sets of organizations, governments, and networks, with other organizations undertaking much of the work of governing by implementing policies, providing public services, and at times even regulating themselves.

26Another challenge to the literature on governance is more theoretical. It dates from the criticisms made by rational choice theorists of earlier studies of policy networks. Rational choice theorists argued that the concept of a policy network was metaphorical. [34] They asked : What does a policy network refer to other than the actions of individuals ? How do policy networks explain anything ? These questions are about social ontology and social explanation. Most scholars of governance, irrespective of whether they emphasize the hollow state or metagovernance, reply to these philosophical questions by appealing to institutionalism and mid-level theory as alternatives to rational choice and micro-level theory. [35] Alas, they do not spend much time spelling out the philosophical content of their mid-level commitments. Sometimes they just wave the flag of “critical realism” – as if the phrase itself could magically answer the awkward philosophical questions. At other times they just evoke institutionalism as a long-standing and common approach – as if longevity and popularity could substitute for philosophical argument. They appear to want to wish away the philosophical questions posed by rational choice theory and return to familiar empirical topics. Nonetheless, the implicit commitments of their mid-level theories are clear. They are committed to institutions and structures as existing apart from actors and their activity and as exercising a causal influence on actors and their activity. They usually reify norms and conventions or ideal types and structures. They encourage explanations that appeal to formal systems and functions or to ahistorical logics and mechanisms. In all these commitments, mid-level theories show a lingering positivism.

Decentring governance

27The interpretive approach challenges institutionalism, critical realism, and other midlevel theories with their reified ontologies and formal explanations. Interpretivism decentres policy networks and governance, portraying them as differentiated practices produced by contingent activity infused by beliefs adopted against a background of various traditions and dilemmas. As importantly, the interpretive approach responds to the main debates about governance, providing an alternative to rational choice as a micro-theory, rethinking the hollow state as a stateless state, and promoting new topics including ruling, rationalities, and resistance.


28Too many governance scholars ignore the awkward questions about micro-theory that rational choice poses. Any social theory must grapple with the micro-level of action, beliefs, and desires. Interpretivism suggests that political life consists of meaningful activity ; politics is speech and other activity. To discuss meaningful activity is to ascribe beliefs and desires to the relevant actors. Actions can be explained only by reference to the conscious, unconscious, and subconscious reasoning of agents. In contrast to rational choice theory, however, interpretivism stresses the holistic and contingent nature of intentionality. Social scientists have to do actual empirical work to find out what beliefs and desires people held in a given case. They have to rely less on formal models than on contextual and historical explanations. An interpretive approach concentrates here not only on the construction of practices as people act on beliefs but also on the narratives and traditions that provide the historical background to the relevant beliefs and actions.

29Interpretivism suggests that the state, like all social life, consists of meaning in action. The state is a cultural practice. It is a practice because it is contingent activity. It is a cultural practice because this activity is meaningful. This theory of the state as a cultural practice stands in contrast to both the hollow state and metagovernance. Compared to these two accounts, it depicts a stateless state. The hollow state and the state-as-metagovernance are reifications that abstract the state from meaningful activity to postulate the state as an entity that fixes practices and explains outcomes. Interpretivism suggests, in contrast, that the state is merely an aggregate descriptive term for a vast array of meaningful actions that coalesce into contingent, shifting, and contested practices. The state is not a pre-existing causal structure defined independently of people’s beliefs and actions. Rather, the state is stateless in that it has no essence, no structural quality, and no power to decide the actions of which it consists. These actions are explained instead by the beliefs actors inherit from traditions and then change for reasons of their own.


30Interpretivism encourages us to examine the ways individuals act on their beliefs to create, sustain, and modify governance. It also insists that these beliefs do not simply reflect people’s allegedly given interests or institutional locations. Rather, people reach the beliefs they do by changing an inherited tradition to respond to dilemmas. Because we cannot read off people’s beliefs from knowledge of social facts about them, we have to explore both how traditions prompt them to adopt certain beliefs and how dilemmas prompt them to change traditions. A tradition is a set of theories, stories, and associated practices that people inherit and that form the background against which they come to hold beliefs and perform actions. A dilemma arises for people when a new belief, often itself an interpretation of an experience, stands in opposition to their existing ones, forcing a reconsideration of the latter.

31Different people draw on different traditions to reach different beliefs about a pattern of governance. Often their beliefs include some about the failings of existing arrangements. When their understanding of these failings conflicts with their existing beliefs, the failures pose dilemmas for them. The dilemmas then push them to reconsider their beliefs and so the traditions that inform those beliefs. Crucially, because people confront these dilemmas against the background of diverse traditions, there arises a political contest over the nature of the failings and the solutions to them. Exponents of rival positions seek to promote their particular ideas and policies. This contest often leads to reforms of governance – reforms that thus arise as a contingent product of a contest of meanings in action. The reformed pattern of governance then displays new failings, posing new dilemmas, and producing competing proposals for reform. There is another contest over meanings, a contest in which the dilemmas are often significantly different, and the traditions have been modified in response to the previous dilemmas. Of course, while we can distinguish analytically between patterns of governance and a contest over reforms, we rarely can do so temporally. Rather, governing continues during the contests, and the contests occur largely within practices of governing. Governance thus consists of a complex and continuous process of interpretation, conflict, and action that produces ever-changing patterns of rule.

Rethinking governance

32Interpretivism opens new topics in the study of governance. It moves us away from : studies of networks and the state as reified entities ; typologies or other comprehensive accounts ; and formal explanations of governance couched in terms of modernization and functional differentiation. It encourages us, instead, to tell stories about meaningful activity, especially ruling, rationalities, and resistance.

33Scholars of governance might explore the elite narratives that inform ruling practices. The central elite need not be a uniform group, whose members all hold similar beliefs, view their interests in the same way, or share a common culture. Interpretivism suggests that social scientists should ask whether different sections of the elite draw on different traditions to construct different narratives about the world, their place in it, and their interests and values. In Britain, for example, different members of the central elite are inspired by Tory, Whig, liberal, and socialist narratives. The dominant narrative in the central civil service used to be the Whig story of the generalist civil servant, spotting snags and muddling through. It has been challenged by a liberal managerial narrative that sees civil servants as hands-on, can-do managers trained at business schools not on-the-job. Today, these narratives coexist, sometimes separately, sometimes bumping into each other to create dilemmas. Civil servants often continue to believe in the Westminster notions of ministerial accountability to parliament, a centralizing idea, even as they decentralize decision-making in line with managerial notions.

34Central elites make their world using diverse narratives but they also rely on expertise including traditions of social science. Interpretivism draws attention here to the rationalities that inform policies across different sectors and different geographical spaces. These rationalities consist of scientific beliefs and their associated technologies, including, for example, rational choice and mid-level institutionalism. Governments and other social actors then draw on these rationalities to construct policies and prescribe practices. Britain, like much of the developed world, has witnessed the rise of neoliberal managerial rationalities using technologies of performance measurement that spread far beyond the central civil service to encompass the control of localities. The centre relies on inspectorates, audits, targets, and other technologies to try to impose its will. Alongside neoliberalism, Britain has also witnessed the rise of policies and practices inspired by institutionalism, network theory, and new approaches to planning. The New Labour governments promoted partnerships, joining-up, social cohesion, and other technologies as means of addressing wicked problems.

35When mid-level theorists reify institutions and structures, they can give the impression that politics and policies arise exclusively from the strategies and interactions of central and local elites. However, other actors can resist, transform, and thwart elite agendas. Interpretivism draws attention here to the diverse traditions and narratives that inspire street-level bureaucrats and citizens. Policies are sites of struggles not just among strategic elites but between all kinds of actors with different views and ideals reached against the background of different traditions. Subordinate actors can resist the intentions and policies of elites by consuming them in ways that draw on their local traditions and their local reasoning. For example, street-level police officers are often influenced by organizational traditions that encourage them to set priorities different to those of both their superior officers and elite policy-makers. The core of police work is believed to be combating crime, not the “touchy-feely” areas of community policing. The new police commissioner may want to set an example, cause a stir, or otherwise ginger up the troops. But the troops know he or she will be gone in a few years. There will be a new commissioner with new interests and priorities.

Decentring networks

36The interpretive approach to governance has been used to study ruling narratives, policy rationalities, and local resistance. These empirical studies decentre local, national, comparative, and global policy-making and service delivery. Typically, these empirical studies reflect an interpretive philosophy in that they challenge the craving for generality that characterizes comprehensive theories and definitions of governance. The craving for generality appears in attempts to explain highly diverse practices in terms of a monolithic social logic or law-like regularity. In contrast, decentred studies of governance explain diverse practices of contemporary governance by reference to various contingent actions rooted in overlapping and competing traditions. The craving for generality also appears in attempts to define contemporary governance by reference to a list of general features or essential properties that are supposed to characterize it in each and every instance. In contrast, decentred studies of governance provide a series of perspectives on different aspects of contemporary governance.

37Arguably the best way to illustrate the interpretive approach is, therefore, not to summarize a set of formal results but to tell governance stories. The following stories are not necessarily representative of a wider set of empirical findings. They are just stories that illustrate the diverse meanings people attach to network governance. They show how by acting on these diverse meanings people construct complex and conflicting practices of governance.

38The background to these stories is New Labour’s public sector reforms beginning in 1997. New Labour accepted that managerialism and marketization had the unintended consequence of fragmenting service delivery. Its response was to promote networks, partnerships, and joined-up government.

The bureaucrat’s story

39In the British civil service, the permanent secretaries sit atop Departmental bureaucracies. My first story is an amalgam of comments taken from an interview with a permanent secretary about how his role had changed and how he understood recent reforms. The comments suggest how senior civil servants can domesticate reforms by reading them in terms of their traditional concerns with the generalist and efficiency.


“I used to think there were three chunks to the job. There was a management job, there was the policy job and there was a representational job. They are probably not that different actually in proportions, roughly a third each. I certainly gave policy advice and to some extent played the policy origination role. For example, I claim authorship of the phrase ‘joined-up government’. I think this is a hugely important agenda – trying to make government policy and public services work horizontally between departments and institutions as well as vertically within them. But now the job I think is much more about resource management and relatively less about policy management or policy advice. Policy management is part of resource management. It’s a spectrum, not a black and white thing, but I think the emphasis has clearly shifted towards that management area.
It is wrong to look back, as some do, to a golden age in the 60s, but anyway that world has passed. It was a period when the civil service was the monolithic provider of advice and we are not in that world any more whether we like it or not. We have got, as a profession, to become accustomed to operating in a much more pluralist world of advice, where you have got the think tanks, the consultancies, you have got the political parties, you have got the individual pressure groups, you have much more serious public consultation, very much greater expectations built around that. The role of the civil service, if it has a unique role at all, becomes that of professional synthesizer of advice, rather than a professional originator of advice. I don’t think we have necessarily done that as well as we should.
As a permanent secretary you become an orchestrator of advice, making sure that you have competent people doing particular jobs – you have got to have the right level of resources doing that particular subject. That is one end of the management spectrum : it has always been part of the job. But now in terms of how the role has changed I have no doubt at all that systematic management has hugely increased in importance. There is a sense in which the agencies thing has withdrawn the permanent secretary from one level of management and taken him into a much more strategic level. I think on the whole that’s been good.
Reform is fine but you’ve got to do it with the grain. There’s a great machine here. You can’t just change it overnight. You’ve got to edge it into a new role. You’ve got to preserve the non-political role of the civil service when some of the changes are politically charged. I do not believe that we are significantly politicized. There are signs in one or two places, and we must be very careful about that. Generally, I think the civil service is in many ways much better now than we were fifteen years ago – more professional, more open, actually more competent.”

The manager’s story

41Public sector managers put central initiatives into local practice. The following story comes from an interview with the Chair of a Primary Care Trust. He provides strategic leadership for the primary care sector of the National Health Service (NHS). Primary care comprises the services provided in a specific geographic area by both general practitioners and those community health services, such as midwifery, that look after people in their own homes. The interview shows how the manager tries to make sense of networks and the financial frameworks – targets and terror – that frame them.


“Our major partner is the local authority as a whole, not just social services. One of the first people I met was the chief executive of a local authority. I rang him up and said I’d like to see him and he and the leader of the local authority came round to see me. The chief executive talks about the town and, I mean, he is strongly committed to the notion of the local authority as community leader.
We are a small organization and I’m keen for us to play a part right across the community because the potential impact of what they do on us is great and vice versa. Within a few weeks they asked me if I would be the vice-chair of the community safety partnership and that, it turned out, was really to chair it because the person who chairs it, who is the former leader of the local authority, was never there. Whenever I’ve been there, which is three times now, I’ve chaired it. So, yeah, they were very keen to get us into things like that.
I certainly see the director of the community services, who is the chief officer responsible for community safety, regularly. I see the guy who – he has chief officer status – is responsible for the local strategic partnership in the community plan. There are a lot of issues about mental health and crime and only this week I discovered a whole set of issues around prison health. We primarily meet in a partnership group. It is one of five task groups. It reports to the overall local strategic partnership. The local strategic partnership is the over-arching liaison, strategic, planning mechanism that brings together all the elements of the community plan.
Apart from the local authority and the community plan, the other key actors are the provider trusts and in our case there is an acute trust, a mental health, and learning disabilities trust. Then, in addition, there’s the whole primary care sector. Obviously in some respects they are major providers but in the main they are still independent contractors and they are not on a contract with us, but they are our partners, they are part of the trust.
There are separate meetings of all the chief executives, and there are separate meetings of all the chairs, though as a result of a proposal I made at the last chairs’ meeting, we’re going to have some joint meetings. But most of the business is done through bilaterals. There are some exceptions that sort of prove the rule, like there was a review of acute services.
There is the financial agreement each year, what’s called the Service and Financial Framework (SAFF), which is certainly the centre of the financial frameworks. Essentially that’s where each purchaser agrees with the local providers what the envelope cash is in the coming year, and what targets they will meet in terms of delivering their services, and that is a politicized process with a small ‘p’, which has been brokered by the health authority. This year because there are lots of deals that have to be done around the two big acute trusts – which have implications for the rest of the services, as they tend to swallow up a lot of the growth – those deals have to be brokered on an area-wide basis.
The health authority is also a major actor. We have to sign an annual accountability agreement with it. The essential element of it is that we will meet the targets laid down in the national NHS plan. We meet them on a quarterly basis. There’s the regional office of the NHS executive, to which we are accountable via the health authority. Our provider trusts are directly accountable to the regional office. The regional office has to broker the SAFFs if the health authority can’t do it, and the regional offices in our region put a lot of pressure on the health authorities to get everything signed up by the end of March. The regional office monitors us through the quarterly returns that we make to the health authority and then the regional office monitors the health authority.
Within the town, all the major players work in offices within ten minutes’ walk of one another. Domestically and socially, everybody knows where you live and where you went. At the senior level, a number of people meet for lunch and have drinks during the day and things like that. I’ve met the director of social services to have a pub meal. There is, undoubtedly, a local network which is beginning to self-consciously think about organizing itself, rationalizing a lot of the activities. I think it was Wednesday I was chairing the community safety thing, and we talked about rationalizing the way that youth offending, drugs, and community safety are handled, so now it’s all going to be within a single framework.
The voluntary or the private sectors are not immensely significant for decision-making in the arenas that I operate in. It is not as significant in this area as in some places because of the long tradition of municipal Labourism. If not alive and well, it’s still there (laughs). The voluntary sector is, however, a major player in service delivery although it is not a major player in terms of strategic development.
We have a responsibility to consult with and involve the public in setting priorities and getting feedback about health services and we’ve got what we call the communications forum, which meets about every two months. We can get as many as 60 people into a meeting. We’ve invested a lot of time in developing good relationships with a wide range of community groups.”

The citizen’s story

43The final story provides one illustration of the ways citizens experience, interpret, and respond to new networks of personal care. It is a faction based on the files of a local authority in Northern England.


Mr and Mrs R live in a two-bedroom house in the suburbs of a town with a population of some 200,000. Mr R is 83 years old, and wheelchair-bound following a stroke six months ago. Mrs R is 79 years old, still active mentally and physically but not strong enough to help with her husband’s personal care without help from one other person.
For the past six months, they have had a care assistant from a private agency to help Mr R with getting up, toileting, washing and dressing every morning. A local authority home help calls at lunch to help with toileting, and personal care tasks if necessary. The home help also calls twice weekly to do shopping, as Mrs R can’t leave Mr R, because he gets distressed when left on his own. Mr R has a catheter that is managed by his wife and checked by a community nurse twice weekly. Three nights a week (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) a private agency care assistant calls to help Mr R to go to bed. The local authority’s home help service assists on the four remaining evenings a week. The evening call can take place any time from 7.00 pm to 9.00 pm depending on daily demand on staff. The local authority care manager arranged and purchased the services of the private agency.
Mr and Mrs R moved their double bed into the lounge because the bathroom is downstairs at the back of the kitchen and Mr R cannot get upstairs. They live and entertain in their small kitchen. Mr R cannot get out without being lifted because there are three steep steps at the front and at the back of the house that make it difficult to install a ramp.
To make themselves more comfortable their care manager suggested moving to a new comfortable sheltered housing complex in the centre of town. They have an offer of a one-bedroom flat with a kitchen and living room on the first floor. There are lifts. There is a communal room with regular activities.
Mr R would be able to move freely around the flat and use the kitchen, as the units are wheelchair height. He would be able to use the lift and attend the activities at the communal room. He would need assistance at home for personal care. Mrs R would be able to get out to do some shopping while her husband is joining in the communal activities. She would not be so isolated, as she would be able to join in the communal activities with her husband.
Mr R will not consider looking at the flat until he knows he can have the same carer from a private agency who calls every morning. This will not be possible because his care arrangements will be provided by different locally based staff. His wife needs help to explain this. The home care manager responsible for the new area visits the couple to reassure Mr R that he and his wife will get all the help that they need. The couple visit the new flat and accept the offer.

Reflexivity – knowledge and policy

45As interpretivism encourages social scientists to decentre governance, so it prompts them to rethink the nature of their expertise and its role in policy-making. It draws on the idea of reflexivity to highlight : the validity of different types of data, the limitations of reified modes of knowledge, and the importance of storytelling. It thus seeks to shift policy-making away from reliance on the alleged expertise of formal approaches to social science and toward dialogic alternatives.

Types of data

46Interpretivism has implications about how to use and explain data. It encourages social scientists to see data as evidence of concrete activity informed by historically contingent beliefs. It is worth emphasizing again here that interpretivism does not negate any particular method for creating data. Interpretivists can construct their historical stories from data produced by various techniques. They can draw on any or all of participant observation, interviews, questionnaires, mass surveys, experiments, and statistical analysis, as well as reading memoirs, newspapers, and official and unofficial documents. Instead of prescribing a particular methodological toolkit for producing data, interpretivism prescribes a particular way of treating data of any type. It implies that social scientists should treat data as evidence of the meanings embedded in actions.

47Nonetheless, the interpretive view of how we should treat data does have some implications for the kind of data that is most helpful and the ways in which we might gather it. Interpretivism highlights, in particular, the importance of learning about the intentionality of actors ; that is, the beliefs, cultures, and traditions that inform actions and practices. The constitutive relation of beliefs to actions encourages studies of beliefs and identities and the actions and cultural practices to which they give rise. The historically embedded nature of activity encourages studies of the traditions that inform people’s beliefs and actions.

48Interpretive social scientists often favor qualitative methods, and especially textual analysis and ethnography, since these techniques encourage thicker accounts of the diverse webs of meaning that are embedded in social and political life. They favor detailed studies of the beliefs of the relevant people using textual analysis, participant observation, and interviews. For example, Cris Shore’s analysis of how European Union elites sought to build Europe uses a battery of methods, including participant observation, archives, textual analysis, biographies, oral histories, recorded interviews, and informal conversations, as well as surveys and statistical analysis. [36] Some social scientists prefer the latter techniques and ignore or actively denigrate other methods. In contrast, the interpretive approach does not require an exclusive use of any one method ; it redresses the balance to the qualitative analyses associated with anthropology and history.

Models and frameworks

49Interpretivism is less about methods for creating data than how to think about and explain data. Models, frameworks, and correlations are ways of abstracting from concrete human activity. They describe patterns in concrete activity. But to describe an abstract pattern is not to give a uniquely correct account of the world. If we looked at the same concrete activity at a different level of abstraction, we might see a different pattern, or even no pattern at all.

50Models, frameworks, and correlations are reifications that highlight patterns in concrete activity. Yet, they may blind us to differences within a pattern. The worry is that if we overly privilege models, frameworks, or correlations, we may see them as uniquely correct descriptions of the world, and so ignore complexities and diversities within them. When we find a pattern, we should ask whether it hides differences that would appear if we asked (i) whether different beliefs happen to have produced similar actions, or (ii) whether different webs of belief happen to include some similar features.

51Some patterns arise when people act in similar ways for different reasons. In Britain, there is a well-established (if declining) correlation between being working-class and voting for the Labour Party. The worry is the correlation may lead us to think there is a monolithic pattern. Clearly, however, different working-class people may vote Labour for different reasons. Some may vote Labour believing they are working-class and Labour will promote the interests of the working-class. Others may vote Labour because they think they are working-class, and while they do not think Labour will promote the workers’ interests, they have an emotional identification with the symbolism of Labour. Others may believe (perhaps mistakenly) that they are middle-class and yet vote Labour because they see themselves as committed to values such as social justice.

52Other patterns arise – especially in speech, beliefs, and attitudes – because people have webs of belief that have some abstract features in common but are different in their specifics. Suppose, for example, that many people from a particular nationality or religion say that they support a strong state. We might think that we have found a clear pattern. Equally, however, we should be aware that different members of the group may mean different things when they use the word “state” or may have different reasons for supporting a strong state. Some may think that their state is unable to defend the rule of law and just want it to do so. Others may want their state to impose stronger moral norms on society. And so on.

53It is important to recognize that the case for decentring models, frameworks, and correlations is a philosophical one. So, although someone might propose using more nuanced models, frameworks, and correlations to capture the diverse reasons workers have for voting Labour or people have for wanting a stronger state, we could still then consider whether these more nuanced theories should in their turn be decentred. We should adopt a suspicious attitude to reified patterns, always recognizing that they might cover diverse types of concrete activity.


54Models, frameworks, and correlations are reifications that describe patterns. We should be careful not to mistake such descriptions of a pattern for an explanation of it. That working-class people vote Labour does not mean that their being working-class explains why they do so. That people of some nationality or religion support a strong state does not mean that their nationality or religion explains their beliefs about the state. Explanations of social data, including the patterns among data, depend on first, accounts of the beliefs that lead people to act as they do, and, second, the cultural and historical contexts in which they adopt those beliefs.

55We explain actions by reference to beliefs ; we explain beliefs by placing them in a web of beliefs ; and we explain webs of belief by locating them against the background of historical traditions. Social scientists should not treat beliefs as epiphenomena to be explained in terms of objective facts about the world, social formations, or a purportedly universal rationality. Social science relies on explanations that refer to the reasons people had for acting and that contextualize and historicize these reasons.

56Social explanations thus resemble narratives. Historical and fictional narratives characteristically relate actions to the beliefs and desires that produce them. Narratives depend here on conditional connections that are not necessary or arbitrary : it is because they are not necessary that social science differs from the natural sciences, and it is because they are not arbitrary that social scientists can still use them to explain actions and practices. These conditional connections exist when the nature of one object draws on the nature of another. The relevant objects condition each other, so they do not have an arbitrary relation. But neither object follows inexorably from the other, so they do not have a necessary relation. Social knowledge depends on telling stories that postulate just such conditional connections between beliefs, actions, practices, and their contexts.


57Interpretivism highlights the importance of telling stories, learning by analogy, and encouraging a dialogue among the relevant actors. In doing so, it has clear implications for policy. The interpretive approach encourages policy-makers to look suspiciously on claims to a formal scientific expertise. It suggests :

58– Practitioners should take an eclectic approach to data, not make a fetish of hard data, and remember that all data is a partial account of concrete activity, and possibly wrong.

59– Practitioners should be wary of treating data as evidence of a reified social logic or law-like regularity ; they should be aware of the diversity of concrete human activity and the historical and cultural contexts that influence it.

60– Practitioners should experiment with multiple stories that reveal new aspects of situations ; they should hear different voices, talk to one another, and so develop tentative and evolving narratives.

61Given that these arguments are general, it is important to bring them down-to-earth with a thud. Most if not all policy advisers will accept that the art of storytelling is an integral part of their work. Practitioners often use phrases such as : “Have we got our story straight ?”, “Are we telling a consistent story ?”, “What is our story ?”. Advisors often explain past events to justify recommendations for the future. Interpretive theory makes sense of the knowledge they are seeking and acting on. In short, a stress on interpretation and storytelling is not an example of academic whimsy. It reminds policy-makers of what they do, and explains why doing that remains a valuable corrective to excessively formal approaches to data and knowledge.


  • [1]
    D. Marsh, “Understanding British government : analysing competing models”, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 10(2), 2008, 251-68.
  • [2]
    As the categories in this and the ensuing footnotes overlap, my attempt to slot items neatly under those categories is at best foolhardy and probably actively misleading. Still, on public sector reform see M. Bevir, R. Rhodes, and P. Weller (eds), “Traditions of governance : history and diversity”, Public Administration, special issue, 81(1), 2003 ; M. Bevir and F. Trentmann (eds), Governance, Consumers, and Citizens : Agency and Resistance in Contemporary Politics (Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2007) ; K. Clark and F. Gains (eds), “Constructing delivery : implementation as an interpretive process”, Critical Policy Analysis, special issue, 1(2), 2007 ; J. Jose, “Reframing the ‘governance’ story”, Australian Journal of Political Science 42(3), 2007, 455-70 ; G. Stoker, “Public value management : a new narrative for networked governance ?”, American Review of Public Administration 36(1), 2006, 41-57 ; K. Wilkinson, “Organised chaos : an interpretive approach to evidence based policy-making in Defra”, Political Studies, 59(4), 2011, 959-77 ; and J. Wood, J. Fleming, and M. Marks, “Building the capacity of police change agents : the Nexus policing project”, Policing and Society 18(1), 2008, 72-87.Online
  • [3]
    Examples include M. Bevir and D. Richards (eds), “Decentring policy networks”, Public Administration, special issue, 88(1), 2009 ; and M. O’Brien, A. Atkinson, D. Burton, A. Campbell, A. Qualter, and T. Varga-Atkins, “Social inclusion and learning networks : ‘a wider notion of learning’ or taking things in a different direction”, Research Papers in Education, 24(1), 2009, 57-75.Online
  • [4]
    Examples include I. Bache and P. Catney, “Embryonic associationalism : New Labour and urban governance”, Public Administration, 86(2), 2008, 411-28 ; A. Dinham and V. Lowndes, “Religion, resources, and representation : three narratives of faith engagement in British urban governance”, Urban Affairs Review, 43(6), 2008, 817-45 ; G. Dudley, “Ideas, bargaining and flexible policy communities : policy change and the case of the Oxford transport strategy”, Public Administration, 81(3), 2003, 433-58 ; R. Krueger and D. Gibbs, “Competitive global city regions and ‘sustainable development’”, Environment and Planning A, 42(4), 2010, 821-37 ; S. Monro, “New institutionalism and sexuality at work in local government”, Gender, Work, and Organization, 14(1), 2006, 1-19 ; K. Orr, “Interpreting narratives of local government change under the Conservatives and New Labour”, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 7(3), 2005, 371-85 ; K. Orr, “Local government and structural crisis : an interpretive approach”, Policy and Politics, 37(1), 2009, 39-55 ; K. Orr and R. Vince, “Traditions of local government”, Public Administration, 87(3), 2009, 655-77 ; and H. Sullivan, “Interpreting ‘community leadership’ in English local government”, Policy and Politics, 35(1), 2007, 141-62.
  • [5]
    Examples include M. Bevir and R. Rhodes, Interpreting British Governance (London : Routledge, 2003) ; A. Booth, “‘The traditional standpoint of historians’ : tradition and the construction of educational identity in late twentieth-century British higher education”, Contemporary British History, 24(4), 2010, 493-509 ; A. Edwards, “Interpreting New Labour’s political discourse on the peace process”, in K. Hayward and C. O’Donnell (eds), Political Discourse and Conflict Resolution : Debating Peace in Northern Ireland (Abingdon : Routledge, 2011), 46-61 ; A. Finlayson “Characterizing New Labour : the case of the Child Trust Fund”, Public Administration, 86(1), 2008, 95-110 ; C. Kenny, “At ideological loggerheads : identifying and clarifying the discursive differences between Blair and Brown on education”, British Politics 5(3), 2010, 367-84 ; S. Meredith and P. Catney, “New Labour and associative democracy : old debates in new times ?”, British Politics, 2(3), 2007, 347-71 ; K. Morrell, “Policy as narrative : New Labour’s reform of the National Health Service”, Public Administration, 84(2), 2006, 367-85 ; R. Rhodes, Everyday Life in British Government (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2011) ; D. Richards and H. Mathers, “Political memoirs and New Labour : interpretations of power and the club rules”, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 12(4), 2010, 498-522 ; and D. Richards and M. Smith, “Interpreting the world of political elites”, Public Administration, 82(4), 2004, 777-800.Online
  • [6]
    Examples include D. Craig, “Community well-being strategy and the legacies of the new institutionalism and new public management in third way New Zealand”, in L. Bauld, K. Clarke, and T. Maltby (eds), Analysis and Debate in Social Policy (Bristol : Policy Press, 2006), 193-220 ; C. Irazabal, City Making and Urban Governance in the Americas : Curitiba and Portland (London : Ashgate, 2005) ; and R. Rhodes, J. Wanna, and P. Weller, Comparing Westminster (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2009).
  • [7]
    Examples include O. Bratburg, “Ideas, tradition, and norm entrepreneurs : retracing guiding principles of foreign policy in Blair and Chirac’s speeches on Iraq”, Review of International Studies, 37(1), 2011, 327-48 ; O. Daddow, New Labour and the European Union : Blair and Brown’s Logic of History (Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2011) ; I. Hall, The Dilemmas of Decline : British Intellectuals and World Politics, 1945-1975 (Berkeley : University of California Press, 2011) ; and X. Yi-Chong and P. Weller, “To be, but not to be seen : exploring the impact of international civil servants”, Public Administration, 86(1), 2007, 35-51.
  • [8]
    Examples include M. Bevir and R. Rhodes, Governance Stories (London : Routledge, 2006) ; F. Gains, “Elite ethnographies : potential, pitfalls and prospects for getting ‘up close and personal’”, Public Administration, 89(1), 2011, 156-66 ; and R. Rhodes, P. t’Hart, and M. Noordegraaf (eds), Observing Government Elites : Up Close and Personal (Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
  • [9]
    See respectively M. Bevir, Democratic Governance (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2010) ; and M. Bevir and R. Rhodes, The State as Cultural Practice (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2010).Online
  • [10]
    Examples include A. Finlayson (ed.), “The interpretive approach to political science : a symposium”, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 6(2), 2004, 129-64 ; A. Finlayson, “From beliefs to arguments : interpretive methodology and rhetorical political analysis”, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 9(4), 2007, 545-63 ; C. Hay, “Interpreting interpretivism interpreting interpretations : the new hermeneutics of public administration”, Public Administration, 89(1), 2011, 167-82 ; J. Hudson, G. Hwang, and S. Kühner, “Between ideas, institutions, and interests : analysing third way welfare reform programmes in Germany and the United Kingdom”, Journal of Social Policy, 37(2), 2008, 207-30 ; S. Lawson, “Political studies and the contextual turn : a methodological/normative critique”, Political Studies, 56(3), 2008, 584-603 ; S. McAnulla, “Challenging the new interpretivist approach : toward a critical realist alternative”, British Politics, 1(1), 2006, 113-38 ; S. McAnulla, “New Labour, old epistemology ? Reflections on political science, new institutionalism and the Blair government”, Parliamentary Affairs, 60(2), 2007, 313-31 ; D. Marsh, “The new orthodoxy : the differentiated polity model”, Public Administration, 89(1), 2011, 32-48 ; D. Marsh and M. Hall, “The British political tradition : explaining the fate of New Labour’s constitutional reform agenda”, British Politics, 2(2), 2007, 215-38.Online
  • [11]
    I first published on a decentred theory of governance in M. Bevir, “A decentred theory of governance”, in H. Bang (ed.), Governance as Social and Political Communication (Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2011), 200-21. The theory drew heavily, however, on the philosophical arguments that I had developed in M. Bevir, The Logic of the History of Ideas (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1999).
  • [12]
    For a series of broader surveys of the various theories and topics associated with governance see M. Bevir (ed.), The SAGE Handbook of Governance (London : SAGE, 2011).
  • [13]
    A. Ayer, “Man as a subject for science”, in P. Laslett and W. Runciman (eds), Philosophy, Politics and Society, 3rd series (Oxford : Basil Blackwell, 1967) ; C. Hempel, “The function of general laws in history”, Journal of Philosophy, 39(2), 1942, 35-48.Online
  • [14]
    W. Dilthey, Selected Writings, ed. and trans. H. Rickman (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1976). H.-G. Gadamer, Truth and Method (New York : Continuum, 2002) ; and P. Ricœur, Interpretation Theory : Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth : Texas Christian University Press, 1976).
  • [15]
    L. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Malden, MA : Blackwell, 2001) ; A. MacIntyre, “A mistake about causality in social science”, in P. Laslett and W. Runciman (eds), Philosophy, Politics and Society, 2nd series (Oxford : Basil Blackwell, 1969) ; and C. Taylor, “Interpretation and the sciences of man”, Review of Metaphysics, 25(1), 1971, 3-51.
  • [16]
    J. Watson, Behaviorism (New York : Norton, 1924). F. Skinner, The Behavior of Organisms : An Experimental Analysis (New York : Appleton-Century, 1938).
  • [17]
    Ayer, “Man as a subject for science”.
  • [18]
    C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures : Selected Essays (New York : Basic Books, 1973), 5.
  • [19]
    The nature and relation of structure and agency has been one of the most hotly debated topics among interpretivists and their critics. See the items cited in footnote 6, p. 64, especially those by Hay, McAnulla, and Marsh.
  • [20]
    Gadamer, Truth and Method, 291.
  • [21]
    C. Peirce, “Pragmatism”, in Essential Peirce : Selected Philosophical Writings, vol. 2 : 1893-1913 (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1998), 398-433 ; and F. de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, ed. C. Bally and A. Sechehaye, trans. W. Baskin (New York : McGraw-Hill, 1966).
  • [22]
    W. Quine and J. Ullian, The Web of Belief (New York : Random House, 1970) ; and Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations.
  • [23]
    D. Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1980).
  • [24]
    H. Enroth, “Policy network theory”, in M. Bevir (ed.), The SAGE Handbook of Governance (London : Sage, 2011).
  • [25]
    For the history of Anglophone political science, behavioralism and network theory, see R. Adcock, M. Bevir, and S. Stimson (eds), Modern Political Science (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 2007) ; Enroth, “Policy network theory” ; and M. Kenny, “The case for disciplinary history : political studies in the 1950s and 1960s”, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 6(4), 2004, 565-83. For more interdisciplinary and comparative studies see R. Backhouse and P. Fontaine (eds), The History of Postwar Social Science (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2010) ; and J. Heilbron, N. Guilhot, and L. Jeanpierre, “Toward a transnational history of social science”, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 44(2), 2008, 146-60.
  • [26]
    J. Bryce, The American Commonwealth, 3 vols (London : Macmillan, 1888).
  • [27]
    P. Odegard, Pressure Politics : The Story of the Anti-Saloon League (New York : Columbia University Press, 1928) ; P. Herring, Group Representation Before Congress (Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1929).
  • [28]
    S. Beer, Modern British Politics : A Study of Parties and Pressure Groups (London : Faber, 1963) ; H. Eckstein, Pressure Group Politics (Stanford : Stanford University Press, 1960) ; S. Finer, Anonymous Empire : A Study of the Lobby in Great Britain (London : Pall Mall Press, 1958) ; and W. Mackenzie, “Pressure groups in British government”, British Journal of Sociology, 6(2), 1955, 133-48.
  • [29]
    See, for example, D. Marsh and R. Rhodes (eds), Policy Networks in British Government (Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1992).
  • [30]
    R. Rhodes, Understanding Governance (Buckingham : Open University Press, 1997).
  • [31]
    This was especially true of the Anglo-governance school : Bevir and Rhodes, Interpreting British Governance ; D. Richards and M. Smith, Governance and Public Policy in the UK (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2002) ; Rhodes, Understanding Governance ; M. Smith, The Core Executive in Britain (London : Macmillan, 1999) ; G. Stoker (ed.), The New Management of British Local Governance (London : Macmillan, 1999) ; G. Stoker (ed.), The New Politics of British Local Governance (London : Macmillan, 2000) ; and, for discussions, C. Bellamy, “The Whitehall Programme and after : researching government in a time of governance”, Public Administration, 89(1), 2011, 78-92 ; and M. Marinetto, “Governing beyond the centre : a critique of the Anglo-governance school”, Political Studies, 51(3), 2003, 592-608.
  • [32]
    J. Pierre and B. Peters, Governance, Politics and the State (Basingstoke : Macmillan, 2000), 78 and 104-5.
  • [33]
    Pierre and Peters, Governance, 111. Also see J. Davies, “The governance of urban regeneration : a critique of the ‘governing without government’ thesis”, Public Administration, 80(2), 2002, 301-22 ; and B. Jessop, “Governance and metagovernance : on reflexivity, requisite variety, and requisite irony”, in H. Bang (ed.), Governance as Social and Political Communication (Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2003). More generally see E. Sorensen and J. Torfing, “Theoretical approaches to metagovernance”, in E. Sorensen and J. Torfing (eds), Theories of Democratic Network Governance (Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 169-82.
  • [34]
    K. Dowding, “Model or metaphor ? A critical review of the policy network approach”, Political Studies, 43(S1), 1995, 136-58. The debate about policy networks has persisted. On recent developments, see M. Bevir and D. Richards, “Decentring policy networks : a theoretical agenda”, Public Administration, 87(1), 2009, 3-14 ; and T. Börzel, “Networks : reified metaphor or governance panacea”, Public Administration, 89(1), 2011, 49-63.
  • [35]
    Examples include Stoker, “Introduction”, New Politics ; D. Marsh and M. Smith, “Understanding policy networks : towards a dialectical approach”, Political Studies, 48(1), 2000, 4-21 ; and Rhodes, Understanding Governance. For a recent discussion of the lingering structuralism in the Anglo-governance literature – but one that reaches very different conclusions from mine – see R. Elgie, “Core executive studies two decades on”, Public Administration, 89(1), 2011, 64-77.Online
  • [36]
    C. Shore, Building Europe : The Cultural Politics of European Integration (London : Routledge, 2000).Online

This article discusses the interpretive approach to governance. The interpretive approach comes from a hermeneutic philosophy, emphasizing intentionality, historicism, and reflexivity. These philosophical ideas decentre governance. The first wave of governance studies relied on a lukewarm positivism, extending the literature on policy networks to cover neoliberal reforms. This account of governance faced challenges from rational choice theory and from the idea of metagovernance. The interpretive approach responds to these challenges : to rational choice by decentring governance (patterns of governance arise as the products of meaning in action) ; and to metagovernance by decentring the state (the state is stateless). The article illustrates this interpretive approach, with its emphasis on intentionality and historicism, using stories of network governance. It then concludes by discussing the implications of the interpretive approach to governance for policy analysis. Interpretive theory encourages : a more eclectic approach to data, a suspicion of formal models and frameworks, and a greater role for storytelling.

Mark Bevir
Mark Bevir is a Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of The Logic of the History of Ideas (1999), New Labour : A Critique (2005), Key Concepts of Governance (2009), Democratic Governance (2010), and The Making of British Socialism (2011), and the co-author, with R. A. W. Rhodes, of Interpreting British Governance (2003), Governance Stories (2006), and The State as Cultural Practice (2010). His research interests in political theory include moral philosophy, political philosophy, and the history of political thought. His work on public policy focuses on organization theory, democratic theory, and governance. His methodological interests cover the philosophy of social science, the history of social science, and interpretive analysis.
This is the latest publication of the author on cairn.
Uploaded on on 05/05/2014
Distribution électronique pour Presses de Sciences Po © Presses de Sciences Po. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait