Gaining new perspectives – a workshop on „interpretation“

When travelling abroad you certainly learn more about foreign countries, yet you also – and perhaps even more so – learn about your own country. Following this spirit, I spent two days of the last week at the Leuphana University in Lüneburg, where I attented a workshop on “Interpretation” and its use in political science. The workshop was part of the preparation of an upcoming special issue in the German journal “Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft”, guest-edited by Marlon Barbehön, Sybille Münch, and Gabi Schlag.

The renowned “Libeskind building” at Leuphana University

Being rooted in positivist policy analysis, I do not use interpretative or constructivist approaches in my research at all. Yet, the special issue offered the unique opportunity to reflect upon one’s own perspective by engaging with ideas usually not treated in my day-to-day work. Indeed, my contribution to the special issue tries to determine whether interpretative elements do exist in positivist policy analysis. I answer this question by examining the two sets of theories mainly used  in traditional German policy analysis, policy-output-theories and policy-process-theories, as well as two methods of data collection, the quantification of policy outputs and semi-structured expert interviews.

The preliminary results suggest that while policy-output-theories exhibit very little interpretative elements, theories of the policy process contain concepts which highlight the role of individual meaning-making and societal discourses. The theories’ assumption of bounded rationality and their focus on the micro-level make them appear closer to interpretative approaches, although their main aim remains the testing of  generalizable hypotheses. Concerning the two methods of data collection, the quantification of policy outputs did feature less interpretative elements than expert interviews. Yet, I got so many new ideas at the workshop, that I may reconsider these early results and sharpen my conclusions.

Lüneburg’s picturesque old town

In sum, you have to get out of your own shoes sometimes in order to have a closer look at them. Participating in the special issue and going to Lüneburg to discuss the many different contributions to the special issue and ideas about “interpretation” was therefore a very worthwhile endeavor also – or perhaps especially – for a researcher in positivist policy analysis.

Helge Staff

[photos by the author]