Matt Wood, University of Sheffield, discusses the article that he has written with Matt Flinders, also from the University of Sheffield, called ‘Depoliticisation, governance and the state’. This article is part of the April issue of Policy & Politics, a special issue on depoliticisation, available free until 31 May.
In our main contribution to this special issue of Policy & Politics we aim to set out an agenda for expanding and diversifying the study of depoliticisation in governance and public policy by engaging a broad range of conceptual approaches and definitions. Depoliticisation in general means a narrowing of the boundaries of democratic politics, such that choice and agency over issues of public concern come to be constrained. There are many different ways in which this can occur, and there is a sprawling cross-disciplinary literature that uses the concept of depoliticisation to refer to a range of practices that might contribute to an understanding of the phenomenon. Our aim in this article is to map this literature and identify links between different forms of depoliticisation, such that we can offer a rounded and systematic account.
Our central argument is that the study of depoliticisation needs to be broadened. The most significant studies to date (Burnham (2001) and, subsequently, Flinders and Buller (2006) have emphasised the importance of ‘governmental’, or state-based actors (mainly ministers) as agents of depoliticisation. They arguably ignore, however, the importance of non-state actors (such as the media, interest groups, or even ordinary people in ‘everyday’ situations) in determining whether depoliticisation occurs, or whether it is resisted. We contend that by identifying and mapping a broader range of cross-disciplinary literature that uses this concept to refer to strategies employed by this wider range of actors, we can develop a more sophisticated analysis of the interrelated processes that accumulate into a general shift towards depoliticisation.
Taking Colin Hay’s conceptual work (2006) as a starting point, we map three forms of depoliticisation. These we term, as follows:
- Governmental depoliticisation
- Societal depoliticisation
- Discursive depoliticisation
Firstly, ‘governmental depoliticisation’ (a shift from the ‘governmental’ to ‘societal’ sphere) refers to the delegation of political decisions away from the central state by ministers, such that they are controlled by ‘technocrats’ or instituted in ‘quangos’. Here, depoliticisation is enacted by ministers placing the ‘political character of decision making’ at one remove away from the central state. This is the ‘form’ that gets most attention in the public policy literature and we summarise it relatively briefly through an overview of the literature on delegated governance and patronage.
Secondly, ‘societal depoliticisation’ (movement from the ‘public’ to ‘private’ sphere) refers to the ‘privatisation’ of issues, not formally, but in terms of their salience as topics in public debate. Here, depoliticisation is enacted by a range of actors in the public sphere, from the media and interest groups to politicians, celebrities and other prominent actors in society. By simply not discussing political issues to the extent that they were discussed previously, these actors effectively depoliticise those issues by preventing their full and open public deliberation.
Lastly, ‘discursive depoliticisation’ (shift from the ‘private’ sphere to ‘realm of necessity’) refers to the ‘normalisation’ of political issues, in the sense that they are presented in political discourse or rhetoric as being matters of ‘fate’ over which humans can have no control. This last perspective can be found in moral panics, for example. Immigration might be a highly salient topic of debate, but if only a single policy option is discussed, namely limiting immigration as far as possible, then it is depoliticised in this sense. There might also be a lot of public discussion over, say, climate change, but if that discussion does not suggest that humans can do anything about climate change, then it is effectively depoliticised. Discursive depoliticisation can also happen at any ‘level’ and need not be ‘public’ but can happen in ‘everyday’ situations when political discussions are presented as being (for example in discussions of austerity as a ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’ course of government policy).
Distinguishing between these three general forms of depoliticisation within the literature enables us to advocate a future empirical agenda that examines the interrelationships between them. Such interrelationships can be quite paradoxical. For instance, a policy issue could be dealt with in a very hand’s off or arm’s length way – depoliticised – but also be a highly salient public issue and one where there is a lot discussion over what society should do – politicised. Policies with a strong ethical or moral dimension are often of this ilk, for example IVF treatment or prostitution. We argue in the article that more empirical research may tease apart some of the intricacies and capture some of the complexities in processes of depoliticisation and politicisation, and even investigate whether, again paradoxically, they can be mutually reinforcing or self-sustaining.
Matt Wood is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield. He is also Deputy Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics. His current research looks at ‘everyday politics’ and the challenges for overcoming political disaffection and disengagement.