Retrieving meanings from texts is not just about reading or counting words; texts are more than words put on a paper or a screen. These two phrases have repeatedly accompanied my responses to a mainstream audience at academic meetings when explaining how interpretive approaches work. The interpretive tradition is significant, going substantially beyond political science and public policy, and encompassing many concepts and tools to retrieve meanings from texts. As structured traces of meanings (both audiovisual and textual), texts reflect the world around us and shape our view and thus can tell us how we look at this world.
So what does it mean to find a text in all these complex policy debates? How does the meticulous work on a text become coupled with the complex visual, sensorial reality around us that we want to understand and explain? These two interrelated questions are at the heart of my recent article in Policy & Politics: Making interpretive policy analysis critical and societally relevant: emotions, ethnography, and language. While summarizing the achievements and principles of interpretive approaches, the article pauses on how we, as analysts, can capture the everyday situations that lead to policies. How are these situations reflected in policies, and how can we see them in political debates? Can we get more from these often contradictory and ambivalent scenes in our lives to better explain politics?
First, the article focuses on emotions. Emotions are not just states of our bodies and minds, driven by arousal and experience – they are also contexts of polarized discussions on an issue and perceptions of values and beliefs that accompany our policy choices and debates on them. We give emotions meanings, which can be retrieved from all sorts of situations where these emotions are mentioned or described and discussed. Their interpretation helps us understand what citizens of different backgrounds and values feel, think they feel, and think that others feel. As such, emotions have a huge impact on meaning and contribute to the framings of policy debates and reveal who is seen as the important voice in such debates. At the same time, emotions also become the means to organize the data. The analyst cannot limit their emotions, but they can reflect them. The article proposes to emphasize the emotional integrity of analysis as a conceptual tool to strengthen such reflection.
The article proposes a second focus on ethnography to anchor this strength more deeply in the everyday ambivalences and contradictions that shape our lives. To actively seek out singularities, contestations, and inconsistencies within a policy issue when organizing the collection of data, to conceive the unsettled and marginal actors as a substantial part of the research design is a critical asset of this focus. The world is too diverse to rely on established socio-economic dichotomies to analyze politics. Policy scholars need to develop a subtle understanding of how these dichotomies were produced and how they frame our perception of politics and those who make it. Interpretive work delivers such tools.
In summary, through the dual role of language, I argue that the interpretive approach makes visible the arguments and narrations that impact considerably how political fights are organised and who is granted a voice at the negotiation table with influence on how publics understand these political fights. This interpretive capacity to take part in all sorts of strategies offered by language, the capacity to actively seek out the silenced, marginalized and inaudible, has importance for both policy scholars and professional policy analysis. In this vein, an interpretive analysis of marginalized experiences can offer important meanings of major policy events. Finally, I contend that, through its ability to uncover issues that are ‘behind the veil’, interpretive analysis has far broader potential to be harnessed in support of emancipatory aims by offering discursive strategies to fight for diversity and inclusivity in politics.
You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:
Anna Durnová. (2022) Making interpretive policy analysis critical and societally relevant: emotions, ethnography and language Policy and Politics DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557321X16129850569011
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