Beyond Empiricism: Policy Inquiry in Postpositivist Perspective
Fischer, Frank, Policy Studies Journal
The social sciences, as empirical sciences of society, largely have failed (Giddens, 1995; Gulbenkian, 1996; Lemert, 1995). Neither have they developed anything vaguely resembling a predictive "science" of society, nor have they been able to provide effective solutions to pressing social and economic problems (Baumol, 1991; deleon, 1988). Acknowledging the failure, a number of policy scholars have devoted considerable thought to the question of what might constitute "usable knowledge" (Fischer, 1995; Lindblom & Cohen, 1979). Or, stated more concretely, these scholars have asked: How can we keep the endless flow of research reports from gathering dust in the file cabinet? Thus far, the effort has not been especially impressive (Lindblom, 1990).
This is not to say that the social sciences have had no impact on public issues. To the contrary, the influence of social science is everywhere to be found in contemporary political discourse, but the role has been more to stimulate the political processes of policy deliberation than to provide answers or solutions to the problems facing modern societies. While such deliberation generally is acknowledged to be important to effective policy development, this "enlightenment function" is not the analytic mission the policy sciences have set for themselves (Weiss, 1990). More ambitiously, the policy sciences have sought to develop methods and practices designed to settle rather than stimulate debates. Here I shall argue that this traditional understanding of the policy-analytic role represents an epistemological misunderstanding of the relationship of knowledge to politics. Further, I will attempt to show that the continued reliance on the narrow methodological perspective that informs this orientation hinders the field's ability to do what it can - and should - do: improve the quality of policy argumentation in public deliberation.
Toward this end, the essay is divided into three parts. The first part locates the problems of policy analysis in its neopositivist methods and the technocratic orientation to which they have given rise.(1) The discussion traces the failures of the field to its understanding of the object of inquiry and its narrowly empirical approach to research. In this context, the neopositivist social sciences are seen to imitate an understanding of "science" that no longer is accepted unquestioningly even in the so-called hard sciences. In the second part of the paper the analysis turns to the postpositivist alternative.(2) For the postpositivist social scientist, the solution to this epistemological problem is to turn from the traditional understanding of scientific proof or verification to a discursive, contextual understanding of social inquiry. Instead of merely suggesting postpositivism as an alternative epistemological orientation, part two offers this "argumentative turn" as a better description of what social scientists already do. Finally, drawing these strands together, part three examines the more concrete implications of the approach for policy inquiry. Rather than rejecting altogether the empirical methods of the social sciences, I argue that the issue is how to situate them within the context of normative concerns that give their findings meaning. The paper concludes with a discussion of the implications of a postpositivist epistemology for the practice of policy analysis.
Mainstream Policy Analysis: The Epistemological Problem
Neopositivism (or logical empiricism) has supplied the epistemological ideals of the contemporary social and policy sciences (Hawkesworth, 1988). A theory of knowledge put forth to explain the concepts and methods of the physical and natural sciences, neopositivism has given shape as well to a social science in pursuit of quantitatively replicable causal generalizations (Fay, 1975). Most easily recognized as the stuff of the research methodology textbook, neopositivist principles emphasize empirical research designs, the use of sampling techniques and data-gathering procedures, the measurement of outcomes, and the development of causal models with predictive power (Bobrow & Dryzek, 1987; Miller, 1991). In the field of policy analysis, such an orientation is manifested in quasi-experimental research designs, multiple regression analysis, survey research, input-output studies, cost-benefit analysis, operations research, mathematical simulation models, and systems analysis (Putt & Springer, 1989; Sylvia, Meier, & Gunn, 1991).
The only reliable approach to knowledge accumulation, according to this epistemology, is empirical falsification through objective hypothesis testing of rigorously formulated causal generalizations (Hofferbert, 1990; Popper, 1959; Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1993, p. 231). The goal is to generate a body of empirical generalizations capable of explaining behavior across social and historical contexts, whether communities, societies, or cultures, independently of specific times, places, or circumstances. Not only are such propositions essential to social and political explanation, they are seen to make possible effective solutions to societal problems. Such propositions are said to supply the cornerstones of theoretical progress.
Underlying this effort is a fundamental positivist principle mandating a rigorous separation of facts and values, the principle of the "fact-value dichotomy" (Bernstein, 1976; Proctor, 1991). According to this principle, empirical research is to proceed independently of normative context or implications. Because only empirically based causal knowledge can qualify social science as a genuine "scientific" endeavor, social scientists are instructed to assume a "value-neutral" orientation and to limit their research investigations to empirical or "factual" phenomena. Even though adherence to this "fact-value dichotomy" varies in the conduct of actual research, especially at the methodological level, the separation still reigns in the social sciences. To be judged methodologically valid, research at least officially must pay its respects to the principle (Fischer, 1980).
In the policy sciences the attempt to separate facts and values has facilitated a technocratic form of policy analysis that emphasizes the efficiency and effectiveness of means to achieve politically established goals. Much of policy analysis, in this respect, has sought to translate inherently normative political and social issues into technically defined ends to be pursued through administrative means. In an effort to sidestep goal-value conflicts typically associated with policy issues, economic and social problems are interpreted as issues in need of improved management and program design; their solutions are to be found in the technical applications of the policy sciences (Amy, 1987). Often associated with this orientation has been a belief in the superiority of scientific decisionmaking. Reflecting a subtle antipathy toward democratic processes, terms such as "pressures" and "expedient adjustments" are used to denigrate pluralistic policymaking. If politics doesn't fit into the methodological scheme, then politics is the problem. Some even have argued that the political system itself must be changed to better accommodate policy analysis (Heineman, Bluhm, Peterson, & Kearny, 1990).
In the face of limited empirical success, neopositivists have had to give some ground. Although they continue to stress rigorous empirical research as the long-run solution to their failures, they have retreated from their more ambitious efforts. Today their goal is to aim for propositions that at least theoretically are provable at some future time. Propped up by the promise of computer advances, this argument serves to keep the original epistemology intact, but the modification misses the point, as postpositivists are quick to point out. The problem is rooted more fundamentally in the empirical social scientist's misunderstanding of the nature of the social. As we shall see, it is a misunderstanding lodged in the very concept of a generalizable, value-free objectivity that neopositivists seek to reaffirm and apply more intensively.
Postpositivism: The Critique of Empiricism
The postpositivist challenge is rooted in both the natural sciences and the history and sociology of science. With the advent of quantum mechanics and chaos theory in physics and evolutionary theory in the biological sciences, growing numbers of scientists have come to reject the Parmenidean worldview in favor of the Heraclitean conception of flux (Toulmin, 1990). From quantum theory and its postulate of indeterminacy we have learned that various aspects of the atomic level of reality are so influenced (or codetermined) by other dimensions of the same phenomena that such processes no longer can be described as determinate or predictable. Moreover, such research has led some physicists to argue that the explanation of the behavior of a particle depends in significant part on the vantage point from which it is observed (Galison, 1997). That is, in explaining important aspects of the physical world, where you stand can influence what you see. Relatedly, chaos theory has demonstrated that an infinitesimal change in any part of a system can trigger a transformation of the system at large (Gleick, 1987; Kellert, 1993). Such empirical phenomena thus are defined better as "participatory interminglings" than as perceptions of objective things standing apart from human subjectivity. In short, the traditional understanding of the physical world as a stable or fixed entity is no longer adequate. For neopostpositivism, this poses a fundamental problem: It loses its firm epistemological anchor. …
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Publication information: Article title: Beyond Empiricism: Policy Inquiry in Postpositivist Perspective. Contributors: Fischer, Frank - Author. Journal title: Policy Studies Journal. Volume: 26. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 1998. Page number: 129+. © 1999 Policy Studies Organization. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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