Micro-Politics: An Underestimated Field of Qualitative Research in Political Science

By Willner, Roland | German Policy Studies, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Micro-Politics: An Underestimated Field of Qualitative Research in Political Science


Willner, Roland, German Policy Studies


1 Introduction (1)

Empirical studies in political science focus mainly on institutions, regimes, or the individual decisions of rational actors (Wilshusen 2009: 138). The objective of such studies is to provide simplified assumptions which can explain and predict political decisions on a meso or macro level. The problem, however, is that structure-centered approaches often ignore ambiguities, ambivalences, and contradictions which are inherent in every structure; moreover, the rational-choice perspective concentrates on decisions without any reference to the decision-context, such as structure or power relations. In order to study complex decision-making processes involving different actors and diverse contextual factors it is necessary to work with a micro-analytical perspective.

Micro-analyses of political decision-making processes are rare. One reason for this is the lack of a long-lasting research tradition and consequently accompanying concepts and definitions. Furthermore, the examination of decision-making processes presents challenges in questions of methodology, for the reason that the concrete procedure of micro-analysis requires time, access to participants, and skills in methods of qualitative research. Nevertheless, micro-analyses do have a great potential for political science research.

In this paper I highlight micro-politics as a concept developed in organization research. The vast majority of political decision-making processes take place in political organizations such as parliaments, political parties, or ministerial bureaucracies. In political science debates there is, indeed, no common understanding of micro-politics (Nullmeier et al. 2003). Therefore, there is a need for clarification of the basic ideas of micro-politics as a concept in organization research and its significant potential for micro-analyses. The objective of this paper is, however, to stress a common heuristic framework for micro-analyses in political science on the basis of micro-political concepts and to propose analytical instruments for empirical studies. Accordingly, the next part of the paper discusses the roots of micro-politics and different understandings of the concept (2). Through this process it is possible to highlight the commonalities in specific micro-political approaches, reducing these to two key terms: knowledge and practice (3). After that I carve out the methodological implications and the explorative character of micro-political studies (4). Indeed, qualitative methods are the only plausible way to examine knowledge and practice within organizations. At the end, sample applications are presented to highlight the different research areas which are suitable for micro-political studies in political science (5).

2 Micro-analysis and micro-politics

Political science and especially policy studies focus on political processes, among other things, in order to understand specific policies or institutional pathways of decision-making (Blum and Schubert 2011). The majority of empirical studies concentrate on macro- as well as meso-phenomena. A micro-analytical perspective does not challenge this focus but tries to answer macro- and meso-questions using discoveries on the micro-level. The prefix "micro" implies a focus on the smallest unit of action between specific actors. Hence, the objects of research are primarily actors and their behavior, but not from a psychological perspective which tries to explain behavior with individual skills or personality traits. Micro-analyses instead examine daily routines, self-evident behavior patterns, and informal processes (Schone 2010: 15). As Patzelt emphasizes, micro-analysis explores the construction, reproduction, modification, and transformation of political policies, processes and structures in concrete situations (Patzelt 2000). Micro-analyses facilitate understanding the inner workings of politics and the decision-making process which leads to specific policies (Nullmeier et al. …

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