After Disaster: Agenda Setting, Public Policy, and Focusing Events

By Thomas A. Birkland | Go to book overview

2
A Theory of Focusing Events
and Agenda Change

Efforts to create and improve theories of the policy process have met with significant challenges since policy studies emerged as a distinctive branch of the social sciences in the 1960s. One of these challenges comes in clearly defining key concepts. As discussed in the previous chapter, many students of the policy process have described focusing events by using different terminology and overlapping but inconsistent definitions. Beyond the problem of multiple implicit definitions of the phenomenon, there appears to be no single definition of a focusing event that can be applied prospectively to what I term potential focusing events. Such a definition is important because it allows us to define potential focusing events without resorting to ad hoc or post hoc characterizations of these events. I thus begin this chapter by providing a more precise definition of what I call potential focusing events. This definition is important because the theory rests on the assumption that the focal nature of focusing events is variable along a range of possible attributes. This definition is particularly useful in selecting areas of policy making, known as policy domains, in which to isolate sets of potential focusing events for more systematic analysis.

A second challenge in the study of public policy lies in clearly specifying and explaining important forces that lead to policy-making outcomes. This is particularly true in the passing mentions of focusing events in policy studies, where the attributes of events that make them focal are rarely if ever specified within a more comprehensive theory of the policy process. I propose to close this gap by outlining a framework for understanding the focal power of events. This framework was designed to be subject to empirical testing, as outlined in greater detail here and as demonstrated in the case studies in chapters 3, 4, and 5.


DEFINING POTENTIAL FOCUSING EVENTS

Kingdon's and Cobb and Elder's definitions of focusing events rely heavily on post hoc characterizations of the importance of particular

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