The Dynamics of Public Policy
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The Dynamics of Public Policy

Theory and Evidence

Adrian Kay

In The Dynamics of Public Policy, Adrian Kay sets out the crucial methodological, theoretical and empirical implications of two important trends in the social sciences: a frequently expressed ambition for analysis of ‘movies not stills’ and the regular observation that policy, politics and governance is becoming more complex.
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Chapter 4: Evolutionary Perspectives

Adrian Kay


Although the terms ‘evolution’ and ‘evolutionary’ are widely used in the social sciences, for the most part they are employed as convenient shorthand for slow and gradual change over time. This chapter considers evolution in a more substantive way; investigating the prospects for evolutionary theory contributing to the ambition for more fully developed dynamic perspectives on policy change. The first section of the chapter will establish the distinction between evolution as a process of change and evolution as a theory of change. This distinction is a necessary start to understanding the terms on which one may judge the ‘added value’ of an evolutionary perspective to existing accounts of the dynamics of public policy. Importantly, the distinction is relevant to the following commonplace and important objection to evolutionary approaches in the social sciences: that biological analogies in the social world are weak, that there are no equivalents of natural selection operating in the social world and that without selection, evolutionary theory has little explanatory power in the social world. This is also known as the missing mechanism argument. We can employ a two-part strategy to address this problem. The first part is to understand evolutionary theory as a (realist) ontological proposition that is valid for the analysis of the evolution of all open, complex systems including natural ones (Campbell 1965). The next part argues that the correct analogy to consider is not that between the natural and social worlds, but rather the analogy between the problems of evolutionary theory in explaining...

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