Context in Public Policy and Management
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Context in Public Policy and Management

The Missing Link?

Edited by Christopher Pollitt

‘Putting into context’ is a very common phrase – both in the social sciences and beyond. But what exactly do we mean by this, and how do we do it? In this book, leading scholars in public policy and management tackle these issues. They show how ideas of context are central to a range of theories and explanations and use an international range of case studies to exemplify context-based explanation. The book uncovers the complexity that lies behind an apparently simple notion, and offers a variety of approaches to decipher that complexity. Context is indeed a missing link, which enables us to make sense of the vital relationship between the general and the particular.
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Chapter 2: Contexts: forms of agency and action

John Clarke


Why should there be a turn to contexts in the social sciences? Perhaps it marks a deliberate turn away from the view of scientific knowledge that must be both abstract and universal – decontextualized, in fact. There are two rather different views of this turn away from ‘science’. The first views the turn to contexts as an admission of failure – that the social sciences are still immature or underdeveloped and fall short of the authoritative power of ‘true science’, settling instead for descriptive accounts of the particular or the local. The alternative view sees the turn to context in more positive terms, identifying two major gains from such an approach. The first is the possibility of producing useful knowledge (rather the empty abstractions and generalizations of the science model). The second involves a more direct epistemological challenge to the abstracted universalism of a scientific social science, pointing to the ways in which its generalizations and universalising claims conceal the social conditions of their own production. Too often they turn out to be very particular ‘truths’ that present themselves as if they were universal. In what follows, I do not intend to explore these arguments further, but my starting point is that the turn to contexts should not be viewed as a failure to live up to science, but as a distinctive and productive practice of the social sciences (see, inter alia, Flyvbjerg, 2001). However, I do not think that the turn to contexts is either simple or easy to accomplish.

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