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 9: Context, theory and rationality: an uneasy relationship?

Jon Pierre


Context is messy. Dealing with context in order to explain the outcome of a political or administrative process means taking into account the decisions and actions by individual politicians or bureaucrats, the media’s attention (or not) of (alleged or real) administrative malfeasance, ad hoc informal linkages between domestic and transnational institutions, and so on. We deal with context because it is often there that we hope to find the explanation to why and how public organizations were redesigned, created or terminated, or whatever our specific research question might be. Not only is the devil in the detail, this is also where we find the key explanations to social, political and administrative behavior. Through “thick description” (Geertz, 1973) we uncover the richness of context that explains why people, organizations or states behave the way they do. However, as social scientists we are expected not only to account for such behavior in individual cases but also in a broader and more general sense to build or test theory. In an ideal world we should use such case studies to develop more general models or theories of such behavior. Taking that step from the case-specific to the more general requires that much of the context used to account for the case is dropped over the proverbial railing as generalization is predicated on some degree of simplification.

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