Handbook of Critical Policy Studies
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Handbook of Critical Policy Studies

Edited by Frank Fischer, Douglas Torgerson, Anna Durnová and Michael Orsini

Critical policy studies, as illustrated in this Handbook, challenges the conventional approaches public policy inquiry. But it offers important innovations as well, in particular its focus on discursive politics, policy argumentation and deliberation, and interpretive modes of analysis.
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Chapter 9: Discursive institutionalism: understanding policy in context

Vivien A. Schmidt


Discursive institutionalism is an umbrella concept for approaches that concern themselves with the substantive content of ideas and the interactive processes of discourse in institutional context. This chapter shows the relevance of discursive institutionalism to policy studies in a critical vein by considering both the wide range of ideas in discourse and the ways in which ‘sentient’ (thinking and speaking) agents articulate such ideas as policy actors in a ‘coordinative discourse’ of policy construction and as political actors in a ‘communicative discourse’ of political legitimation. The chapter also elaborates on the dual nature of the institutional context by considering not just the external formalized institutions that constrain action but also the structures and constructs of meaning. These help explain not only how agents are able to create and maintain institutions via their ‘background ideational abilities’ but also how they change or maintain institutions via their ‘foreground discursive abilities’ of communication. But although meaning is socially constructed, the chapter builds on the work of Wittgenstein to show that this does not lead to radical relativism because knowledge comes with different kinds of certainty. Finally, the chapter also theorizes about the nature of the power of ideas, in particular through discourse.

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