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Governing Narratives

Symbolic Politics and Policy Change

Hugh T. Miller

Publication Year: 2012

By highlighting the degree to which meaning making in public policy is more a cultural struggle than a rational and analytical project, Governing Narratives brings public administration back into a political context.
In Governing Narratives, Hugh T. Miller takes a narrative approach in conceptualizing the politics of public policy. In this approach, signs and ideographs—that is, constellations of images, feelings, values, and conceptualization—are woven into policy narratives through the use of story lines. For example, the ideograph “acid rain” is part of an environmental narrative that links dead trees to industrial air pollution. The struggle for meaning capture is a political struggle, most in evidence during times of change or when status quo practices are questioned.
Public policy is often considered to be the end result of empirical studies, quantitative analyses, and objective evaluation. But the empirical norms of science and rationality that have informed public policy research have also hidden from view those vexing aspects of public policy discourse outside of methodological rigor.
Phrases such as “three strikes and you’re out” or “flood of immigrants” or “don’t ask, don’t tell” or “crack baby” or “the death tax” have come to play crucial roles in public policy, not because of the reality they are purported to reflect, but because the meanings, emotions, and imagery connoted by these symbolizations resonate in our culture.
Social practices, the very material of social order and cultural stability, are inextricably linked to the policy discourse that accompanies social change. Eventually a winning narrative dominates and becomes institutionalized into practice and implemented via public administration. Policy is symbiotically associated with these winning narratives. Practices might change again, but this inevitably entails renewed political contestation. The competition among symbolizations does not imply that the best narrative wins, only that a narrative has won for the time being. However, unsettling the established narrative is a difficult political task, particularly when the narrative has evolved into habitual institutionalized practice.
Governing Narratives convincingly links public policy to the discourse and rhetoric of deliberative politics.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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p. 1-1


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pp. 2-5


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

This project began as an article manuscript that Critical Policy Studies editor Stephen Griggs urged me to revise and resubmit in response to anonymous reviewer comments. I gave it a try. Problem was, by the time I responded to the issues raised in the reviews, the manuscript had expanded to 50 pages, too many for a typical journal article. ...

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pp. ix-xii

There has always been a part-sociological, part-journalistic aspect to my interest in public affairs, and the merging of policy discourse and social practice in this book may have something to do with that predisposition. Also, my disciplinary training and scholarly interest in public affairs most certainly has shaped aspects of the book. ...

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1. Words/Action

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pp. 1-16

Governing Narratives draws from discourse theory for its conceptual precedents. Torgerson (2003, 121–122) wrote adroitly about the implications of framing a thesis in terms of discourse: “By speaking of policy discourse, we begin to frame the policy world in a decisively new way, clearly locating both analysts and citizens ...

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2. The Mobilization of Stories

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pp. 17-38

The study of public policy has emphasized the importance of communication from its earliest days. Pioneer policy scholar Harold Lasswell, who was also a communication theorist, wrote a book about propaganda. His seminal article in Policy Sciences (1970) was attentive to the role of persuasion strategies in the policy process. ...

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3. Connotation

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pp. 39-57

For the big-brained animal that speaks, the struggle over language and meaning has surpassed the more typical animal struggle over territory and food. In this chapter, meaning making depends on processes of connotation and association. Deferring to the connotative power of language, a narrative approach necessarily avoids issuing stable, authoritative definitions, ...

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4. The Politics of Changing Practices

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pp. 58-73

In this chapter, I first portray the realm of practice, exemplified by public administration, as thoroughly imbued with the potential for political challenge. Public administration’s façade of neutrality recalls the strategy of the readerly text, but in the daily practices of public administration the writerly text is in evidence, particularly at moments of impasse. ...

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5. Narrative Performance

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pp. 74-90

Before we get to the performance of symbiotic networks of meanings, connotations, objects, practices, and narratives, some advance work will be necessary. Values, habits, feelings, and instrumental rationality have all been gathered into ideographs at various points in the book thus far. ...

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6. Conclusion

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pp. 91-94

The idea of mobilizing symbols that shape policy narratives begins to take shape with the connotative associations inherent in the term ideography. Ideography, in turn, directs attention to semantic associations, to similarities and differences in symbolic meanings, to emotional resonance, to value orientation. ...

Appendix 1: Narratives in Drug Policy

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pp. 95-114

Appendix 2: Environmental Policy Discourse

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pp. 115-126


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pp. 127-140


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pp. 141-145

E-ISBN-13: 9780817386283
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817317737

Page Count: 160
Publication Year: 2012