What can we know about the social world, and how much of it can we control? How high are the stakes in the battle between positivism and interpretive social science? In this episode of the Governance Podcast, Mark Pennington (King’s College London) and Mark Bevir (UC Berkeley) discuss wide-ranging questions about the influence of philosophy and social science on public policy.


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The Guest

Mark Bevir is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for British Studies, University of California, Berkeley. He is also Professor of Governance, United Nations University (MERIT) and Distinguished Research Professor, Swansea University.

Born and raised in London, Mark moved to Berkeley in January 2000, having worked previously at universities in India and the UK. He has held visiting fellowships in Australia, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Norway, South Korea, UK, and USA. Currently he is the general editor of The Oxford History of Political Thought, and he has been an editor of Journal of the Philosophy of History, associate editor of Journal of Moral Philosophy, President of the Society for the Philosophy of History, and Chair of the Interpretive Politics Group (PSA). Mark has done policy work for governmental organizations in Asia, Europe, and North America, as well as for the United Nations and its agencies.

Mark’s research interests in political theory include moral philosophy, political philosophy, and history of political thought. His methodological interests cover philosophy of social science, philosophy of history, and history of social science. His work on public policy focuses on organization theory, democratic theory, and governance.

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0:55: I wonder if you could start by what you’ve been working on most recently, perhaps the book on interpretive social science.

1:55: What is distinctive about the interpretive approach? We have the typical dichotomy between the interpretive or hermeneutic approach to social science and a more positivist view. And positivism is associated with some notion that you can read off almost in a mechanical way people’s behaviour by understanding background conditions, whether they’re economic incentives… or macro-structural influences.

5:29: It seems to me that if you adopt that approach— I take the point that there’s a difference between particular epistemological foundations for social science and attachment to particular methods—but it seems to me nonetheless that if you do adopt this kind of [interpretive] approach, the implication is, to really get an appreciation of the meanings people attach to their actions or the beliefs they have or the traditions they’re situated in, you have to get up close with the actors. You have to try to be in their heads, and that does imply a more ethnographic approach.

8:48: One of the areas where you’ve applied this interpretive method to great effect is in trying to understand changes in governance relationships, especially within public sector organizations in the last 20-30 years. As I understand it, what your work points to is the influence of a particular set of social scientific beliefs about the problems that face hierarchical forms of state bureaucracy. And your argument is that initially this was questioned from a market-liberal perspective, public choice theory emphasising contracts and markets as an alternative to hierarchy, and then later we have the movement towards joined up governance approaches often associated with New Labour in the UK. And this is another set of social scientific ideas that markets produce excessive fragmentation and they need to be reintegrated in some sense. You make a very powerful claim that essentially it’s social scientific ideas that drove this change to the new governance arrangements that we see. Why do you think the actual social science has been important in the shift toward the kind of network governance arrangements we see in the world today?

14:30: You were saying that you’re interested in the way in which many of these policy reforms in the public sector have failed, and perhaps connect that to your interpretive method and approach. As I understand your argument, the problem with these various reform agendas, from whatever direction they come, whether it’s for markets or network governance or joined up governance, they fail to recognize that the actors who are required to implement the policies are going to be interpreting these policies in different ways, ways that are unpredictable to the actual reformer. Therefore we get all kinds of unintended or emergent outcomes.

18:26: Presumably this would also apply to evidence based public policy… or if you look at the recent focus on randomised control trials, would the kind of critique you’re applying transfer to these kind of ideas?

20:30: In your approach as I understand it, you do allow for the idea that there are patterns in the sense that particular traditions knit together in a certain way can create a certain regularity. But what you’re saying is there is no inherent necessity for that regularity to be there, that at some point there can be some kind of rupture or change in people’s beliefs, maybe some kind of exogenous event that breaks up what look like long-established patterns… It strikes me that would be what could happen to big data.

24:14: I wonder if we could say something about the tendency for social science (and I think arguably for some people this is the case for people who are using big data today) … people very much still believe that good social science should be able to predict in some sense. If we take the view that you’re presenting, there seem to be severe limits to our capacity to predict because there are always going to be these unexpected contingencies or developments… The financial crisis was not predicted by most economists and the rise of populist movements was not predicted by most political scientists. Why do you think so many people still want to cling to the notion that good social science is science that predicts?

29:43: What you just said there could be construed as quite critical of an expert-centered view of the world, the idea that there is a body of expertise which understands how societies function and how they can be controlled. In essence what you’re saying is that simply isn’t the case- other than that people might believe this to be the case. In some of your writings you propose what you call a de-centered approach to public policy. I understand that to be de-centered in two senses. It’s de-centered in the sense that you recognize the importance of local contingency, variety, unpredictability. But it’s also de-centered in the sense that you’re wanting to, at least as I understand it, dethrone the power of experts and to empower citizens much more.

37:14: Aren’t politicians… almost inevitably going to look for quite simplistic kind of interpretations of what social science might say, or is it reasonable to expect that we could have a more nuanced understanding from politicians who ultimately are still involved in political battles? They’re trying to assert the value of their ideas versus what they see to be opposing sets of ideas.

41:24: It strikes me that there’s a sort of irony in that one of the things that you point out about Foucault’s work is… you emphasise that there needs to be a role for agency, some notion of creativity that people can resist dominant epistemes or forms of governmentality, that there has to be some scope for that in order to explain how change actually happens.

49:05: The centre here is within a department of political economy. So we’ve got people here from economics, political science and political theory backgrounds. Do you think some of the concepts that you use in the interpretive framework can say something to economists or the types of questions they’re interested in?

54:58: Perhaps this is unfair, I’m not sure, but I take to be a pretty significant implication of a lot of what you’re saying… is that people are looking for order in the world that really isn’t there. But the nature of a lot of social science is to try and find order. Why do you think people are so uncomfortable with the notion that maybe we just can’t fully understand what’s going on?