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John Boswell, ANU, Canberra, Australia Introduction Policy narratives are the stories that people tell to make sense of policy issues and underpin policy solutions (Roe 1994). Just like all stories writ small or large, policy narratives have important structural features. They represent a coherent account connecting a series of events into a logically consistent beginning, middle, and end. They focus on human or human-like agency, and they contain a normative message or moral to be decoded by the audience (Stone 2002). A leading group of theorists in public policy and governance indicate that such policy narratives are routinely an important aspect of political advocacy (eg. Kaplan 1986; Roe 1994; Hajer 1995; Stone 2002; Fischer 2003). Moreover, a growing body of empirical literature has demonstrated the impact that these narratives have in applied policy settings (eg. Bridgman and Barry 2002; Bedsworth, Lowenthal et al. 2004; McBeth, Shanahan et al. 2010). My aim is to bring policy narratives to the theory of deliberative democracy. I believe that a focus on policy narratives will shed new light on policy deliberation in contemporary politics. In the burgeoning literature on deliberative democracy, there has been some discussion on the terms rhetoric and discourse in describing how people communicate about, and make sense of, matters of common interest. But an emphasis on the role of policy narratives allows us to see rhetoric and sense-making in policy deliberation in a new light. In fact, based on empirical and theoretical work in various fields, especially in deliberative theory and governance, public policy, and narrative theory, it is clear that policy narratives play a vital role in policy deliberation. A brief overview of policy deliberation In the last two decades or so, deliberative democracy has become a flourishing field for both theorists and empirical researchers. Although these scholars disagree on many aspects of what deliberative democracy means and entails, they share in common an emphasis on the importance of deliberation on matters of common interest. My interest in this paper is specifically related to policy deliberation—deliberation on issues of public policy. To this end, I will briefly review the literature on deliberative democracy to map out what policy deliberation consists of, and when and where it can be thought to take place. First is the question of what policy deliberation actually is. Most scholars of deliberative democracy regard deliberation as a special communicative activity involving talk and reflection. However, the specifics of how people should actually go about deliberating are subject to much disagreement. Perhaps the least contentious definition of what deliberation should consist of is the one put forward by Gutmann and Thompson (1996). For them, the communicative core of deliberation is “mutual justification,” whereby political actors must justify their plans and decisions in terms that are understandable to others. Considered in these terms, policy deliberation consists of political actors justifying their policy prescriptions to others with an interest in the same issue.
So, when do people deliberate on public policy issues? For some theorists, deliberation is associated exclusively with collective decision-making (Gutmann and Thompson 2004; Landwehr 2010). Others take a much broader view, intimating that deliberation on policy matters is a never-ending process (Dryzek 1990; Benhabib 1996). What is clear, however, is the notion that deliberation emerges most strongly – and is needed most acutely – when there is disagreement or a lack of clarity on how to proceed on a matter of common interest (Gutmann and Thompson 1996). Policy deliberation, then, can be said to occur due to uncertainty or conflict over policymaking. Another key ongoing debate in the literature concerns the proper site of deliberation in the political system. Some have located it in civil society (Dryzek 1990; Benhabib 1996), others in legislative bodies (Bessette 1994; Gutmann and Thompson 1996), others in judicial bodies (Rawls 1997), and others still in the minds of individuals (Forester 1999; Goodin 2000). I follow Mansbridge (1999), Hendriks (2006), Parkinson (2006) and the later Dryzek (2010), among others, in conceiving of deliberation as occurring within a wider, integrated system.1 Such a system is characterised by the dynamic exchange and negotiation of ideas within and across different kinds of deliberative spaces. A deliberative system consists of a number of interconnected settings, including arenas of macro deliberation such as the news media, arenas of micro deliberation such as legislatures and executive committees, and arenas of mixed deliberation like town hall meetings and experimental designs in public engagement (referred to variously as “deliberative designs,” “discursive designs,” and “minipublics.”)2 Along these lines, policy deliberation can be thought to occur across a multitude of sites and settings within a policy field and geographical jurisdiction. Unexplored synergies with the literature on policy narratives A brief overview of the literature on policy narratives indicates a number of synergies with policy deliberation. The first concerns the issue context in which policy deliberation emerges— namely, that it occurs amid conflict and uncertainty. These are exactly the conditions under which people tend to rely on policy narratives to make sense of and argue about issues (Roe 1994). In such circumstances, technocratic expertise cannot provide adequate answers, so political actors fall back on policy narratives to support their claims. Policy narratives are also relevant in the communicative context of policy deliberation. Work in a variety of different fields indicates that deliberation may lend itself to narrative modes of communication. Walter Fisher (1987), a leading figure in narrative theory, argues that people always employ narratives when thinking and talking about complex social issues. This is a position supported by theorists in psychology, philosophy, history and sociology (perhaps most prominently by White 1980; MacIntyre 1981; Bruner 1991; Somers 1994). Moreover, these theoretical insights are also backed up by empirical observations. A survey of empirical
The term “system” is not applied uniformly in deliberative theory. To others, such as Thompson (2008) the deliberative “system” involves the interrelationship between deliberative mechanisms (limited to decision-making bodies, in his rubric) and other decision-making approaches such as bargaining and aggregating interests. Please note that my use of “system” is not intended to invoke this notion. 2 This rubric is adapted from Hendriks (2006).
research on small-group forums concludes that people mainly communicate in narrative form in such settings (Ryfe 2005).3 Likewise, the bulk of the policy narrative literature empirically proves the prevalence of policy narratives in debates held in the media and between powerful interest blocs (eg. McBeth, Shanahan et al. 2010). All of this suggests that people are highly likely to engage with policy narratives in policy deliberation. Finally, the institutional context in which deliberation occurs also suggests that policy narratives may have a key role to play. In conceiving of policy deliberation as occurring within an integrated system, there is a need to develop an understanding of how policy ideas are negotiated across deliberative sites (Dryzek and Hendriks, forthcoming). And, due to their compelling and accessible nature, policy narratives appeal as one likely mechanism by which people may transfer these ideas to different sites of policy deliberation. A closer look at policy narratives Despite these apparent synergies, policy narratives have received little attention in the literature on deliberative democracy. What discussion there has been on narrative has largely focused on anecdotal narratives—episodes or experiences from everyday life (in theory, Young 1996; in empirical research, Polletta and Lee 2006; Ryfe 2006). Any focus on policy narratives, in particular, has been limited to their potential as a tool for citizen engagement (Hampton 2009). However, I believe that policy narratives have important impacts on policy deliberation in contemporary politics. Before going on to explore these impacts, I will first review the literature on policy narratives to explain their key functions in more detail. Much of the policy narrative literature emphasizes their role as a form of rhetoric, both in the traditional sense and in the lay sense of the term. I will first explain how policy narratives constitute a traditional mode of rhetoric, before outlining how they conform to the lay definition of rhetoric, too. Policy narrative as persuasive device Rhetoric, in Aristotelian sense, involves three components—logos (logical argument), pathos (emotion) and ethos (the virtue of the speaker) (Lucaites and Condit 1985). The only goal of the idealised Aristotelian orator is to persuade others of some point. But in most contexts orators have a purpose beyond merely winning the argument; they want to win the argument to ensure some sort of result occurs. They employ rhetoric in order to influence the actions and beliefs of others for some sort of individual or collective gain (Lucaites and Condit 1985). Rhetoric, then, is associated with “power over.” Certainly, policy narratives can be thought of as an attempt to exercise “power over” others in policy deliberation. Policy narrators try to persuade other political actors to provide support for a particular course of action. So, when political actors articulate a policy narrative, they are attempting to get the audience—citizens, the media, politicians and political parties, issue stakeholders, or decision makers—to affirm their favoured policy prescription.
In this context, Ryfe’s use of narrative appears to span both “anecdotal narrative” and wider “policy narrative.”
Another key feature of traditional rhetoric is that orators recognise the situated character of their audience (Lucaites and Condit 1985). In this vein, policy narrators typically employ rhetorical tactics to appeal to the audience they are addressing. They often make use of character symbols— for example, referencing “the public” as opposed to “vested interests”—in order to generate sympathy for their cause or argument (Jones and McBeth 2007). Likewise, a publicly espoused policy narrative generally differ from one told in private, just as one expressed in elite circles differ from one in civil society. Policy narrative as emotive device But policy narratives are rhetorical not just in the technical sense of the term. They are also rhetorical in the sense used more frequently in daily life, engendering emotion, passion, drama and manipulation. Policy narratives routinely invoke emotion and passion, for instance, by casting characters as heroes, villains and victims. They create drama by generating a sense of urgency, hopelessness, optimism or suspense. And they entail manipulation in the sense that they selectively cherry-pick disparate pieces of information and episodes and weld them into cogent storylines (Stone 2002). Policy Narrative as sense-making device But policy narratives should not be regarded as purely rhetorical. They also do sense-making work. Humans are, in essence, “narrative animals” (Fisher 1987). People have a natural desire to impose order on any series of events by enveloping them in a coherent narrative structure. Of course, this coherency is applied retrospectively, or, in the case of scenarios related to the future, prospectively. Events as they unfold are not neatly linear; they are chaotic and complex, and their relationship to one another not readily apparent. What matters, then, is that in the act of assembling a narrative, narrators engage in an interpretive exercise (White 1980). People tell narratives to make sense of everyday experiences, their lives as a whole, and the world in general. The sense-making function of policy narratives is not limited to the narrator, though. Auditors also respond actively to these narratives, interpreting their content and meaning at every opportunity (Bruner 1991). This is not to suggest that a distinct narrator-auditor binary exists in the telling of a policy narrative. Policy narration should be thought of as a joint activity. Rather than being the work of an individual, generally it is diverse “coalitions” of stakeholders who build a shared policy narrative which relies on legitimation from multiple sources (Hajer 1995). Scientists, policymakers, politicians, activists and citizens can all contribute their own unique knowledge and perspective to a composite policy narrative. Of course, the fact that a policy narrative is coauthored by a range of actors means that no one person can achieve mastery over of it. Indeed, one of the key features of policy narratives is their ambiguity (Stone 2002). There is no single correct interpretation of a narrative; it is always up for negotiation. Often political actors who subscribe to the same policy narrative have different ideas about what the exact nature of the problem is and what precisely should be done. What this also implies is that agency in policy narratives is a slippery concept. In part, political actors are constantly negotiating control over policy narratives with their public statements. But equally, once policy narratives have been established, they also exist independent of these actors. And so, when political actors make reference to a known policy narrative, they are staking their claim in the wider scheme of things. As such, the policy narratives that individuals hold value in can be thought to
play a role in constituting both their public persona and their personal identity. This corresponds closely to work in sociology showing that large-scale narratives help people to construct their identity (Somers 1994). The overall effect is that policy narratives do important sense-making work. They reduce conceptual complexity about the issue, provide people with frameworks through which to understand their experiences and observations, rationalize public debate about the possible courses of action, and buttress political actors’ sense of identity (Hajer 1995). How policy narratives relate to policy deliberation Having established what policy narratives are, and what they do, I will turn my attention to how rhetoric and sense-making are perceived in the literature on deliberative democracy, unpacking the terms “rhetoric” and “discourse” in the process. Rethinking rhetoric in deliberative democracy Rhetoric is a much-discussed term in the theoretical and empirical literature on deliberative democracy. In line with its everyday usage, it has commonly been associated with emotion, passion, manipulation, and drama. And these qualities are often (but not always) evoked in contradistinction to the supposed virtues of deliberation such as sincerity and rationality (eg. Elster 1998). But in recent times, deliberative theorists have become more willing to accommodate rhetoric (eg. Gutmann and Thompson 2004). Influenced by “difference democrats”4, most deliberative theorists now accept that political actors, especially those representing disadvantaged groups, can justifiably employ rhetoric to communicate ideas and raise new issues (eg. Thompson 2008). But, even with this allowance, for many the distinction between rhetoric and rational argumentation remains, and the latter continues to be privileged (eg. Parkinson 2006). This attitude towards rhetoric is apparent not just in deliberative theory, but in related empirical scholarship. For instance, in the sequential approach to measuring discourse quality proposed by Bachtiger et al. (2010), rhetoric is permissible only insofar as it leads to moments of rational argumentation. Some deliberative theorists have even welcomed rhetoric into the fold. Chambers (2009), for example, believes that what she calls “deliberative rhetoric” (as opposed to the more negatively-charged “plebiscitary rhetoric”) can play a positive role in allowing political actors the freedom and opportunity to communicate otherwise unpopular messages. Dryzek (2010) is also enthusiastic about the role rhetoric can play in bridging different conceptual discourses,5 as well as in bonding the disadvantaged under a new conceptual discourse. For example, he shows how Martin Luther King Jr. rhetorically tied the conceptual discourse of civil rights with that of liberal-universalism in order to get white Americans to change their values and opinions on the issue of racial equality.
4 “Difference democrats” are democratic theorists who question the traditional norms of rationality and neutrality in deliberation. They argue that these norms implicitly reinforce dominant power relations in society. The most prominent difference democrats include Young and Sanders. 5 “Conceptual discourses” we explained in detail in the following section.
Most obviously, this debate on rhetoric is relevant in the sense that policy narratives represent one type of rhetorical device. Returning to the example above provides a useful illustration of this. A brief analysis of Martin Luther King Junior’s famous “I have a dream” speech indicates that his key rhetorical tactic was in fact a policy narrative — an emotional and compelling narrative about the historically unjust nature of American race relations, and how these relations should change in the future. Of course, this speech invoked other rhetorical techniques like metaphors, hyperbole, and so on. But what gave this speech its rhetorical power was the way King took key events, well-known episodes, and cultural and social norms, and welded these disparate elements into a compelling narrative. Of course, policy narratives are not always employed so succinctly in policy deliberation. As I have already argued, policy narratives are generally coauthored over the course of many interactions, to the extent that they can actually stand independent of any single actor. The key point is that, once the narratives surrounding an issue are established, political actors need not articulate a policy narrative in full. Instead, they can make reference to it in passing; the act of highlighting one small element of the narrative has the practical impact of invoking the entire thing (Stone 2002). For instance, in modern politics, a reference to civil rights or the “I have a dream” speech can have the effect, rhetorically, of recalling the entire policy narrative outlined above. What this means is that political actors are able to utilise the rhetorical power of policy narratives often when, for all intents and purposes, they appear to be engaging in rational argumentation. In line with difference democrats’ cynicism about rationality, this suggests that rhetoric is a pervasive influence in policy deliberation, no matter how sober the tone of the discussion might seem (Young 1996; Sanders 1997). Rethinking sense-making in deliberative democracy As with rhetoric, much of the theoretical and empirical literature on deliberative democracy focuses on how actors make sense of political issues. To this end, there is a lot of emphasis on the term “discourse.” However, talk of discourse is also a source of potential confusion, as deliberative theorists and practitioners use the term to convey two distinct meanings: one is what I will call “communicative discourse,” the other is “conceptual discourse.” Most prominently described by Habermas, the idea of communicative discourse is that people make sense of issues through the give and take of reasons in argumentation. Communicative discourse occurs in the “ideal speech situation,” an arena where people freely exchange ideas and opinions compelled only by the “forceless force of the better argument” (Habermas 1984). The other idea prominent in deliberative theory is conceptual discourse. Often referred to as being more Foucauldian in nature, a conceptual discourse is “a shared way of comprehending the world embedded in language” (Dryzek 2001). Communicative Discourse and Policy Narratives In the context of policy deliberation, communicative discourse can be understood as speech free from coercive forms of power (Mansbridge, Bohman et al. 2010). This idea lies at the centre of most theories of deliberative democracy in the liberal traditional, perhaps most clearly in the influential work of Cohen (1989), although he does not explicitly use the term “discourse.” His procedural account of deliberative democracy emphasises that people come to an understanding on an issue through the give and take of reasons in argumentation. This notion of discourse is also widely used in empirical research on deliberative democracy. A lot
of the empirical work on deliberative democracy has investigated communicative discourse in legislatures (eg. Bessette 1994; Steenbergen, Bachtiger et al. 2003). So, how do policy narratives relate to this notion of sense-making? The key point is that these narratives are usually invoked within the context of communicative exchange. As I have argued, policy narratives are seldom told by a single narrator to a patient audience. They are built up and expressed by a multitude of actors, and actively received by an energetic audience. The other crucial point is that policy narratives are often expressed through the give and take of reasons in argumentation, as I have argued. Therefore, communicative discourse cannot be divorced from policy narratives. While engaged in communicative discourse, people inevitably draw upon policy narratives to help them argue about and make sense of policy issues. Conceptual Discourse and Policy Narratives The other notion of sense-making crucial in deliberative theory is conceptual discourse. In fact, according to leading deliberative theorists such as Dryzek (1990), Benhabib (1996) and Fraser (1990), at its heart deliberation involves the contestation and negotiation of conceptual discourses. They argue that conceptual discourses are the cognitive software that deliberators use to make sense of policy issues. In the empirical work associated with this notion, researchers have looked to identify the conceptual discourses that deliberators engage in, mostly to determine how and why deliberation generates reflection on political preferences (eg. Niemeyer 2004). How do policy narratives relate to conceptual discourses? At a superficial level, they appear similar. Both are broad frameworks that act as sense-making mechanisms in matter of common interest; both are coauthored by a variety of actors; and both exist (to some degree) independent of any actor. However, a closer analysis reveals that policy narratives do different sense-making work from conceptual discourses in policy deliberation. These core differences can be explained by three factors—their grounded context, their dramatic quality, and their bridging capacity. The first point is that, whereas conceptual discourses are abstract in nature, policy narratives are grounded by time, place and institutional context. Policy narratives are always rooted in the specifics of the policy setting. A good example of this point can be found in a well-known analysis of acid rain policy in the UK and the Netherlands (Hajer 1995). In this work, Hajer outlines the conceptual discourse of ecological modernization which became ascendant over the 1970s and 1980s in environmental policymaking. As he describes it, ecological modernization is typified by, among other things, three features—an emphasis on the environment as a resource; an emphasis on the precautionary principle with regard to environmental risks; and a faith in the possibility of sustainable development. The policy narrative on acid rain that he identifies draws on these broad themes, but uses specific details to make it more relevant at the applied policy level. For example, the acid rain policy narrative draws on specific adverse impacts on environmental resources, including air pollution, dead fish and damaged trees. It enacts the precautionary principle, on the basis that the science linking phenomena such as dead fish and damaged trees to industrial activity is unclear but troubling. And it depicts a sustainable future by suggesting that technology, in the form of
sulphur dioxide filters, can be applied to make industrial activity economically more efficient as well as better for the environment. Another difference is the dramatic nature of policy narratives. Perhaps this quality is best explicated by the work of Deborah Stone (2002). Stone shows, for example, that policy narratives follow a dramatic story arc. She argues that most stories fall within one of two genres—narratives of decline, and narratives of control. In the former, the narrative begins with an ominous description of the status quo, before outlining how the right policy can rescue the situation from catastrophe. In the latter, the narrative begins with a status quo of chaos, subsequently suggesting that the right policy can bring calm and order back to the policy setting. In both cases, narrators are at pains to depict matters at extremes, ramping up the drama and emotion. Likewise, she also shows that policy narratives typically have a regular “cast of characters,” with actors in the key roles of heroes, villains, and victims. These characters serve to personalize the policy setting, once more dramatizing the policy field. The final and perhaps most important point is that policy narratives actually have the potential to bridge conceptual discourses. For Dryzek (1996), a conceptual discourse provides the master frame through which people filter and process the information pertaining to their specific context into a coherent narrative. The impression is that a policy narrative is simply one way in which a wider conceptual discourse is enacted in policy deliberation, as with the ecological modernization-acid rain example cited earlier. However, policy narratives can also cut across sense-making discourses by drawing on ideas embedded in different discursive categories (Hajer 1995).6 The act of drawing on multiple conceptual discourses contributes to the ambiguity of policy narratives. Ambiguity, in turn, allows people to reach common ground in the way they make sense of issues (Polletta and Lee 2006). The effect is perhaps analogous to the “incompletely theorized agreements” discussed by Mansbridge et al. (2010), whereby people reach a stable agreement, but for incompatible reasons. This process was evident, for example, in the “I have a dream” speech alluded to earlier that united adherents of the civil rights and universal-liberal conceptual discourses. Exploring what policy narratives might do in a deliberative system My focus so far has been on showing how policy narratives, while sharing areas of overlap with the terms discourse and rhetoric, possess unique qualities. Policy narratives impact on policy deliberation, but is this impact problematic or helpful? To attempt to answer this question, I will turn back to the literatures on deliberative theory and governance, narrative theory, and policy narratives to speculate on important ways in which policy narratives may influence a deliberative system. I will focus on four key issues in deliberative theory — engagement, open-mindedness, rationality, and legitimacy. The rationale for choosing these
To be clear, Hajer’s understanding of sense-making discourse appears to be somewhat broader than my definition (and that of Dryzek), referring both to conceptual discourses as well as to what I will call “cultural discourses” — the knowledge, norms and language associated with particular professions, fields or communities. While agreeing that policy narratives often—perhaps always—cut across cultural discourses, I want to build further on this idea. It is my contention that policy narratives can bridge conceptual discourses, too.
areas is that they substantially overlap with empirical and theoretical findings related to policy narratives. Engagement A normative ideal common to most conceptions of deliberative democracy is that deliberation should be inclusive. The premise is that all those affected by a political decision should have the opportunity to have their say, either directly or through a representative (Dryzek 2001). As such, some theorists and practitioners bemoan existing political arrangements which limit public access to policy decision-making and create a climate of apathy towards civic concerns (Fung and Wright 2001). With this in mind, do policy narratives have the capacity to impact on engagement in a deliberative system? On the positive side, it appears that policy narratives may provide a crucial way-in to policy deliberation for political actors right across a deliberative system. Narratives are as close as there is to a universal mode of human communication and sense-making. Narrative is common across cultures (White 1980), and children develop the ability to understand and construct narratives at a very early age (Bruner 1986). In policy deliberation, policy narratives provide a readily accessible (or producible) script for actors within the deliberative system to latch onto, making sense of otherwise cloudy, confusing or contested pieces of information within the policy setting, and underpinning the need to take firm action. The overall effect is that policy narratives may make it simpler for actors across the deliberative system to engage in debate about the issue. On the flip side, policy narratives may work to delimit the boundaries of who is considered worthy of engagement and what is up for discussion. In an analysis of the attitudes of interest group advocates towards mini-publics, Hendriks (2005) shows that the “participatory storylines” people subscribe to influence who they think should be involved in policymaking processes. Likewise, the cast of characters developed in a policy narrative will inevitably shape subscribers’ understandings of whose policy input is valuable and whose is not. Indeed, in an analysis of policy narratives in relation to environmental policymaking in Yellowstone Park, McBeth et al. (2010) suggest that one “narrative policy tactic” involves attempting to control the issue dimension in order to expand or contract the range of relevant stakeholders. Open-mindedness Like inclusion, open-mindedness is a normative ideal in most versions of deliberative democracy. The aim is that deliberators should be able to reflect on their own opinions and beliefs, and remain open to persuasion from those with whom they disagree (Dryzek 2000). There is reason to believe that policy narratives may influence, for better or worse, the capacity of deliberators to remain open-minded. On the one hand, narrative theorists have shown that narratives are potent transformative devices. As “narrative animals,” people have highly developed skills for assessing the verisimilitude of narratives (Bruner 1991). And so, because people are intuitively so adept at evaluating policy narratives, a particularly moving or convincing one can force them to reconsider their wider opinions and judgments. Therefore, a policy narrative may have the capacity to transform people’s preferences in a deliberative system, ensuring that deliberators remain open to the possibility of changing their minds.
On the other hand, policy narratives may also simply reinforce prejudices. The personalized cast of characters can serve this function. Bridgman and Barry, for instance, show this in their study of number portability in the telecommunications sector in New Zealand (Bridgman and Barry 2002). The rival characters (telecommunications companies) were described as “raping and pillaging” consumers or as being “patently self-interested” with regard to the debate, and this pejorative labelling simply exacerbated existing prejudices among actors in this field. Rationality Whereas inclusion and open-mindedness are relatively uncontroversial ideals in the deliberative democracy literature, the issue of rationality is much more contentious. One notion, promoted by Rawls, is that policy deliberation should be governed by “public reason” (Rawls 1997). According to this conception, deliberators must attempt to give reasons grounded in terms that are generally acceptable to all members of a public. Others in the liberal tradition put forward a slightly more relaxed standard of rationality. For Cohen (Cohen 1989), for example, “reason” in policy deliberation involves putting forward arguments with the aim of getting the consent of other parties (without necessarily securing that consent). A different sort of rationality is evoked by deliberative theorists in the critical tradition. Dryzek (2000) argues that deliberators should display communicative rationality. What this means is that they should attempt to come to an understanding with other individuals over the course of deliberation without recourse to coercion, deception, self-deception, strategic game-playing or manipulation. However, these notions of rationality have provoked criticism from some quarters. Difference democrats, for instance, reject the notion of rationality entirely, as they believe it implicitly reinforces existing power relations in deliberative settings (Young 1996). Likewise, the core of the social choice critique of deliberative democracy is that “strategic rationality” is the only genuine rationality that deliberators exhibit, suggesting that deliberation is simply one part of a struggle over power (Austen-Smith 1992). Against the background of the debate on rationality in policy deliberation, it is unclear how policy narratives fit in. Superficially, at least, policy narratives appear entirely irrational due to their rhetorical nature, and their frequent emphasis on drama, conflict and emotion. What little discussion there has been of narratives writ-large (as opposed to anecdotal narratives) has tended to see them as a threat to rationality and reason in deliberation. Parkinson (2006), for instance, expresses concern about the impact of television on deliberation largely based on the medium’s tendency to cling to narrative modes of representation. However, I suggest that a focus on policy narratives might also engender a reconsideration of what constitutes rationality in policy deliberation. In particular, the concept of “narrative rationality” may prove useful in this regard. First developed by Fisher (1987), “narrative rationality” refers to the way people process and evaluate a new narrative. For Fisher, narrative rationality is comprised of two components. First is narrative probability, which is the internal coherence of a narrative. Second is narrative fidelity, the extent to which a narrative appears to accurately reflect real-life.7 Another key feature of narrative rationality, lacking in Fisher’s seminal work but added by subsequent narrative theorists, is the importance of identity (McClure 2009). That is to say, the degree to which the narrative (and, indeed, narrator)
Narrative fidelity is similar to what Fischer (2000) calls “cultural rationality” and Hajer simply calls “sounding right” (Hajer, 1995).
resonates with a person’s sense of identity also plays a key part in determining how they respond. Thought of in these terms, rationality in policy deliberation might refer to the way people probe a policy narrative for internal consistency, compare it against their own personal experiences, and situate it within their own (albeit fractured, unclear and dynamic) sense of identity. Legitimacy The final point is that policy narratives may impact on the legitimacy of a deliberative system. Legitimacy is an issue which has received considerable attention within the literature on deliberative democracy (eg. Dryzek 2001; Parkinson 2006). What constitutes legitimacy is a matter of great debate. To be clear, my focus in this section is not on “normative legitimacy” but on what Thompson calls “empirical legitimacy” (Thompson 2008). I want to explore the extent to which policy narratives make policy issues governable, or prevent them from becoming so. Leaning again on narrative theory, it is clear that policy narratives may be assets in this regard, in that narratives are extremely efficacious as a means of communication and sense-making (Fisher 1987). I have shown that policy narratives marshal disparate episodes and elements and synthesize them into a meaningful, unified whole with a seamlessness, coherence and simplicity which makes them intrinsically compelling. I have also referred to their ambiguity and their capacity to bridge conceptual discourses, bringing together disparate interests. As such, policy narratives may be able to effectively mobilize opinion across deliberative settings and, ultimately, lead to stability within a policy domain. But they may also have the opposite effect. The simplistic, reductive and frequently adversarial nature of policy narratives may serve to short circuit policy deliberation. Indeed, much of the policy narrative literature stresses the fact that these narratives can be polarizing. For instance, it has been suggested that persistent policy narratives relating to so-called “wicked problems” can cause political actors to become more and more entrenched in their beliefs, rendering issues intractable (Jones and McBeth 2007). Conclusion Throughout this discussion, I have endeavoured to show how focusing on the role of policy narratives will make a unique contribution to the literature on policy deliberation. As both rhetorical and sense-making devices, policy narratives are not captured by existing debates on rhetoric and discourse in deliberative democracy. As such, there is reason to believe that an analysis of how people engage with policy narratives can reveal new insights about how actors make sense of and communicate about contentious and complex policy issues. In particular, the way people engage with policy narratives has the potential to impact on policy deliberation in important ways, both for better and worse in relation to the some of the normative ideals of deliberative democracy. The next step for my project is to examine some of the questions raised in the final section empirically.
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