Blog Political Science and Public Administration

Nicolás Barbieri
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona


There is a long tradition in policy analysis that seeks to develop concepts that can link the agency of actors to (institutional) structures. Based on this tradition, this article proposes an analysis of policy change combining the discursive institutionalism approach with a symbolic interactionist perspective. In particular, an analysis is made of the role played by policy discourse and policy frames in the (relative) margin of agency of actors. When and how then do policy discourse and policy frames matter when explaining policy change?


Based on evidence from cultural policy domain, and, particularly, from a case study of the development of cultural policy in Catalonia, this paper presents several findings. Firstly, it is shown that continuity in cultural policies corresponds to a significant degree of symbolic legitimacy on the part of government intervention. Secondly, a period of continuity gives way to one of changes when policies go through an ideational crisis. In this sense, this article confirms (in a different context and policy domain) a central thesis of discursive institutionalism. Furthermore, the paper shows that, contrary to that indicated by the punctuated equilibrium model, openness to policy change does not come with (or after) a change in the level of public attention to policy problems, nor with access to the macro-political agenda.


Thirdly, after a period of ideational crisis, the policy change process corresponds to the symbolic re-legitimization of government intervention, in this case in cultural affairs. By adapting and applying the concept of frame alignment to policy change analysis, this article shows that the alignment between a policy frame and a master frame underpins this symbolic re-legitimization and so helps in understanding policy change.


Actors (individually and collectively) are potential agents for change by means of their frames. Aligning with the master frame means aligning with the context of shared meaning and therefore resonating with the audience, which in this case consists not only of those who participate directly in policy formulation, but also those who influence this process. Policy frame alignment can happen in at least two ways. Firstly, policy frame amplification means aligning with the master frame by identifying and elevating certain values or beliefs. Secondly, policy frame extension is achieved by reorganizing actors’ values, extending the boundaries of the policy frame and including different points of view (values but also interests) of diverse groups. In both cases, one can see actors’ decisions that helps to reinvigorate a policy frame, overcome ambiguity and indifference for collective action and re-legitimize cultural policies as public policies. 


Both policy frame amplification and extension are processes of alignment: dynamic processes that lead to a modification of the actor's policy frame, with the actor being in this case mainly those in charge of public policies. Thus, collective action is not based on a type of instrumental rationality or a behavior that simply reflects interests that are defined, apparently stable and with an accompanying objective reality. Ideas and values are not mere addenda to institutional rules or interests. In policy change, the acknowledgement of what is considered real is not a prior step to be taken before making decisions, nor is discourse only instrumental in nature.


For more information see Barbieri, Nicolás (2015) “A narrative-interactionist approach to policy change analysis. Lessons from a case study of the cultural policy domain in Catalonia”, Critical Policy Studies.