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Comparative Policy Studies (Engeli and Rothmayr Allison, Eds. 2014)

Comparative Policy AtudiesOne of my favorite journals is (quite obviously) the Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis (JCPA), founded by Dr. Iris Geva-May (whose 2005 edited volume “Thinking Like a Policy Analyst” I recently commented on). I am often in search of new books on comparative public policy, since that’s basically my own field of research. So I was quite pleased to come across the edited book “Comparative Policy Studies: Conceptual and Methodological Challenges“, edited by Dr. Isabelle Engeli (University of Bath) and Dr. Christine Rothmayr Allison (Université de Montreal). This is the kind of book I would have wanted to write or edit myself, so I am incredibly grateful to Professors Engeli and Rothmayr Allison that they did us all a favour and created this most excellent volume. For those of us who do comparative public policy, this is The Book. I think Dr. Engeli and Dr. Rothmayr Allison managed to assemble a volume with an excellent, broad list of topics and solid expert contributors.

Quite obviously, my only complaint is the book’s price (at $105 for softcover, it’s not affordable for students or early-career-scholars or non-tenure-track faculty who might not have access to library resources, or even for libraries in developing countries). Even the eBook version is expensive ($80). With the precipitous slide of the Mexican peso (more than 75% compared to 2012 prices), buying this book last year or even two years ago would still have been an expensive investment, but now it’s almost double the price in Mexican pesos.

Book price aside, the book’s contributor list is a Who Is Who In Public Policy Theory. The opening chapter by Engeli and Rothmayr Allison is excellent, gives an excellent preview of the entire volume and can be downloaded here). Two quotes from Engeli and Rothmayr Allison’s chapter (page 2) stood up for me:

“Comparative policy studies address processes of policy making, of problem emergence and definition, of policy formulation, of policy implementation and also evaluation.”

“Drawing on the seminal work of Heidenheimer et al. (1990), this volume places comparison at the heart of public policy research. Comparative analysis encourages moving beyond the particularities of each case and identifying patterns and regularity across cases, settings and time periods. Comparative designs force the researcher not to stop the analysis at particularistic explanations drawn from a single context, but to test whether the answers to research questions hold true for a larger number of cases and contexts.”

The reality is that despite the fact that we’re 25 years ahead of Heidenheimer’s essay, it is still hard to find The Right Book for Comparative Public Policy.. There are several worthy volumes out there. There is an entire journal devoted to comparative policy analysis, plenty of comparative studies published in Policy Studies Journal, Policy Sciences, Policy Studies, Journal of Public Policy, and many non-policy-specific journals but still, throughout the years, I felt that there wasn’t a comprehensive guide to where I could send my students (I used to teach The Comparative Politics of Public Policy at The University of British Columbia, and I intend to do so again in the very near future, but now at CIDE). I feel that my quest for a solid book on comparative public policy studies has been fruitful now.

I am fond of just about anything that Dr. Michael Howlett (Simon Fraser University/NUS) and Dr. Ben Cashore (Yale University), both good friends of mine, remind us of what the challenges are in defining public policy from a perspective that uses a comparative lens. I quote, from pages 27 and 28:

The results of such comparative efforts have been many and fruitful. These comparative studies of policy elements, processes, actors and dynamics have shown public policy to be a complex phenomenon consisting of numerous decisions made by many individuals and organizations inside government at different points in policy processes, influenced by others operating within, and outside of, the state and resulting, generally, in long periods of stability of outcomes or incremental changes, punctuated by infrequent bursts of paradigmatic change. The decisions policy-makers make have been shown to be shaped both by the structures within which these actors operate and the ideas they hold – forces that have also affected earlier policies in previous iterations of policy-making processes and have set policies onto specific trajectories, sometimes over long periods of time.

(Howlett and Cashore 2014, p. 26-27, emphasis in bold is mine).

In a way, reading this volume reminded me of the early years of my PhD, when the mainstream body of study was comparative politics. I am a comparativist. I took comprehensive exams with comparative politics as my primary field (although I also do some work in the international relations arena with my transnational environmental non-state actors research). I just applied comparative politics lenses to public policy theories.

We needed a volume that brought together all the questions about how to conduct comparative policy studies, and attempted to answer most of them. Engeli and Rothmayr Allison have done the profession a solid service by bringing all these scholars together to answer questions around case selection and inference in comparative policy studies (van der Heijden), case studies and causal process-tracing (Blatter and Haverland), quantitative methods in comparative policy studies (Breunig and Ahlquist), and one of my favorite authors, Dr. Dvora Yanow on interpretive analysis and comparative research. Amy G. Mazur and Season Hoard offer an excellent overview of how to apply a gender lens to comparative policy studies, while Sophie Biesenbender and Adrienne Héritier showcase the application of mixed-methods in comparative policy research. Biesenbender and Héritier are perhaps the only authors who address “empirical” questions in their chapter with a specific case study, but this in no way detracts from the volume nor their own chapter. I also have to confess a special admiration for Dr. Amy Mazur, whose work on gender, politics and public policy I have always found fascinating, so I was glad to find her in the list of contributors.

This book also solidified my belief (which I’ve made quite visible throughout the years) about how you cannot say that there aren’t enough solid female scholars who study public policy. This book is edited by two women, and many of the contributors are women. In fact, this volume confirms my hypothesis that one could potentially teach public policy solely using female authors’ works (my Fall 2016 Public Policy Analysis course has over 67% readings by women and under-represented minorities). It’s time we find new “canonical” readings.

Overall, I found “Comparative Policy Studies” an excellent, agile read, and a volume that should be acquired by libraries and individual researchers interested in the field of comparative public policy.

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