Discursive Approaches to Public Policy: The Argumentative Turn


The discursive approach generally, and the argumentative turn in particular, were first inspired by two major theoretical influences, namely those of Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault. The approach draws on Habermas’s theory of communicative action to show the relevance of concrete discursive relations among different actors and the ways they create sites of discourse and meaning-making. The orientation is taken as essential for numerous works on policy discourse and deliberative argumentation, especially those involving processes of mutual understanding among actors. From Foucault, the discursive policy approach has gained a deeper understanding of the role of discourse in the production of knowledge. Public Policy researchers have used his understanding of discourse to explain how discursive practices, including those of policy experts, are “mastered, plotted, disseminated, and excluded,” all of which “are instances where power is played out.” Aligned with these theoretical orientations, a growing number of political scientists and other policy scholars started in the late 1980s and early 1990s to address the issues of discourse and argumentation in public policy.


Given numerous theoretical and methodological developments, the discursive approach cannot today be understood as a unified homogenous body of theory. But all of the various strands challenge the positivist approach to politics and policy. Recent areas of research include argumentation in the policy process as a whole, discourse analysis, social constructivism, methods of interpretive policy analysis, narrative policy analysis, the discursive role of expertise, deliberative democracy, citizens juries, and the place emotions in policy politics.


The Turn to Arguments

While there are different but related orientations with the discursive paradigm, all take argumentation to be essential for grasping how actors perceive the world, interact with their counterparts, and shape their actions.

In the video focuses is on argumentation and deliberation in both policy analysis and political process. Here, a significant emphasis is placed on the ways deliberation and debate can be facilitated in policy politics. In deliberative argumentation, different actors are seen to submit their opinions, ideas, and beliefs to multiple interpretive frameworks. Based on their interpretive assessments they forge and justify their own policy arguments.


The turn to arguments has led to a deliberative policy-analytic approach that supplements, if not counters, the standard technocratically-oriented empiricist orientation. Rather than emerging from epistemological considerations per se, the argumentative perspective is based on an examination of what policy analysts and decision-makers actually do in the real world of policymaking. By facilitating deliberation, it seeks to elucidate the social and political meanings of competing policy discourses and the arguments derived from them. As such, it addresses the question of social and political relevance, which has long plagued technocratic policy analysis. Moreover, contrary to misunderstandings, deliberative policy analysis is seen to be more rigorous than neo-positivist policy analysis insofar as it accepts the need for empirical inquiry but requires that the data be examined against the contentions and assumptions of competing normative policy arguments.


The argumentative approach is also supplemented by a focus on emotion and narratives. Here the task is to understand why particular emotions relate to particular policy situations. Emotions are seen to be part of the policy process at all stages. Both emotions and narratives affect the knowledge upon which decisions are based, influence how actors make these decisions, as well as impact the ways in which these decisions are introduced to audiences. Narratives constitute an important bedrock of policy arguments and serve as the carriers of emotional expression.

Not least significant, the resultant transparency is seen as the basis for a more participatory approach to democratic policymaking. This involves an effort to bring citizens and experts together in collaborative policy investigation, reflected in practices such as consensus conferences and citizen juries.



In the below video, Professor Frank Fischer talks about the argumentative turn and discursive policy analysis during the First International Conference on Public Policy. 






Biography of the Speaker

Frank Fischer has been Distinguished Professor of Politics and Global Affairs at Rutgers University in the USA. Since 2016 he has worked as a research scholar in the department of political sociology and the Albrecht Daniel Thaer Institute of Humboldt University in Berlin and is associated with the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam. He is a co-editor of Critical Policy Studies journal, co-editor of the book series on Advancing Critical Policy Studies and editor of the Handbook of Policy Research Series for Edward Elgar Publishing. In addition to widely lecturing around the world on environmental politics, democratic participation, and deliberative policy analysis, he has published 17 books and numerous essays. These include Technocracy and the Politics of Expertise (Sage 1990), Evaluating Public Policy (Wentworth 1995), Citizens, Experts and the Environment (Duke 2000), Reframing Public Policy: Discursive Politics and Deliberative Practices (Oxford 2003), Handbook of Public Policy Analysis: Theory, Politics and Methods, co-edited with Mara Sidney and Gerald Miller (Taylor and Francis 2006), Democracy and Expertise: Reorienting Policy Inquiry (Oxford 2009), The Argumentative Turn Revisited: Public Policy as Communicative Practice, co-edited with Herbert Gottweis (Duke 2012), the Handbook of Critical Policy Studies, co-edited with Douglas Torgerson, Anna Durnova and Michael Orsini (Elgar 2015) and Climate Crisis and the Democratic Prospect (Oxford 2017). In addition to research in the United States and Germany, he has conducted field research in India, Nepal and Thailand on citizen participation and local ecological knowledge. He has also received numerous awards, including the Harold Lasswell, Charles Taylor, and Aaron Wildavsky Awards for contributions to the field policy studies:


Related Articles/Books

  • Anna Durnova, “Lost in translation: expressing emotions in policy deliberation,” in F. Fischer, G. Miller and M. Sidney, eds., Handbook of Public Policy Analysis (London: Taylor and Francis, 2007)
  • Anna Durnova, Frank Fischer, and Philippe Zittoun, “Discursive approaches to public policy: politics, argumentation, and deliberation” In Contemporary Approaches to Public Policy (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)
  • Dvora Yanow, Conducting Interpretive Policy Analysis (Newbury, CA: Sage 2000)
  • Emory Roe, Narrative Policy Analysis (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994)
  • Eva Lövbrand and Johannes Stripple, “Foucault and critical policy studies,” in F. Fischer, D. Torgerson, A. Durnova and M. Orsini, eds., Handbook of Critical Policy Studies (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2015)
  • Frank Fischer and John Forester, eds, “The   Argumentative Turn in Policy analysis and Planning” (Durham: Duke University Press,1993)
  • Frank Fischer, “Deliberative policy analysis as practical reason: integrating empirical and normative arguments,” in F. Fischer, G. Miller and M. Sidney, eds., Handbook of Public Policy Analysis  (London: Taylor and Francis, 2007)
  • Frank Fischer, “Knowledge politics and post-truth in climate denial: on the social construction of alternative facts,” Critical Policy Studies, 13:2, 2019
  • Frank Fischer, “Reframing Public Policy: Discursive Politics and Deliberative Practices”(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)       
  • Frank Fischer, Climate Crisis and the Democratic Prospect (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017)
  • Frank Fischer, Democracy and Expertise: Reorienting               Policy Inquiry  (Oxford: Oxford University, 2009)
  • Frank Fischer, Evaluating Public Policy (London: Wentworth Publishing, 1995)
  • Frank Fischer, Truth and Post-Truth in Public Policy (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2020)
  • Herbert Gottweis, “Argumentative policy analysis,” in G. Peters and J. Pierre, eds. Handbook of Public Policy. (London: Sage, 2006)
  • Herbert Gottweis, “Rhetoric in policy making: between logos, ethos, and pathos,” in F. Fischer and H. Gottweis, The Argumentative Turn Revisited: Public Policy as Communicative Practice (Durham: Duke University Press 2012)
  • John Drzyek and Carolyn Hendrik, “Fostering deliberation in the forum and beyond,” in F. Fischer and H. Gottweis, The Argumentative Turn Revisited: Public Policy as Communicative Practice (Durham: Duke University Press 2012)
  • Maarten Hajer and Henk Wagenaar, Deliberative Policy Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • Maarten Hajer, The Politics of Environmental Discourse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)
  • Thomas Saretzki, “Habermas, critical theory and public policy,” in F. Fischer, D. Torgerson, A. Durnova and M. Orsini, eds., Handbook of Critical Policy Studies (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2015) 


  • Fischer, F., & Gottweis, H. (Eds.). (2012). The Argumentative Turn Revisited: Public Policy as Communicative Practice. Duke University Press.
  • Frank Fischer, Reframing Public Policy: Discourse Politics and Deliberative Practices (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)
  • Frank Fischer, Douglas Torgerson, Anna Durnova, and Michael Orsini, eds. Handbook of Critical Policy Analysis (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015).
  • Peters, B. G., & Zittoun, P. (2016). Contemporary approaches to public policy. Theories, controversies and perspectives. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Zittoun P. (2014), The political process of Policy-Making, a pragmatic approach on public policy, Palgrave-McMillan