Alternatives: a Sociology of Policy

Alternatives: a Sociology of Policy


(2008) Hulme R. & Hulme, M Publishedin Understanding Global Social Policy. (Ed) Yeates, N, Bristol, Policy Press ISBN 978 1 86134 943 9

Section headings


Key concepts


What is policy transfer?

Policy Sociology: a global perspective

Travelling and embedded policy

Policy communities and local policy settlements

Evidence into policy: the political nature of decision-making

Making the ‘global’ ‘local’: divergence within the UK



Questions for discussion

Suggested follow-up activities (to be completed)

Further reading

Electronic resources

Glossary of key terms



Social policies which feature similar language do not necessarily carry the same meaning or content in every context. Social scientists from a number of disciplines have developed concepts and metaphors in an attempt to characterise the international movement of policies. This chapter contrasts two of those conceptual frameworks, 'policy transfer' and 'travelling and embedded policy'. Policy transfer helps to explain the use of knowledge from elsewhere in decision making processes. Travelling and embedded policy sheds light on the complex relationships between supranational, cross-national, regional and sectoral influences on policy making. Examples of education policy are used to illustrate the processes of global social policy making. In doing so, the chapter offers a particular focus on global policy agendas are mediated or negotiated by policy communities and networks in producing 'local' policy settlements.

Key Concepts

Global social governance, policy learning, policy sociology, epistemic community, policy network.


A central component of global social policy formation involves the movement of ideas, structures and practices. Chapter 2 addressed the institutional architecture of global social policy and referred to a system of ‘emerging global governance’ in which transnational corporations, international coalitions of policy advocates or policy experts and a variety of other policy actors interact through global networks.

This chapter addresses a different aspect of what Yeates in Chapter 1 refers to as the trans-national processes of global social policy: the international movement of ideas and structures in policy making. The first two chapters have explored the means by which global networks of actors and INGOs are important in setting social policy agendas in the developed and the developing world. This chapter examines the ways in which themaking of social policy is globalised. In particular, how the knowledge that underpins policy (often carried by trans-national organisations) is constructed and is expressed in diverse forms within national and sectoral contexts.

There is nothing new about policy forms moving around the globe. As Yeates observes in chapter 1, colonialism in the 19th century exported western forms of social and economic policy around the globe. The 20th century witnessed a tendencyby developed western nations to ‘borrow’ policy structures from one another, sometimes over many years. Phillips and Ochs (2004)outline the incremental and ultimately unsuccessful attempt of the British government to borrow the German model of vocational education from the 1870’s to the mid 20th century.

In recent years, the process of making social policy has become most visibly ‘global’in that certain agendas such as human rights, public–private partnerships in welfare delivery and the ‘global knowledge economy’ have ‘travelled’ around the globe.Depending on local political circumstances, the ‘transfer’ of ‘generic’ policy agendas such as these can either be a valuable instrument or an inevitable external intervention for policy makers within the new ‘global governance.’

Unlike other aspects of GSP, the conceptual literatures on the international movement of policy reviewed here have primarily grown from Anglo- American models of policy analysis and reflect a ‘technicist’ focus on ‘western’ processes of government, emphasising stability and continuity. There is a need to ‘globalise’ this policy literature to address the scope of global policy change. Yet the narrower perspectives on transfer are still relevant to our purpose. We need both broad perspectives on the generic agendas promoted by INGOsand a narrower focus on the processes of policy settlements (see fig 1). Global social policy analysis is founded on notions of growing ‘interconnectedness’ and in keeping with other aspects of globalization, it can be as illuminating to look for evidence of these processes in your ‘back garden’ as it is to look further afield. As Deacon (2007) has observed in GSP ‘the global is in the local and local is in the global’; hence our examples of ‘traveling’ policy highlight the way in generic global policy agendas can be contested and mediated within relatively small geographical areas, (the nations of the UK) as well as on a global stage.

Two approaches to global policy studies are outlined to illustrate these broader debates: one uses a ‘small lens’ to focus on simple/linear transfers of ideas, the other a broader lens on the processes of mediation, contestation and deliberation of global discourses: thenotion of ‘travelling’ and ‘embedded policy’ (Jones and Alexiadou, 2001; Ozga and Jones, 2006). Both perspectives help us to graspthe different ways in which policy formation is said to have become globalised.

The chapter attends to the continued agency of ‘local’ policy actors in shaping global agendas, as well as the role of global actors in shaping local agendas.In this way, the political nature of the making of social policy is emphasised. The chapterdraws oneducation policy to illustrate how policies that employ similar language, and connect with common transnational agenda, produce different settlements.

What is policy transfer?

A substantial literature on the international movement of ideas and practices in social policy has developed over the last fifteen years. In this section we briefly outline the concepts of ‘policy transfer’, ‘policy diffusion’, ‘cross-national attraction’, ‘policy borrowing’ and policy ‘convergence’ and we consider how epistemic communities (Haas, 1990) and advocacy coalitions (Sabatier, 1993)inform the development of policylearning.

Within the policy transfer literature various frameworks have developed which seek to strengthen cross-national,international and historical analysis of social policies (Dolowitz and Marsh, 2000; Dolowitz et al., 2000; Evans and Davies, 1999; Wolman and Page, 2002). Dolowitz et al. (2000) offer a definition of policy transfer and the international movement of policy as:

A process in which knowledge about policies, institutions and ideas developed in one time or place is used in the development of policies, institutions etc. in another time or place (Dolowitz et al., 2000: 3)

This framework is simple and uses a narrow lens, but it helps us to examine the origins of ideas about policy, who supplies this ‘policy knowledge’ and the political and practical purposes to which this knowledge is put. It is useful in explaining social policy formation at any level.The literature on ‘diffusion’ (Mintrom and Vegari 1998;) hasa slightly broader focus on the international causes of policy ‘adoption’ of institutional forms within welfare systems but again the focus is upon structures and programmes. There has been a strong theme within the literature on policy transfer and diffusion on the influence of ideas and structures from the USA on policy development in the UK, (Dolowitz et al 2000, Global Social Policy 6, 2006). This work has highlighted examples ranging from the ‘Americanisation of British universities to the use of policies originating in the US, such as the Child Support Agency and electronic tagging of offenders. Transfer and diffusion here is seen to be driven by the close connections between US and UK policy elites, think tanks such the Institute for Economic Affairs but also by the increasing linkages between welfare organisations and local and national policy communities in both countries.

The literature on ‘lesson drawing’ (Rose 1991) is very close to the transfer framework and draws on a linear, rational understanding of the policy process and offers a focus on the tendency of policy elites to look for ‘lessons’ in how to deliver policy outcomes from other contexts, both domestic and international. These studies offer frameworks rather than complete theoretical perspectives and accordingly have been criticised as case studies in search of a global/ international theory of policy change (Wolman and Page, 2002).

Fig 1 The Global Movement of Social Policy through Broad and NarrowLenses:

There are a number of theoretical perspectives and conceptual frameworks which help to characterize the global movement of social policy.

The broader perspectives used here tend to draw upon sociological theories on globalization, such as VERNACULAR GLOBALISATION, POLICY SOCIOLOGY, and TRAVELLING AND EMBEDDED POLICY

Other ‘broad brush’ work includes WORLD SOCIETY THEORY (Meyer et al 1997). This work starts from the premise of an already existing global society which transcends national boundaries. This operates through a series of global cultural associations, such as that established between groups of academic specialists in different countries.

A ‘narrower’ perspective on the international movement of ideas is provided by a variety of conceptual frameworks which we have characterized asPolicy transfer, diffusion, lesson drawing. They are concerned with politics and decision making. Each one has a slightly different scope and focus. Others include:

Cross National Attraction examines the tendency for ‘northern’ and ‘western’ nations in particular to replicate structures evident in other similarly situated countries.

Policy Borrowing focuses primarily on the movement of policy between the USA and the UK.

A model that tries to use both is:

POLICY CONVERGENCE:examines global /international influence but emphasises the importance of the policy community and national cultural traditions in shaping the direction of domestic policy. The notion of international influence rather than top down transfer of ideas into domestic social policy has been a key idea in within the literature on globalization and it remains central to the development of our perspective how global social policy is made.

The literature on policy transfer offers a multi-level framework for exploring the movement of policy ideas and practices. For the purposes of global social policy, these transfer studies offer a simple lens for examining the increasing complexity of the ‘global policy community’ and the rise of generic agendas in education and other welfare policies:

(1) The rise of generic agendas and policy platforms that are global in reach - for example, contained within ‘modernizing’ discourse supported by the global language of ‘effectiveness’, ‘quality’, ‘diversity’ and ‘choice’.At this level, global and supranational agencies have an influence on the range of policy options that are available to domestic policy makers. However, as Yeates (forthcoming) observes, their influence is not uni-dimensional and the extent to which international organizations have a significant influence on domestic policy making differs greatly depending on theorganisation and policy areas. Thus, the EU has a strong influence over the domestic policy of its memberstates on labour and social law. Organisations with a truly global reach such as the World Bank or OECDcan be seen to have a more ‘atmospheric’ influence on the language and general direction and terms of policy debate across the range of social policy (see fig 3). At the political level, it is increasingly argued that supranational institutions constrain divergence in national/state policy formation – but again, as Yeates (2007) has argued, this is variable across the regions, nations and specific policy domains. Despite these contingencies, international organisations play a very significant role in policy making as the generators, purveyors and agents of knowledge about policy through which policy problems are defined and responses are shaped.In finding and consuming research and policy analysis they act as transnational knowledge networks (Stone, 2004).

(2) At the level of domestic governance, policy ideas and practices are transferred ‘indirectly’ across sectors (private and public; and between sectors of domestic governance) and from previous governments or policy trajectories (For example, New Labour’s education reforms ranging from higher education reform to the involvement of the private sector in school organisation have significant antecedents in previous Conservative government policy).

(3) Policy transfer can also be seen to operate at inter-organisational level. Here, the movement of ideas and practices can be domestic or international, top-down or bottom-up and can by-pass the central institutions of domestic governance; local authorities seeking examples of urban renewal and various regional transport schemes such the Manchester metro link were based on direct contact with French and US city authorities.

Depending on the context of the transferring agents, policy transfer can be either voluntary or coercive (obligated transfer), direct or indirect. At all levels, the literature suggests that the transfer of ideas and institutions is a key instrument in the development of social policy programmes in response to emergent political, economic and social conditions.

The policy transfer literature has been enhanced by significant work that has examined the processes of learning. Haas(1990, 2004)highlights the role of ‘epistemic communities’ or competing groups of policy specialists, often found in think tanks and research institutes (Stone 2001, 2004).Deacon (2007) offers an example of the way in which INGOs such as the World Bank and international consulting companies such as the Soros Foundation have acted in concert, often through shared personnel to promote neo-liberal, market-oriented packages of policy for welfare reform across the globe, from the ‘reconstruction’ of post Soviet Eastern Europe to welfare development Africa and Latin America. Iterative policies promoting privatisation, private-public partnerships in public sector reform have ensued.

In all contexts, the supply of expert knowledge by ‘epistemics’ involves the transfer of ideas developed in one context to other contexts – usually from other countries but occasionally, as in the case of the UK conservative governments in the 1980s (Hulme 2006), the re-cycling of policy ideas and structures, such as the re-introduction of grammar schools from previous domestic policy.

For Haas (1990) the search for policy knowledge is what trans-national policy making is all about.Changing policy is a dynamic process, it cannot take place without learning. He produces a knowledge-based definition of policies as packages of cause-effect prescriptions founded on ‘scientific’ or ‘codified’ knowledge. Such knowledge is (at the level of national central government institutions) based primarily on quantitative data supplied by professional organisations or policy specialists. Scientific knowledge is then moulded into ‘consensual knowledge’, or commonly accepted cause and effect propositions (for example, in education policy standards in education reflect the performance of teachers), which define the nature of policy problems and shape the responses available to government. Any departure from an existing policy requires learning on the part of policy makers or, ‘the penetration of political objectives and programmes by new knowledge’ (Haas, 1990: 316). Dolowitz et al. (2000) offers a view of the Americanisation of British higher education which reinforces this point. Here, transferring policy from the USA is rational, since it is about making choices in policy development but it also about realising ideological goals. Thus, learning is primarily about the use of knowledge to define political interests and to refine the strategic direction of policy proposals.

Epistemic communities provide such knowledge, which acts as a ‘trigger for learning’ in helping to break policy makers’ habits and their tendency to look for continuity and stability in policy. Haas (1990: 41) defines them as groups of professionals ‘usually recruited from several disciplines’, linked by specialist knowledge and acting as a conduit for that knowledge in the service of policy makers. They may ‘share a common causal model and set of beliefs’ but are more like a community of scientists ‘like biologists’ than to groups bound together by ideological principles. If there is more than one epistemic community in a policy environment they can be seen to behave like ‘rival groups of scientists’ (Haas, 1990: 42) in that the ultimate test of their ‘version of the truth’ is the adoption of their prognoses by the users of knowledge.

Deacon (2007) provides a valuable focus on the global reach of epistemic communities and knowledge networks (KNETS) and the role they play in the global market for knowledge about policy. He argues that their role is crucial in determining that certain agendas for social policy ‘travel’ around the globe. Such networks of experts,‘do not simply crystallise around different sites and forms of power…the network is the site and form of power’ (Deacon, 2007:17). Thus epistemic communities play a vital part in spreading a global contest between two policy platforms or, ‘the titanic struggle between the dominant neo-liberal tendency in the World Bank and the more social- solidarity tendency around the ILO and other UN agencies’. Their role in this struggle however, is not uni-dimensional, as our brief overview of UNESCO’s role in fig 2 demonstrates. Hence our need for broader and more reflexive notions of the globalization of policy formation. (Deacon Chapter 2. These global contests over ideas are examined in later chapters of this book in the context of health (Chapter 7), housing and urban policy (Chapter 8) and pensions (Chapter 9).

Fig 2 UNESCO and Global Education Policy

The key INGO’s involved in the global movement of education policy are the World Bank, the OECD and UNESCO

Debates on global social policy tend to present UNESCO as a largely reformist, liberal influence within the trans-national education policy networks. The emphasis is placed on human capital formation and as former UNESCO Deputy Director General Colin Power (2006p3) suggested, providing a ‘strategic direction for education that challenges the market ideology that dominated social policy and practice since the 1980’s. This position is often contrasted with the neo-liberal, market-oriented, individualistic policy platforms of the World Bank.

Formed in 1945 as a key element in the post war reconstruction of (particularly defeated) areas of Europe, UNESCO’s policy goals have remained consistent with its original goals of its constitution to build a culture of peace and sustainable development. Power, (2006 p4) identifies four themes have been dominant;