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Tufts OpenCourseware
Author: Kathleen Merrigan, Ph.D.

What normative theories underpin the field?

The field of public policy focuses on “the public and its problems” (Dewey, 1927) It is concerned with how issues and problems come to be defined and constructed and how they are placed on the political and policy agenda. But it is also a study of “how, why, and to what extent governments pursue particular courses of action and inaction” (Heidenheimer et al, 1990) or, as Dye puts it, with “what governments do, why they do it, and what difference it makes” (Dye, 1976).

The idea of public policy presupposes that there is a sphere or domain of life that is not private or purely individual, but held in common. Deborah Stone refers to this as the polis (from Aristotle for those of you who follow philosophy -- he defined it as the highest form of human association). I think of public policy as a hybrid of political science and public administration, with a little sociology, psychology, economics, management, and philosophy thrown in.

Normative theories guide policy analysis efforts. For example, Liberal theories equate the sum of individual interests with the public interest and stress the formal rights of participation. In contrast, Pluralist theories define the public interest as the balance of interest groups and stress access and openness of process and the competitive interest group market. Still yet, Class/Elite theories focus on class groupings rather than individuals and stress power and outcomes over processes. Is there one real political system? To what extent do normative theories explain the world?

Quotes of the Day

Robert B. Reich is a Professor at The Heller School at Brandies University. He served three presidents, most recently as Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton. I choose this quote to launch our discussion of various schools framing our notion of the “appropriate” role for government.

“The core responsibility of those who deal in public policy--elected officials, administrators, policy analysts--is not simply to discover as objectively as possible what people want for themselves and then to determine and implement the best means of satisfying these wants. It is also to provide the public with alternative visions of what is desirable and possible, to stimulate deliberation about them, provoke a reexamination of premises and values, and thus to broaden the range of potential responses and deepen society's understanding of itself.”

Robert Reich, The Power of Public Ideas, 1988, Harvard University Press.

Discussion Questions

A common criticism of politicians is that they determine their positions based on polling data. I have even heard people describe such use of polling data as cowardly – that politicians should be willing to stand up for what they believe, no matter what their constituents think. Is that what Robert Reich is suggesting in this quote? Can you describe a situation in which a politician has gone against public opinion? What were the results? How do politicians decide when to respond to the will of the people or conversely, as described by Reich, shape public opinion?


  • Deborah Stone. Policy Paradox, Parts I--III, pp. 15-257

Written Assignment

Bring a brief letter addressed to your congressional or state representative on an issue of your choosing. We will share our letters and then mail them together following class. Please see the Assignments folder for this course. It includes a description of the assignment along with student examples.