Critical Encounters with Decentred Theory: Tradition, Metagovernance, and Parrhēsia as Storytelling


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Public policy has long been criticised for being overly rationalistic (e.g. Colebatch, 2009). The post-positivist turn that has followed has opened up a new terrain within which interpretivist and constructivist approaches have become particularly influential.1 Of course, interpretivist and constructivist approaches come in a variety of different forms, some of which are reflected in the contributions to this volume (Wagenaar, 2011). However, an extended analysis of Bevir and Rhodes’s particular form of interpretivism - decentred theory - is more than warranted due to the particularly influential role that it has played in shaping the fields of political science, public policy, and governance. Relatedly, it also makes sense to go back to Interpreting British Governance (2003) as this was Bevir and Rhodes’s first book-length attempt to set out their approach. It is an argument that they have elaborated on in numerous other journal articles and several books, most notably Governance Stories (2006) and The State as Cultural Practice (2010). The wide-ranging debates generated by these contributions provide ample evidence of the influential and substantial contribution that decentred theory has made on both policy-related research and the discipline of political science more broadly construed. It is also one of the principal reasons why the study of governance has become ubiquitous within much public policy discussion and research. Decentred theory’s overall argument is that individuals act on their beliefs, which are made in the context of a set of traditions that colour but do not determine an agent’s actions. This makes traditions particularly important because they provide the means by which situated agents use their local reasoning consciously and subconsciously to modify their contingent heritage (Bevir and Rhodes, 2006: 9). So, situated agents govern themselves through the beliefs that they hold, which are loosely tied to the traditions within which they are situated. Change occurs when a situated agent’s beliefs evolve in response to a dilemma or set of dilemmas. This approach has had a very significant impact on how we understand and study governance and public policy. Even those who remain sceptical about its core claims (e.g. James, 2009) can no longer ignore its growing influence on the profession, particularly amongst younger scholars. Theoretically, Bevir and Rhodes have set out a coherent alternative to ‘modernist empiricism’ (notably rational choice and new institutionalist approaches) and distinguished themselves from other anti-foundationalist approaches (particularly post-structuralism) by bringing the ideas of ‘post-analytic philosophy’ into the analysis of policy and governance (Bevir and Rhodes, 2010: 64).2 Methodologically and empirically, they have also shown how decentred theory can be used to help inform our understanding of policy, politics, and the polity. Yet, at the same time, I remain dubious that Bevir and Rhodes’s decentred approach offers all the answers. It is in this spirit that I am taking the opportunity presented by this chapter to reflect on three different ways in which I have benefited from engaging with decentred theory, either by incorporating elements of it into my own work or by taking an alternative direction following an engagement with it. These critical encounters centre on: the concept of tradition; Bevir and Rhodes’s engagement with the literature on metagovernance; and parrhēsia as a particular form of storytelling. This chapter is structured around these three themes.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInterpreting Governance, High Politics, and Public Policy
Subtitle of host publicationEssays commemorating Interpreting British Governance
EditorsNick Turnbull
Place of PublicationUnited Kingdom
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781317679370
ISBN (Print)9781138777286
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2016


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