A Voice of Reason: Sane Views for a Crazy World

April 17, 2007

Symbolism in Policy Decisions

This is a critical analysis, in draft form that I am writing as part of my boring coursework towards a doctorate.  I put this under a barrage of headings, as it really applies to so many areas.

However, I thought some of you political junkies might find it interesting.

The use of symbols in framing public policy is discussed by Deborah Stone in  Policy Paradox.  The author states (pg. 137) that “symbolic representation is the essence of problem definitions in politics”.  What she may be stating early on in the chapter is that these symbols become part of the framework that policy makers can use to make their intended goals based within a context of reality for the general public.  The author discusses four distinct types of symbols used by framers of public policy: Narrative stories, Synecdoche – or figures of speech – where a part represents the whole, Metaphors, and the purposeful use of Ambiguity in the choice of which symbols are used.

The author states that “policy problems usually have narrative structure, with heroes and villains and innocent victims” (pg. 138).  Of course this provides a framework where the general public can relate to the goals of the policy being sought.  These narratives have the typical themes of stories of decline and stories of helplessness and control.  The author states that the story of decline is typified by the statement, “unless such and such is done, disaster will follow” (pg. 138).  This can be done by using human or statistical information as the characters which anthropomorphize the sought policy.   The second genre mentioned, helplessness and control, typically is used to contrast the problems that helplessness bring about when compared with policies which bring people into a firmer grasp of control of their lives, by means of a public policy.  The author points out (pg. 139) that as these stories move from fate towards control, they elicit hope, which engenders support.  The author later goes on (pg. 144) to describe subtypes of the control story, and these involve conspiracy theory stories as well as stories that blame the victim.  The conspiracy theory story calls for the masses to rise up against the few, while the blame the victim storyteller will urge the few to stand up for themselves like the rest of society.

The second type of symbol is synecdoche – or representing a whole by the part.  The author shows how politicians – framers of public policy – use this type of framework to forward policy ideas unto the general public.  The author gives examples public policy in domestic life, in the public welfare arena, and with regard to public safety (pg. 145-147) became examples which symbolic cases were manipulated by political forces, and the author chose to solely use examples where more “fiscally conservative” policies were promoted by this technique to simplify complex problems for public policy consumers. 

            The author proceeds towards the use of metaphors as strategic reference markers by policy makers.  The author demonstrates how to effect change in policy is to treat one problem as if it were another problem by the metaphor of social institutions as being living organisms (pg. 148, 149).  The author outlines further variations of this metaphor by showing that natural laws pervade into social organizations which set limits and provide barriers towards change in society brought about by policy.  The examples cited by the author of trends in society towards oligarchy, futility thesis, and law of unintended results, (pg. 150) are reach represented as in the previous section by more “fiscally conservative” elements of society are the beneficiaries of this type of tactic. 

            The use of metaphor is also brought about by mechanical terms which often form a basis for many policy metaphors.  Terms such as “in order”, “checks and balances”, “balanced budget” are all used by policy makers to give a sense of soundness to their policy views.  Government actions or trends in policy are shown as “getting a foot in the door” or “leading towards a slippery slope” (pg. 151) all use mechanical metaphor to warn against policy changes when there is no real valid reason to oppose the new policy.  Another mechanical metaphor is the ladder, which typifies an escalation (pg. 152).  Still other metaphors, which show policy function of exercising restraint, by terms as “spillovers”, “leaks”, “seepages”, and even “containing Communism”, all use mechanical terms to show how policy, or its change, serves in helping society run more efficiently.

            Another type of metaphor which is commonly employed by policy makers is that of disease (pg 153).  Terms which imply disease, such as, “blight”, “infect”, “breeding grounds”, “dying industries”, all imply deterioration and decline of a society.  The author states, “The disease label discredits opponents and implies the moral rightness of treating them as less than human” (pg. 155).  A more aggressive metaphor than the disease method is when war is declared on some social ill.  Metaphors, such as “The War on Poverty”, or “Waging War on Cancer”, and the author could have easily added the “War on Drugs” and perhaps the “War on Terror”, are all used by policy makers to gather public support for a policy in the sense that it is a campaign within the public’s interest.  The author shows that the metaphor used may also be indicative of the political stance of a policy proponent.  Liberals and conservatives may call a policy a partnership or a giveaway depending upon which constituency is receiving the benefit of the policy (pg. 155). 

            Finally, the author addresses the intentional ambiguity of symbols.  These symbols can easily represent more than one thing to any number of persons, and the author’s premise is that this is not at all by chance, but by design.  The author’s use of humor by using a symbol of an alligator is effective, when she states, “pictures of alligators conjure up very different images on Izod knit jerseys than on T-shirts for the National Wildlife Federation” (pg. 157).  The clear thesis of this section is contained in the passage, “Politics is more like art than science in that ambiguity is central” (pg. 157).  The author’s point is that by use of purposefully ambiguous statements, policies which serve both sides of the political fence can be framed in language which is not offensive to either side politically.  Both sides benefit, as well as the public, at large, by the implementation of policy even if by ambiguous means.  The author provides her own summation of this point by use of an anecdote of trade negotiations between the US and Japan, where both sides were willing to use ambiguity, and leave a good amount of the details unclear, in order to provide the public with a sense of accomplishment and achievement of parochial objectives (pg. 160).  The author’s conclusion is that the use of symbols in all their forms “helps transform strivings into collective decisions” (pg. 161). 

            Policy is formed by various strategies, and is used to form new strategies.  In her closing the author states, “they represent the world in such a way to make their skills, and their favorite course of action) necessary (pg. 162).  The view of the author may appear Machiavellian, but she may well be on target with regard to how symbols are used to frame policy.


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