Comparative public policy combines theories of the policy process with the study of political systems and specific issue areas. Yet, some ambiguity surrounds what distinguishes the comparative approach from other perspectives on public policy. This review brings greater clarity to the comparative policy project by emphasizing the need to be attentive to similarities and differences regarding the institutional contexts in which policymaking takes place. This attention is necessary to avoid “forcing a fit” between the empirical reality and theories and frameworks designed with specific institutional configurations in mind. While forced fit posed problems for past research, recent theoretical advancements have been devised to facilitate comparison across dissimilar institutional settings. The following discussion highlights amendments to established approaches intended to deal with problems of comparison and identifies promising new perspectives from which comparative analysis may be conducted. The latest wave of comparative policy scholarship, having accounted for institutional variation, looks beyond institutions to policy discourses in order to explain how ideas, norms, and political culture affect how policy actors maneuver within, maintain, or change the institutional environment in which they operate.
The idea that the study of public policy both is and should be comparative is well established in the literature (Dodds, 2012; Heidenheimer, Heclo, & Adams, 1975). Yet, to the extent that comparative public policy is a unified body of knowledge, its origins were not explicitly comparative. While few would deny that there have been exemplary comparative studies over the years, they tended to be “one-off” projects (e.g., Hall, 1986; Heclo, 1974; Wilks & Wright, 1987). In contrast to comparative political economy,1 the most popular approaches for studying public policy were for the most part not designed with comparison in mind; rather, many were conceived to explain policy processes in most-similar policy environments, namely those found in the United States (Sabatier, 2007a, p. 11). Many leading theories were thus originally intended to explain policy variation with institutional variables held constant. As a consequence, studies that sought to apply certain perspectives to cases outside the institutional milieu for which they were intended risked erring as a result of “forced fit,” which occurs when empirical findings are tailored to suit theoretical assumptions. Forced fit is a problem because it runs afoul of the standard procedures of scientific inquiry, specifically that theory be updated to more accurately reflect empirical realities.
Why study comparative public policy? More specifically, what is so important about comparison and why, as I have argued, is it prudent to take stock of institutional variation and, beyond that, policy discourse and political culture? Although the detail and specificity of the case studies that populate policy research make it easy to lose sight of the larger purpose of the social sciences, the development of theories and frameworks for understanding and explaining social phenomena is a prerequisite to improving peoples’ lives.
As per the themes discussed in this essay, attentiveness to institutional context is integral to assessing which institutional configurations produce what policy results and how (Ostrom et al., 2014). Yet, institutions are not everything (Young, 2002). Rather, even when institutions do not leave “gaps” or “contingencies” that permit the exercise of agency (Ostrom, 1990; Streeck & Thelen, 2005), institutions rarely prohibit discourse outright. Consequently, institutions may be discursively navigated in order to subvert or sustain the policy status quo (Schmidt, 2008). However, just as actor constellations are nested within institutional contexts, institutions and actors are nested within still larger cultural structures which may maintain or undermine institutional authority by virtue of the relationship between culture and norms of appropriate discourse (Titmuss, 1972).