What is the NPF?
As described by Jones and McBeth, the Narrative Policy Framework (NPF) seeks to answer the question “What is the role of policy narratives in the policy process?” through a “quantitative, structuralist, and positivist” lens (2010, p.#). The NPF seeks to describe, explain, and even predict what impact these narratives have on processes and outcomes. It seeks to examine responses to narratives by examining public opinion, group action, and elite behavior at the micro, meso, and macro levels and what that means for the development and implementation of public policy. What causes one narrative to “win” over another? Is there a variable or variables within narratives that can be measured to indicate why a particular policy was implemented or rejected? The NPF seeks to be applicable to most, if not all, areas of public policy, including public health, welfare benefits, the usage of natural resources, and others.
Why should I use the NPF?
The NPF provides a framework that allows for empirical analysis of the narratives that form around public policies. The NPF shares E.E. Schattschneider’s insight that much of the battle over power and politics is about which issues are constructed so as to be addressed by public action, while other issues are presented so as to be perceived as purely private affairs. This means that policy narratives are an essential component of political activity, and a mechanism for rigor examination of these powerful currents in our politics is an important tool for policy scholars and analysts to design, forge, and hone. Utilization of this framework can yield measurable results through the operationalization of variables within narratives that are in play surrounding public policies. This is in contrast to how many other frameworks view and research narratives through exclusively qualitative, non-positivist, and post-structural lenses (Jones & McBeth, 2010).
When should I use the NPF?
The NPF makes five general assumptions about how the world works (Shanahan, Jones, & McBeth, 2018). These assumptions are baked into the theory and it is therefore necessary that a researcher take these assumptions seriously if they wish to effectively utilize the NPF. Shanahan, Jones, and McBeth detail these assumptions (2018, p.2) and we reproduce them here to help scholars determine if the NPF might be a useful or valid framework for their research:
1. Non-trivial aspects of policy are intersubjectively (or socially) constructed. This doesn’t mean that NPF rejects the notion of an objective reality which exists outside of human cognition, only that public policy narratives are efforts by political actors to present a particular point of view in order to advance their preferred policy resolution. In short, public policy is socially constructed.
2. While meaning-making in policy narratives is somewhat elastic, it is by no means unfettered. Ideologies, belief systems, and other commitments to ideals, norms, and traditions function to limit the effective variation which policy actors can present in their policy narratives. NPF scholars refer to this as bounded relativity – and rely on this concept to explain why policy proposals are not infinitely malleable.
3. The NPF recognizes that much of the specific content within policy narratives applicable to specific policy sub-systems, and cannot be expected to easily transfer between policy subsystems. For instance, the characterization of GreenPeace volunteers as dauntless warriors battling greedy whalers to safeguard biodiversity doesn’t mean too much when discussing effective approaches to municipal stormwater management. However, the NPF does hold that there are generalizable structural elements – including (but not limited to) characters, setting, plot, and moral of the story, which can successfully be applied in any policy subsystem, regardless of its content.
4. Three interacting levels of analysis – narratives operate at three interacting levels, micro (individual), meso (group), and macro (cultural and institutional). The NPF holds that analysis of public policy formation, adoption, and implementation occurs at multiple levels and must be accounted for by multiple levels of analysis. Specifically, the framework identifies three analytical levels of study the individual, group, and cultural/institution (the micro, meso, and macro, respectively).
5. The NPF also assumes that the narrative form of communication plays a fundamental role not only in sharing information between people, but in the very construction of the human experience. The NPF has elaborated the Homo narrans model of the individual – and holds that humans are predisposed to speak and think in the form of stories.
Per, Shanahan, Jones, and McBeth (2018), if your research assumptions differ significantly from the assumptions of the NPF, the NPF is likely not right for your research.
Jones, M.D., & McBeth, M.K. (2010). A Narrative Policy Framework: Clear enough to be wrong? The Policy
Studies Journal, 38(2), 329-353.
Shanahan, E.A., Jones, M.D., & McBeth, M.K. (2018). How to conduct a Narrative Policy Framework study.
The Social Science Journal, 55, 332-345.
Schattschneider, E.E. (1961) The Semisovereign People, A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. New
York: Holt Rinehart and Winston.