Games Real Actors Play: Actor-Centered Institutionalism in Policy Research.
Given specific social problems, why do some public policies rather than others emerge as solutions? To what extent can differences in decision-making processes explain why collectivities often generate distinctive responses to ostensibly similar problems? These are perennial questions for researchers and practitioners in the fields of policy and public administration. As well as satisfying our curiosity about the nature of the social and political world, answers to questions of this sort can be extremely helpful for practitioners who are engaged in policy design. After all, finding appropriate and sustainable solutions to both recurrent and emergent social problems represents a vital challenge for all communities and nations.
In seeking to interpret--and thus better understand--the processes by which public policies are developed, scholars are gravitating increasingly toward explanations that hinge on our knowledge of the dilemmas associated with collective action and how those dilemmas can be eliminated, or at least managed. Fritz Scharpf's book, Games Real Actors Play: Actor-Centered Institutionalism in Policy Research, is representative of this trend. The book provides a detailed survey of the ways that insights from rudimentary game theory, when coupled with insights regarding how institutional arrangements structure interactions, can inform our understanding of the nature of policy making and the factors that distinguish policy making processes across jurisdictions. Scharpf's book has been published within the "Theoretical Lenses on Public Policy" series at Westview Press, for which the series editor is Paul Sabatier. Some important studies are emerging from this series. Overall, I judge the present book to be an interesting and quite useful contribution to the policy research literature.
Considering the state of scholarship both within the fields of policy and public administration, and within the discipline of political science more generally, now is a propitious time for the publication of Games Real Actors Play. In recent years, various political scientists have launched critical attacks on their peers who conduct research in policy and public administration. Some have lamented the lack of theory in these areas, others have lamented the nature of extant theoretical contributions, and still others have lamented the volumes of empirical studies in which the investigators proceed to report their findings with little or no reference to the theories that have (at least implicitly) guided their efforts. Meanwhile, as these criticisms have been launched, an impressive body of theoretically oriented scholarship has continued to emerge from across the social sciences, loosely described as the new institutionalism. Thus the conditions seem ripe for contributors to the policy and public administration literatures to put to increasing use the conceptual tools emerging from the new institutionalism. Scharpf's book represents a contribution to the rational choice branch of the new institutionalism that has been developed primarily by economists and political scientists (as opposed to sociologists, historians, and anthropologists). It will be of special interest to scholars who find themselves drawn to the style of argumentation and modes of analysis contained in the work of, among others, Douglass North, Elinor Ostrom, Terry Moe, and Kenneth Shepsle. There is much food for thought here, both for researchers who wish to strengthen the theoretical grounding of their empirical analyses of policy and public administration and for graduate students who are taking courses on topics such as policy analysis, organization theory, and applied game theory.
Games Ral Actors Play has a long introduction, nine chapters, and two extensive appendices. Scharpf uses the introduction to provide an overview of actor-centered institutionalism. Here Scharpf also introduces a comparative case study: a gametheoretic interpretation of the management of inflation and unemployment in western Europe during the 1970s. This study represents the primary case that Scharpf refers to repeatedly throughout the remainder of the book. For the purposes of completeness, Scharpf includes the full case study in an appendix, just as it first appeared in article form. The first chapter discusses the methodological concerns that accompany interaction-oriented policy research. Scharpf notes that in order to be a thorough study, the work must be case specific and post hoc. However, the researcher must also strive to draw lessons from one case for application elsewhere, with the twin goals of ensuring the empirical validity of any given findings and evaluating their potential to sustain the development of broader generalizations. In the second chapter, Scharpf previews his approach for the rest of the book. Chapters three and four are devoted, respectively, to the discussion of actors and actor constellations. With all this as background, Scharpf devotes the remaining chapters to discussing how various institutional structures (e.g., anarchic fields, jurisdictions with only basic property rights and systems of law and order, voting arrangements predicated on majority rule, and hierarchies) serve to alter the expected outcomes of several common types of strategic interaction (e.g., games like "chicken," "the prisoner's dilemma," "assurance," and "the battle of the sexes").
Game theoretic work is notoriously complex, and this frequently can have the unfortunate effect of driving scholars to eschew it, even when they potentially could benefit from its use in their research. To his great credit, Scharpf has minimized the mathematical complexity of the models he presents. The book is no more technical in its exposition than is David Kreps's Game Theory and Economic Modelling (1990) or Kenneth Shepsle and Mark Bonchek's Analyzing Politics (1997). Far from rendering his analysis simplistic, however, this approach allows Scharpf to focus squarely on the implications of the interactions between institutional arrangements and the strategic action taking place within them. Scharpf regularly shows how even the most basic thinking about strategic interactions can serve as a launching point for quite sophisticated inquiry into the nature of policy processes and the institutional factors that shape policy design.
I do have some criticisms. First, I think Scharpf could have enhanced the usefulness of the book by more systematically discussing precisely how to go about developing research projects that bring the insights from actor-centered institutionalism to bear on aspects of policy making and public administration. A section on this near the conclusion of each chapter in the latter half of the book would have been helpful. Second, he could have paid more attention to the book's general organization. Perhaps the most glaring problem is the awkward way that the reader is referred, in the introduction, to an appendix for details of the major case study around which discussion in the book is developed. Surely the author could have found a more elegant, streamlined approach for presenting this material. Finally, there are some occasional lapses where it appears that Scharpf is not entirely in tune with his audience. This is probably almost inevitable when he works with concepts from the game theory literature. Sometimes terms slip by that could perhaps have been explained in more detail. At other times, fairly simple material seems belabored. A glossary of terms might have helped here, and in some ways that might have served as a more useful second appendix than the presentation of a simulation study of self-coordination in policy networks. For the most part, these are criticisms of style, not of content, but the two interact in substantial ways.
Despite these reservations, I think that this book makes a worthwhile contribution. Scharpf is a careful scholar, and his chapter "Policy Research in the Face of Complexity" is one of the best contemporary discussions that I have read regarding the practice of policy scholarship. Beyond that, the primary strength of Games Real Actors Play is the effort that Scharpf has made to systematically explore the ways that archetypal games among constellations of actors are structured by their institutional settings. Often, in the course of discussing these interactions among games and institutions, Scharpf cautiously points out that researchers should attempt to gain as much information as possible about the strategic situations of interest to them, and thus avoid rushing to speedy and possibly incorrect interpretations of given policy processes. In other words, while introducing the reader to these basic building blocks for the systematic analysis of strategy and the development of policy, Scharpf encourages the development of unique, empirically grounded ways to utilize and augment these conceptual tools.
The establishing of a creative dialogue between theory and evidence strikes me as necessary for conducting quality research in any field. Scharpf's reminder on this point is worth heeding. If one is to make any enduring contributions to knowledge, it is necessary to make explicit use of theory and routinely question the relevance of theory in any given instance. In so doing, one can reduce the likelihood of accepting half-truths or churning out empirical work that does little more than accommodatingly confirm conventional wisdom. In the fields of policy and public administration in particular, it is essential that scholars routinely strive to generate unconventional wisdom. Surely a good place to start is to become more reflexive about how we do what we do, and why we willingly accept some assumptions and not others. Games Real Actors Play is not intended to advance easy interpretations of the policy process but to stimulate fresh thinking. For that reason alone, it is a book worth reading.
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|Publication:||Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 1998|
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