Book Reviews

Book review: ‘Understanding Public Policy’ by Paul Cairney

Book reviews may or may not become a more regular feature on this blog. Obviously, as a doctoral student, I read a lot. And once in a while, I come across a book that is not only a pleasure to read, but also very useful for my work and my research. It’s books like these that I think deserve a wider audience. One such book is “Understanding Public Policy” by Scotsman Paul Cairney, who is also known for co-writing an introduction to Scottish politics.

What’s in the book?

As with his book on Scottish politics, Dr Cairney excels at writing introductions to difficult topics that are engaging and informative, yet without compromising the depth and complexity of the problem at hand.

Understanding Public Policy: Theories and Issues – the title suggests – introduces the reader to the study of public policy in political science. As it says on the cover, to the theories and issues in this particular area. The focus of the book is clearly on theories, which structure the book. Questions come throughout the book to illustrate the theoretical points at each stage.

The book has 13 chapters, which can roughly be considered to cover 3 parts:

  • The first two chapters give an introduction and ask “How should we study it?”. The second chapter in particular aims to provide the reader with a quick guide to why theory, models and heuristics are needed and what they do. It also describes some of the pitfalls of studying public policy. Although the chapter obviously cannot compete with a book devoted entirely to heuristics and (meta-)theory, it provides the reader with a good introduction. This is still perhaps the weakest part of the book.
  • Chapters 3-7 cover the “big” theories in the field, from institutionalism to rational choice. Here, Cairney’s strength comes into its own. Each of these areas is gargantuan literature in itself. It does a great job of covering the basics, highlighting formative and current debates, and illustrating them with real-life issues.
  • Chapters 8-12 cover some of the more specialized theories, ranging from multilevel governance to policy transfer. Once again, Cairney’s skill in condensing the key elements of these fellowships into readable chapters, peppered with definitions and explanations, makes these chapters, and the book in general, a very instructive read.

Why read it and why?

The book serves as an excellent introduction for students or scholars entering the field of public policy. These are arguably its primary audience, and the book does a great job of reaching out to them.

I especially liked the short side definitions of key terms and the occasional sidebar that highlights some of the weirder twists this literature has taken on certain public policy issues in the past.

Cairney’s ability to draw on both classic articles and more recent articles to present the discourse in each of these areas also makes this book an excellent book for anyone looking to refresh their knowledge in one of these areas. areas covered by Cairney. Each chapter is, in essence, a review of the up-to-date (up to publication) literature in its field, which provides the reader with a solid foundation and understanding. From there, it’s easy to dive in, read, explore, and write about any particular research topic in the field.

I found the book incredibly useful when writing a new conference paper. I recently set out to write about my topic of personal interest, aid evaluation, from a new policy transfer angle. I could not have hoped for a better rough guide to the literature than the one I found in ‘Understanding Public Policy’. Highly recommended.

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