Critical and Interpretive Public Administration

26-28 October, 2022

Eva Wolf (Tilburg University)
Shivant Jhagroe (Leiden University),
Mark van Ostaijen (Erasmus University Rotterdam),
Dvora Yanow (Wageningen University)
Jess Bier (Erasmus University Rotterdam

Course fees

  • Free for NIG members
  • 500,- for non-members from an NIG member institution
  • 750,- for third parties

Aims and structure of this course

The discipline of public administration started with an explicit goal to develop the effectiveness of state governing in a value-free and non-partisan way. The idea was that the study of state practices could help progress the rationality, efficiency and effectiveness of modern bureaucracies (Adams, 1992; van Ostaijen, 2016). With that particular history in mind, it is not surprising that Public Administration (PA), according to some, has developed itself as a science that focuses on what Burawoy calls ‘professional’ and ‘policy’ types of PA (Buraway, 2005; Karré, Schillemans, Van der Steen, & Van der Wal, 2017; van Ostaijen & Jhagroe, 2020). However, PA is also home to a body of research focusing on the political nature of seemingly neutral policy processes (Waldo, 1948; Wildavsky, 1979; Stone, 1997; Wolf, 2017) and research that focuses on the ways in which policy making is led by values and meaning-making rather than by rational action (Rein & Schon,1977; Yanow, 2010; Van Hulst, 2012; Wagenaar, 2011, Metze, 2017). These approaches have become known as “interpretive” or sometimes “critical” research.

As an alternative to more instrumental approaches, critical and interpretive approaches in public administration research address issues of power and domination (critical) next to sensemaking, values, meaning-making and improvisation (interpretive). Critical and interpretive research in Public Administration have a family resemblance. To some, they go hand in hand while others consider them as quite distinct. In any case, they find each other in a reflexive ambition to question (implicit) hegemonic paradigms and values that inform both theory and practice of public administration (Hajer et all, 1993; Burawoy, 2005; Bovens, 2016; Triantafillou, 2017), while exploring alternative modes of governing and social organization. Questions that illustrate these approaches can include: how do categories used in migration policy racialize citizens? In what way do cooperatives (e.g. energy, food) challenge and transform institutional legitimacy? How do stakeholder perceptions of an infrastructure project relate to democratic values? Or how do local policy makers interpret smart city and big data solutions?

The aim of this 3-day course is explore and discuss key insights from critical and interpretive studies in Public Administration research, and how this could inform or relate to your own research project. By focusing on key concepts and debates, the course provides a reflexive space for (young) scholars committed to deepen their understanding of critical and interpretive research. The course is not only meant for those who want to do critical or interpretive research, but also for those who are interested in the philosophies and practices underlying such research and – possibly – exploring how to incorporate these in their own research projects.


Day 1: Interpretive research in PA and policy analysis

Day 2: Critical research in PA and policy analysis

Day 3: Doing CIPA research that matters

In the afternoon sessions on day 1 and day 2, students will present short papers in addressing a key challenge or dilemma in their own research. The instructors will cover the morning sessions, and for the first two afternoons we have invited two guest experts in the field:

  1. dr. Dvora Yanow – Wageningen University
  2. Jess Bier – Erasmus University Rotterdam

Both will reflect on research challenges/dilemmas students present in an interactive way. This provides tailored advice and feedback on how to do critical/ interpretive research well. These afternoon sessions will also create the upbeat for the morning session on day 3, when participants interact more directly and draw relations and synergies between interpretive and critical approaches. Finally, in a “methods cafe” setting, CIPA scholars will be present to answer questions about how to apply (novel) methods to adequately circumvent certain research challenges.



  1. Schwartz-Shea, P., & Yanow, D. (2013). Interpretive research design: Concepts and processes. Routledge
  2. Fischer, F., Torgerson, D., Durnová, A., & Orsini, M. (Eds.). (2015). Handbook of critical policy studies. Edward Elgar Publishing. (selected chapters, to be announced)


Students are expected to actively participate during the course and can pass this course if they – within the stated deadlines – submit a short paper (max. 1500 words) in which they reflect on critical and/or interpretive public administration research within their own PhD project. What specific CIPA insights do you find appealing and why? Which challenges do (or might) you encounter? The paper should address the following questions:

  1. What is your research about? (topic and focus)
  2. What is your research approach? (conceptual/methods)
  3. How do you think your research relates to interpretative and/or critical approach?
  4. What are key challenges?