July 13, 2024


Law for politics

Book Review: ‘Understanding Public Policy’ by Paul Cairney

Book Review: ‘Understanding Public Policy’ by Paul Cairney

Book reviews may or may not become a more regular feature on this blog. Evidently, as a PhD student, I read a lot. And every so often, I come across a book that is not only a pleasure to read, but also highly useful to my work and research. It is books like these that I find deserves a broader audience. One such book is ‘Understanding Public Policy’ by Scotsman Paul Cairney, who is otherwise known for having co-authored an introduction to Scottish Politics.

What is in the book?

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

Understanding Public Policy: Theories and Issues – the title gives it away – 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 field. The emphasis of the book is clearly on the theories, which structure the book. The issues come in throughout the book to illustrate the theoretical points at every step.

The book has 13 chapters, which can roughly be seen as covering 3 parts:

  • The first two chapters given an introduction and ask “How Should We Study It?”. The second chapter in particular seeks to provide the reader with a quick-guide on why theory, models and heuristics are needed and what they do. It also describes some of the pitfalls of studying public policy. Though the chapter can obviously not compete with book fully dedicated to heuristics and (meta-)theory, it does provide the reader with a good introductory primer. It still is the perhaps weakest part of the book.
  • Chapters 3 to 7 cover the “big” theories in the field, from Institutionalism to Rational Choice. Here, Cairney’s strength comes into its own. Each of these fields is a gargantuan literature in itself. He does and excellent job of covering the basics, highlighting formative and current debates and illustrate them with actual issues.
  • Chapters 8 to 12 cover some of the more specialist theories, ranging from Multi-Level Governance to Policy Transfer. Once more, Cairney’s skill in condensing the key elements of these scholarships into readable chapters, studded with definitions and explanations, makes these chapters and the book in general such a highly informative read.

Why should read it and why?

The book makes an excellent introduction for students or scholars entering the field of public policy. These are arguably its main audience and the book does an excellent job speaking to them.

I especially liked the short side-bar definitions of key terms and the occasional box that highlights some of the odder twists and turns that this literature has taken on some public policy questions in the past.

Cairney’s ability to draw from both classic and the most recent papers to present the discourse in each of these fields also makes the book an excellent for everyone seeking to refresh his knowledge in one of the fields covered by Cairney. Every chapter is, in essence, an up-to-date (to the publication) literature review of its field, which provides the reader with a solid basis and understanding. From there, it is easy to plunge in, to read, explore and write on any particular research-topic within the field.

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