Postmodernist Critiques of Rational Decision Making

… a core concept used in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101

Concept description

Leslie Pal (reference below, p. 23-24) describes the critique of the rational model by postmodernist (or post-positivist, or post-constructionist) political scientists:

“The rational model presumes that there are such things as “facts,” but critics point out that facts are always constructed through values and perceptions, or more accurately, through deep theories that structure our cognition of reality. These theories are sometimes chosen rationally in the sense of deliberation among a range of alternatives according to multiple criteria, but “however exhaustive the arguments advanced in support of one position, considered judgments concerning the best theory will remain contentious and tentative …” (Hawkesworth, 1988, p. 87). Frank Fischer and John Forester (1993) have termed this emphasis the “argumentative turn” in policy analysis and planning. For them, policymaking is a “struggle over the criteria of social classification, the boundaries of problem categories, the intersubjective interpretation of common experiences, the conceptual framing of problems, and the definitions of ideas that guide the ways people create the shared meanings which motivate them to act” (Fischer & Forester, 1993, p. 2).

“The argumentative turn entails, among other things, the critical study of the structure of argument and discourse in policy analysis (Fischer, 1980, 2003); the role of values (Fischer & Forester, 1987); and the deep impact of positivism through its associated logic of technocratic mastery (Fischer, 1990, 2009). This study has been complemented by work such as Dryzek’s (1990), exploring the epistemological foundations of policy analysis. This debate is not merely methodological: for deLeon (1997), as for his colleagues in the “post-positivist” school, the issue is developing a “policy sciences of democracy” (especially Chapter 4). Achieving this usually entails greater emphasis on public engagement,  consultation, and deliberation (Hajer & Wagenaar, 2003), something that seems to hold the risk of contaminating “rational” policymaking with the uninformed prejudices of interest groups and the public. Recent research, however, suggests that “if you can assemble a diverse group of people who possess varying degrees of knowledge and insight, you’re better off entrusting it with major decisions rather than leaving them in the hands of one or two people, no matter how smart those people are” (Surowiecki, 2005, p. 31).”

See also: Pal’s Types of Reasoning in Policy Analysis; Rational Decision Making Model; Lindblom’s Incrementalism and Muddling Through.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Models of Decision Making (core topic) in Policy Analysis and Process and Atlas101 Policy Analysis and Process.


Leslie Pal (2014), Beyond Policy Analysis – Public Issue Management in Turbulent Times, Fifth Edition, Nelson Education, Toronto. See Beyond Policy Analysis – Book Highlights.

References cited by Pal in the excerpt above are:

deLeon, P. (1997). Democracy and the policy sciences. Albany, NY: State University of New York.

Dryzek, J. S. (1990). Discursive democracy: Politics, policy and political science. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Fischer, F. (1980). Politics, values, and public policy: The problem of methodology. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Fischer, F. (1990). Technocracy and the politics of expertise. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Fischer, F., & Forester, J. (Eds.). (1987). Confronting values in policy analysis: The politics of criteria. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Fischer, F., & Forester, J. (Eds.). (1993). The argumentative turn in policy analysis and planning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hajer, M. A., & Wagenaar, H. (Eds.). (2003). Deliberative policy analysis: Understanding governance in the network society (Theories of Institutional Design). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hawkesworth, M. E. (1988). Theoretical issues in policy analysis. New York, NY: State University of New York.

Surowiecki, J. (2005). The wisdom of crowds. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified 27 March 2017.

Image: Simply Mona!, Into the Labyrinth of Postmodernism, at, accessed 27 March 2017.