Recognizing rhetoric in health care policy analysis
Russell J., Greenhalgh T., Byrne E., McDonnell J.
Critiques of the 'naïve rationalist' model of policy-making abound in the sociological and political science literature. Yet academic debate on health care policy-making continues to be couched in the dominant discourse of evidence-based medicine, whose underlying assumptions - that policies are driven by facts rather than values and these can be clearly separated; that 'evidence' is context-free, can be objectively weighed up and placed unproblematically in a 'hierarchy'; and that policy-making is essentially an exercise in decision science - have constrained both thinking and practice. In this paper, drawing on theoretical work from political science and philosophy, and innovative empirical work in the health care sector, we argue that health care is well overdue for a re-defining of what policy-making is. Policy-making is the formal struggle over ideas and values, played out by the rhetorical use of language and the enactment of social situations. While the selection, evaluation and implementation of research evidence are important in the policy-making process, they do not equate to that process. The study of argument in the construction of policy has the potential to illuminate dimensions of the process that are systematically occluded when policy-making is studied through a naïve rationalist lens. In particular, a rhetorical perspective highlights the struggle over ideas, the 'naming and framing' of policy problems, the centrality of audience and the rhetorical use of language in discussion to increase the audience's adherence to particular framings and proposals. Rhetorical theory requires us to redefine what counts as 'rationality' - which must extend from what is provably true (by logic) and probably true (by Bayesian reasoning) to embrace, in addition, that which is plausibly true (i.e. can convince a reasonable audience). Future research into health care policy-making needs to move beyond the study of 'getting evidence into practice' and address the language, arguments and discourse through which policy is constructed and enacted. © The Royal Society of Medicine Press Ltd 2008.