Prof. Pattison Publishes Article on Environmental Policy, Emphasizes the Importance of Narratives for the Policy Making Process

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Congratulations to Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Andy Pattison, who recently published a co-authored article in the journal Review of Policy Research.

Titled, “The devil we know and the angel that did not fly: An examination of devil/angel shift in Twitter fracking ‘debates’ in NY 2008–2018,” Pattison’s research was co-authored with Colgate colleague Asst. Prof. Will Cipolli and Prof. Jose Marichal of California Lutheran University. Pattison shared the following text explaining more about his research and “why understanding narratives matters for understanding the policy process.”


The Narrative Policy Framework (NPF), as developed by McBeth, Shanahan, Jones is “...a theory of the policy process whose central question turns an empirical eye on the truth claim of the power of narrative: do narratives play an important role in the policy process?” (Shanahan et al., 2018: 173). While not the first theory or framework to introduce the idea that narratives are important to the policy process, the NPF has developed over the last decade into a positivist-oriented policy framework with testable hypotheses and is being applied by scholars in a myriad of ways. The NPF focuses on four core elements of policy narratives: setting, characters, plot, and moral of the story. The setting can be conceptualized as including, but not limited to, geographic or economic, or legal features of a specific policy area, such as the statewide fracking ban in New York State. Characters in policy narratives might take the form of victims, or beneficiaries of policy outcomes (such as New York State citizens who might benefit from fracking jobs if the ban was lifted), or heroes, villains, allies, or opponents in the policymaking process (such as the New York governor or state legislators). The plot provides the relationship of the characters within temporal and geographic settings. Lastly, the policy solutions are the moral or value-laden actions in rule, legal, or administrative form.  

Despite the obvious fact that policy settings, political actors (characters), and contexts vary greatly, using the NPF allows the content of the policy narratives to be systematically examined through the lens of narrative strategies and policy beliefs. Narrative strategies are employed as a pathway toward achieving policy goals and include: defining the scope of conflict, the causal mechanisms of the conflict; and describing the way a narrator identifies other characters as being opponents/villains or allies/heroes. As an example, the devil shift, as first described by Sabatier et al. (1987) explains the perhaps irrational behaviors of policy actors or coalitions in a conflictual setting as misperceiving their opponents’ power and intentions. Specifically, actors with conflicting policy beliefs are often misperceived as having more power (than the opponents self-report) and more devilish motives. The opposite phenomenon is the angel shift which describes how policy actors often assume good intentions from those with similar policy beliefs or those within the same advocacy coalition. These shift concepts are an example of some of the long-standing political science and behavioral theories brought into and borrowed by the NPF.

To speak to another example of theories of the NPF, in attempting to affect the scope of conflict regarding a certain environmental regulation policy choice they prefer or support, narrators might emphasize the concentrated costs (imposed on villains such as ‘greedy corporations and polluters’) and distributed benefits (clean air and water to the general population) of said policy. The causal mechanism provides the blame or responsibility for a policy problem in how one factor, such as insufficiently regulated particulate matter pollution, affects another variable, such as urban childhood asthma rates. The NPF further offers that policy beliefs, which collectively shape the understanding of policy processes, can be operationalized and measured through these narrative elements. This is based on the longstanding and well-supported assumptions that: 1) social constructions of individuals and groups matter in public policy, 2) humans are boundedly rational and thus social constructions are not random, and 3) policy narratives have structural elements that fall into generalizable patterns. Scholars employing the NPF add two additional core assumptions: that policy narratives simultaneously operate at the individual, group/coalition, and cultural/institutional levels and that narratives are a central factor shaping the way individuals receive, process, and share information, Shanahan et al. (2018). When the unit of analysis is groups or coalitions, a typical empirical method employed is the content analysis of written texts, speeches, newspaper opinion pieces, or (in this case) tweets. If the approach is systematic and grounded in empirical social science of testing falsifiable claims, we can examine how actors are using policy narrative elements such as characters, plot, and morals. 

Below, we summarize some recent relevant applications of the NPF to various cases of U.S. fracking policy — upon which we built. Blair and McCormack (2016) applied the NPF to news coverage of the fracking industry in two local Colorado newspapers and found that some characters were more often portrayed as villains and other characters were more often portrayed as victims. Also, different news venues constructed hero characters differently and consistently with political orientations. Similarly, Crow et al. (2016), in applying the NPF to media coverage after wildfires, found that narratives concerning disasters were different than comparable policy issues in the ways that policy problems, policy solutions, and characters were portrayed. Specifically, understanding the timing of narrative construction related to a disaster was crucial to understanding what narratives and narrative elements might be used. 

For our study, we wanted to build on this recent work that has applied the NPF to examine narrative strategies in policy debates on social media platforms. We applied the NPF to fracking policy debates in New York State using well-established natural language processing tools, including sentiment analysis. We combine this computational approach with a qualitative hand-coding of pro-and antifracking Twitter influentials. This approach allowed us to consider a much larger corpus of tweets over a much longer time frame than has been done thus far. We analyzed overall approximately 250,000 tweets over a 10-year period, spanning the years before and after the ban on fracking in New York State. Then, we focused on a subset of 500 Twitter users that were the most retweeted members of this agora narrans (Shanahan et al., 2018: 187).   

We adapted and tested NPF propositions related to the use of the devil/angel shift strategies before and after a major statewide policy change — that is, a statewide moratorium on high-volume hydraulic fracturing or fracking. Overall, we found evidence for the use of the devil-shift narrative strategy by the pro-fracking coalition aimed at the governor prior to the moratorium. After the moratorium, the relative percentage of tweets containing devil-shift sentiments decreases as the pro-fracking coalition generally downshifts in its use of angel-shift language without a corresponding increase in devil-shift language, whereas, conversely, the anti-fracking coalition generally downshifts in its use of devil-shift language without a general increase in angel-shift language. When we shifted our analysis to tweets containing fracking and the governor, we found a similar post-ban decrease in devil-shift language among anti-fracking users. Our findings offer lessons for using computational tools in the NPF as an approach to expand analytic ability and for the operationalization of concepts, such as narrative strategies and policy entrepreneurs.

Blair BD, McCormack L. (2016). Applying the narrative policy framework to the issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing within the news media: A research note. Research & Politics. January 2016. doi:10.1177/2053168016628334
Crow DA, Berggren J, Lawhon LA, Koebele EA, Kroepsch A, Huda J. (2016). Local media coverage of wildfire disasters: An analysis of problems and solutions in policy narratives. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space. 35(5):849-871. doi:10.1177/0263774X16667302    
Sabatier, P., Hunter, S., & McLaughlin, S. (1987). The devil shift: Perceptions and misperceptions of opponents. Western Political Quarterly, 40(3), 449–476.

Shanahan, E.A., Jones, M.D., Mcbeth, M.K., and Radaelli, C.M. (2018). The Narrative Policy Framework. In C.M. Weible and P. A. Sabatier (Eds.), Theories of the Policy Process, 4th Ed.(173-213). Westview Press.