Book reviews may or may not become a more common feature of this blog. Obviously, as a PhD student, I read a lot. And every now and then I come across a book that is not only a pleasure to read, but is also very useful for my work and research. It is books like these that I think deserve a wider audience. One such book is ‘Understanding Public Policy’, by Scotsman Paul Cairney, known for having co-authored an introduction to Scottish politics.

What’s in the book?

As with his book on Scottish politics, Dr. Cairney excels at writing introductions to difficult topics that are interesting and informative, but without compromising the depth and complexity of the topic at hand.

Understanding Public Policy: Theories and Problems – 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 problems in this particular field. The emphasis of the book is clearly on the theories that structure it. Topics appear throughout the book to illustrate the theoretical points at each step.

The book has 13 chapters, which can roughly look like they cover 3 parts:

  • The first two chapters give an introduction and ask “How should we study it?” The second chapter in particular seeks to provide the reader with a quick guide to why theory, models, and heuristics are necessary and what they are for. It also describes some of the pitfalls of studying public policy. Although the chapter obviously cannot compete with a book fully devoted to heuristics and (meta) theory, it provides the reader with a good introduction. It is still perhaps the weakest part of the book.
  • Chapters 3 through 7 cover the “big” theories in the field, from institutionalism to rational choice. Here, Cairney’s strength comes to life. Each of these fields is a gigantic literature unto itself. He does an excellent job covering the basics, highlighting formative and current discussions, and illustrating them with real problems.
  • Chapters 8 to 12 cover some of the more specialized theories, ranging from multi-level governance to policy transfer. Once again, Cairney’s ability to condense the key elements of these scholarships into readable chapters, packed with definitions and explanations, makes these chapters and the book as a whole highly informative read.

Why should you read it and why?

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

I especially liked the short definitions of key terms in the sidebar and the occasional inset that highlights some of the weirder twists and turns this literature has taken on some public policy issues in the past.

Cairney’s ability to draw on both the classic and newer articles to present the speech in each of these fields also makes the book excellent for anyone looking to brush up on one of the fields covered by Cairney. Each chapter is, in essence, a review of the updated literature (upon publication) in its field, providing the reader with a solid foundation and understanding. From there, it’s easy to dive in, read, explore, and write about any particular research topic within the field.

I found the book incredibly useful when writing a new conference paper. I recently set out to write about my personal topic 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.