Flipping the Epistemics of Problem Definition: Making the Policy Sciences Current Again

Dr. Kris Hartley

This article applies foundational ideas from the policy sciences literature – in particular Lasswell’s intelligence function – to understanding governance of wicked problems in complex settings. We argue first that instrumental rationalism serving the modern sustainability narrative succumbs to a streetlight-effect by focusing only on measurable problem constructs, marginalizing other knowledges outside the gaze of quantifiability and limiting efforts to holistically understand policy challenges. We consider how the policy sciences framework illuminates this phenomenon. Second, we argue that wicked problems mandate a more robust incorporation of alternative epistemics (e.g. indigenous, local, and so-called “folk” wisdom and practices). In efforts to liberate policymaking from the clutches of political wrangling and knowledge contestation, the rationalist epistemic and its high-modern derivatives blind themselves to lived experience in service to an elite capitalist agenda. We consider whether the policy sciences framework and ideas of Lasswell can be revived and reframed to problematize this phenomenon, in anticipation of a research agenda about climate crises, wicked problems, and competing truth claims.

Keywords: environmental governance; environmental knowledge and expertise; policy sciences