‘Opening up’ policy to reflexive appraisal: a role for Q Methodology? A case study of fire management in Cape York, Australia

David Ockwell 2005
Submitted to Policy Sciences


Recent decades have witnessed increasing attention in theory and practice to participatory approaches to policy appraisal, in part due to the potential of such approaches to facilitate reflexive policy appraisal. It has been observed, however, that in practice these approaches are often as prone as traditional, non-participatory appraisal techniques to being limited in the extent to which that can achieve reflexivity e.g. due to the influence of interests and power and problems of representation. This article explores the extent to which Q Methodology, or ‘Q’, can play a role in ‘opening up’ (Stirling 2008) policy to reflexive appraisal. A Q study of fire management discourses in Cape York, northern Australia is presented which exposes the existence of four key discourses in the region: discourse A - rational fire management; discourse B - fire-free conservation; discourse C - pragmatic, locally controlled burning; and discourse D - indigenous controlled land management. At present only discourses A and C are reflected in policy. Appraising existing policy on the basis of the different constructions articulated by discourses B and D of the purpose of and practices involved in fire management, is successful in opening up existing policy to reflexive appraisal. In the face of considerable scientific uncertainty as to the ecological impacts of different burning regimes in northern Australia, this process of opening up has important potential for appraising the social desirability of existing policy and practice in the region. This analysis provides a practical demonstration of the wider potential of Q Methodology in opening up other important contemporary policy issues to reflexive appraisal.

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