Pollution Through Traffic and Transport: the Praxis of Cultural Pluralism in Parliamentary Technology Assessment

Schwerpunktthema: Nachhaltige Mobilität

Pollution Through Traffic and Transport: the Praxis of Cultural Pluralism in Parliamentary Technology Assessment


by Robert Hoppe, Twente University, and John Grin, University of Amsterdam

This paper discusses how "the" transportation problem was structured in traffic and transportation studies by the parliamentary technology assessment (PTA) agencies of Germany, Denmark and the European Union. The focus is on cultural biases in TA methods with regard to the way in which the social problem was defined and translated into research questions (problem structuration), the conclusions drawn from the TA studies, and the recommendations presented. The analysis shows that cultural theory is useful in assessing the degree of pluralism in TA studies. It provides an instrument to probe the assumptions in the viewpoints of experts, lay people, politicians and other actors involved in the technology under scrutiny. It is in this area that cultural theory and political science can fruitfully meet to realize, together, more reflective forms of dealing with cultural pluralism in the praxis of policy analysis.

1     Introduction

In the first half of the nineties, car mobility in Western Europe has turned out to be not the unanimous, unambiguous blessing it promised to become in the forties and fifties. To be sure, it has been extremely widely adopted, and it has impacted tremendously on public infrastructures. But at the same time, it is presenting clearly tangible irritations (congestion problems), threats (safety problems) and risks (environmental problems) to a majority of citizens.

Transportation in the 90s represents an unstructured or "wicked" problem (Rittel and Webber 1973; Mason and Mitroff 1980; Hisschemöller and Hoppe 1996) in that both normative dissensus and scientific uncertainty deeply affect the description and explanation of the problematic situation as a gap between some ideal state and present conditions. Unstructured problems easily lend themselves to the politics of meaning (Hoppe 1993) and its rhetoric of naming and framing (Rein and Schön 1993, 1994). To deal effectively with confusing problematic situations, policymakers train the public's attention on aspects and dimensions that, through generative metaphors, can easily be named. Such story-telling simultaneously creates a problem frame, that is a cluster of inextricably intertwined causal and normative beliefs "on which people and institutions draw in order to give meaning, sense, and normative direction to their thinking and action" (Rein and Schön 1994, p. xiii). In mild policy disagreements, frames are shared, or overlap sufficiently for ordinary policy analysis to work. But controversies around messy and unstructurable problems invoke clear cultural biases, or the "contradictory certainties" of conflicting policy frames (Schwarz and Thompson 1990). They bring out the contrasts and limits of a country's political culture, and challenge its institutions and tolerance for cultural pluralism. It is precisely for this reason that unstructured problems are so interesting from the viewpoint of cultural pluralism.

In the following we discuss how "the" transportation problem was structured in traffic and transportation studies by the parliamentary technology assessment (PTA) agencies of Germany (Büro für Technikfolgen-Abschätzung beim Deutschen Bundestag, TAB), Denmark (Teknologi-Naevnet; later on changed to Teknologi-Radet) and the European Union (STOA). Regarding the biases that are allowed or expected in their studies, these agencies, more than others in Europe (Hoppe and Grin 1998), are guided by potentially contradictory considerations. Their interest in institutional survival requires that the data, ideas, and arguments presented in their TA studies be usable for current policy debate, as well as be absolutely impartial. In addition, there is a strong tendency among TA professionals to contribute to "broadening" policy making through including problem aspects and stakeholders that normally get less attention.

We will apply cultural bias theory to accurately uncover how the various biases are represented in the TA studies. Although combining cultural bias theory with literature on the structure of policy belief systems (section 2) certainly improved the accuracy of our analysis of the substance of TA reports (section 3), one might argue that, essentially, we are not in need at this point of anything more than cultural theory per se. However, as we will argue in section 2, to understand why the biases are distributed the way they are, we need insights from political science, especially the study of policy change (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1993). We provide a tentative causal model that guides our explanation (in section 4) of the "mix of biases" in the three TA studies.

The analysis is based on a more comprehensive study (Hoppe and Grin 1998), which includes more PTA agencies, and also focuses on cultural biases in TA methods. In addition, the reader will find more detailed descriptions of the three cases presented below, as well as an account of our approach to data collection and analysis.

2     Theoretical framework

One of the findings of political science and comparative public policy studies is that policymaking is organized in policy domains or policy subsystems (Parsons 1995, p. 184-192). These are sets of interdependent policy actors from a variety of both public and private organizations, and usually spanning multiple levels of government, who frequently address and process a cluster of related issues (like "traffic and transport"), and share expert knowledge in dealing with them. In their battles on problem definitions and solutions, policy actors advance normative, causal and final (goals-means) claims in more or less coherent and systematic ways. Their convictions can be conceptualized as policy frames (Rein and Schön 1994) and policy belief systems (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1993), or coherently ordered structures of shared values, attitudes and opinions (Parsons 1995, p. 374-379). Following Sabatier's layered depiction, deep core beliefs involve fundamental normative and ontological beliefs, which apply to all policy domains without exception. Deep core beliefs constrain, but do not determine policy core beliefs, which are about fundamental problem definitions, policy positions and strategies for achieving core values within a specific policy domain. In their turn, policy core beliefs constrain but do not determine secondary aspect beliefs, which primarily concern preferred instrumental decisions and information searches necessary for implementing the policy strategies chosen at policy core level.

Another finding is that policy elites active in the same policy domain frequently politically mobilize and organize in two or more advocacy coalitions on the basis of sharply different belief systems. Such advocacy coalitions compete to influence governmental agencies to adopt their views in the design and implementation of public policies (Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1993). Cultural theory's three publicly active idealtypical biases allow us to derive three idealtypical policy beliefs systems, ordered in the way proposed by Sabatier (see Table 1). Since core beliefs apply to all policy domains, we have put here cultural theory's gut convictions concerning the organization of society, as well as the position of mobility therein. Policy core and secondary beliefs correspond to, respectively, dominant problem definitions and preferred policy instruments. The content of the various layers has been based upon previous work on cultural theory and the geographical dimension in public administration (Hoppe 1992), on cultural theory and car mobility (Hendrikse 1994; 1996, p. 1-35, 66-75), and a careful reading of all the TA-studies in our sample.

Table 1: A Cultural Typology of Transport Policy Belief Systems 

- re. spatial organization of society stable, predictable part-whole pattern; preference for vertical relationships; preference for larger scale location/distance in horizontal space geared to efficient task performance; indifference to scale equally strong = equal size = rather small; preference for smaller scale
- re. mobility orderly and controlled mobility self determination, individual mobility, accessibility equal access by all - residents, pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, public transport users - to a livable, sustainable public space
dominant problem definition chaos or stagnation; too little, inefficiently used capacity; how to keep transport 'stream' in the 'bed' of existing transport infrastructure; supply problem (unless demand stretches technical possibilities) shortage of space, passable roads, useful transport information; loss of valuable time and opportunities; supply problem (demand is always a given) excessive demand for (car) mobility; oversized infrastructure; erosion of public space; deterioration of environment and residential areas; demand problem (too much supply, anyway)
preferred policy instruments regulation > market market > regulation inner conviction > regulation > market
- external costs public acceptance of external transport costs; if unavoidable, private imposition of external transport costs disregard; if unavoidable, private acceptance of, or compensation for external transport costs public prevention, or (as second best alternative) private imposition of external transport costs
- supply-oriented production of adequate supply, according to expert views increase supply of all possible transport modes, preferably through public funding resist all possible supply increases
- demand-oriented external, administrative demand regulation through (physical, technological, legal) prohibitions, mandates pay for supply shortages through market regulation, i.e. individually focused pricing systems manage demand downward through education/persuasion (preferably) or (if need be) through administrative or market demand regulation
- favourite technology love of high-tech, large scale transport technologies; technical fix love of cars, foremost; technical fixes love of low-tech, small scale transport technologies; resist technical fixes

This typology will guide us in uncovering the biases in the TA studies below. What we still need is a framework for understanding why different PTA-agencies display different patterns of cultural biases in their TA studies: which factors, causes, or mechanisms contribute to the mobilization of cultural bias of the TA-outputs of the PTA-agencies? In general, the mobilization of cultural bias can be conceptualized as the activation of constrained decision spaces or opportunity structures (cf. Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1993, Rockman and Weaver 1993, Hendriks1996). Policy actors' decisions and actions are either enabled through resources, or limited through constraints. Resources and constraints impact on decisions and actions through, e.g., the nature of the party system [2] , routinely prescribed decision-making and implementation channels, or media-generated attention structures, political taboos and non-decision areas. Given the cultural predilections or biases of policy actors in a given policy do main, the decision space or opportunity structure obviously affects the probability of e.g. an egalitarian bias to be effectively represented in a TA study; the probability of dominance of one cultural bias over others; or the probability of alliance between biases.

However, opportunity structures constitute only an intermediate variable, itself affected by two kinds of independent variables (see Fig. 2). External events influence the situational opportunity structure and can be listed as impacts, much like suddenly appearing 'windows of opportunity' (Kingdon) open to policy actors who cleverly exploit them. Cultural-institutional parameters, on the other hand, have a long term, and potentially much more lasting, inhibiting or facilitating impact on opportunity structures. They include national political culture, which we conceive as the typical mixture and relative influence of the four idealtypical cultures on the population within the boundaries of a national political territory. Such a cultural mix results from cultural biases' historical sequence of appearance and the dynamics of the state-formation process of a particular country (Eberg 1997, Van Est 1998).