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Journal of Public Affairs

J. Publ. Aff. 6: 131–146 (2006)

Published online in Wiley InterScience
( DOI: 10.1002/pa.222

Public affairs as reality construction:

an established paradigm with new
Rob de Lange1* and Paul Linders2
University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Hogeschool Utrecht, The Netherlands

* This article was initially a reaction to the special issues of the Journal of Public Affairs on
the relative lack of theoretical foundations for the research and practice of public affairs
(Vol. 1 no. 4, Vol. 2 no. 1, 2002).
* The social-scientific approach that is known under the name constructionism has
interesting implications for the study and the practice of this field. The authors explore
some of its central concepts and implications such as framing, priming, typification, claims
making, symbolic power, background, sense making and narrative construction. They test
some of these concepts for their applicability and usefulness for research, theory building
and practice in the field of public affairs.
Copyright # 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Introduction research on which they are based, and even

more striking, some more or less validated
Public Affairs will be defined here as the theory on which the investigations could be
strategic management discipline that addresses
based and interpreted.
the political-governmental environment in We are not the only ones, nor are we the first
which the organisation is situated or will be
to notice this rather remarkable phenomenon.
situated. With political-governmental environ- In 2002 the Journal of Public Affairs dedicated
ment we mean governments (local, regional,
much attention to this and related issues (Vol. 1
national or European), independent govern-
no. 4, Vol. 2 no. 1, 2002). Let us briefly go over a
mental institutions, as well as the directories
few of the relevant points of view.
and laws that they issue.
Getz observed that ‘a substantial amount of
During the last few decades, even in a research in political influence is a-theoretical’
relatively small country like the Netherlands,
and that ‘there has been virtually no effort to
quite a few studies were published about interpret or explain the findings’ (Getz, 2002:
public affairs and related or included fields of
interest, such as lobbying. What most of these Also Schuler concluded that ‘most of the
studies seem to lack, however, is original
initial studies of PAM/IM/CPA1 were descrip-
tions’ (Schuler, 2002: 338). ‘At present, scho-
*Correspondence to: Dr Rob de Lange, Faculty of Social lars of PAM/IM/CPA have discovered the part of
and Behavioural Sciences, Department of Communica-
tion Science, Univeristy of Amsterdam, Kloveniers bur- —————
gwal 48, 1012 CX Amsterdam, The Netherlands. PAM ¼ public affairs management, IM ¼ issues manage-

E-mail: ment, CPA ¼ corporate political activities.

Copyright # 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Journal of Public Affairs, May 2006
DOI 10.1002/pa
132 Rob de Lange and Paul Linders

the iceberg above water but lack understanding in other, far more developed fields of science,
of how far it is submerged’ (idem 351). What he argues, there is no one grand theory.
we miss is, according to Schuler, a ‘Grand Finally, Berman concludes: ‘With the theore-
Model of PAM/IM/CPA’ (idem 351). tical arsenal at the disposal of researchers in this
Hillman appears to notice the same lack area, a more fruitful path may be to use existing
of theoretical foundation, when he states: theories to frame research questions’ (Berman,
‘ . . . good empirical research . . . must be guided 2002: 418).
by theory’ (Hillman, 2002: 357). To conclude this section, we quote Fleisher,
The authors involved in this discussion one of the co-editors of a leading new handbook
propose different remedies to amend this short- on public affairs (Harris and Fleisher, 2005):
coming. Getz presents a list of four possible ‘The Scholarly base of PA/GR understanding
disciplines (political science, economics, sociol- remains somewhat embryonic by nature and
ogy and management theory) and no less than will need continued progress for it to be of
11 more specific theories (from interest group greater utility and value to business organiza-
theory and collective action theory to game tions and their decision makers’ (idem 26).
theory and population ecology theory). She asks Since we ourselves recently embarked on an
if we should seek consistency in our theoretical ambitious research project on public affairs, we
explanations and how we should cope with felt the need for a theoretical framework that
apparently incompatible explanations. She even could guide us and would give us an instrument
wonders if it is necessary to draw upon social with which we could interpret the outcomes
science theories, at all (Getz, 2002: 322). of our investigations. We argued that the
Schuler dreams of a ‘Grand Model of PA/IM/ approach that became known as construction-
CPA’, which seems to be the equivalent of the ism offers a useful and productive paradigm for
quest for the ‘Grand Unification Theory’ (or the study and the practice of at least some of the
GUT) in physics.2 ‘For greater methodological central themes in public affairs.
certainty, therefore, researchers in PA/IM/CPA We don’t have the ambition to present
need to focus on constructing this theoretical constructionism as the passe-partout theoreti-
model’ (Schuler, 2002: 351). cal frame for all possible concepts and events in
Hillman is no supporter of Schuler’s GUT, on public affairs. We agree with Hillman’s opinion
the contrary, he would rather see ‘multi- as quoted above and the implied plea for
eclectic methods of inquiry’. Hillman believes pluralism and eclecticism.
that science, as all knowledge, is constructed In this article we want to present a few of the
through ‘a social struggle among the scholars relevant key concepts of constructionism and
of the profession to construct the truth’ we will try to illustrate their implications for
(Hillman, 2002: 357). ‘(T)he specialist, by certain central phenomena in the public affairs
aiming toward scientific precision, of necessity field. It concerns especially personal back-
excludes much data available through thought grounds and symbolic interaction of the actors
and experience. Thus scientific precision is involved, social problems and issues, and the
limiting, if not misleading’ (idem 358). He calls role of mass media. In order to illustrate our
the inevitable Kuhn, and his famous study The claim we will make a connection to some of the
Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn, relevant core characteristics of the field, as we
1970) to the witness-bench maintaining that had come to know it through previous study
‘science requires conflict between competing and research (see de Lange, 2000a; de Lange
schools of thought’ and that ‘development and Linders, 2003).
comes from debate and discourse’ (ibid.). Also

————— The heart of the profession

See, for instance, Kaku and Trainer J (1987). Beyond
Einstein. The cosmic quest for the theory of the universe. We noticed that PA as a profession is relatively
Bantam Books: Toronto/New York/London. highly positioned in society at large. In their

Copyright # 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Journal of Public Affairs, May 2006
DOI 10.1002/pa
Public affairs as reality construction 133

work, usually important issues are at stake and adversaries, don’t irritate the person you
the practitioners in the field show clear signs of encounter, don’t take too much of his time,
a relative elite in terms of education, seniority, speak or write (and know when to speak or
positioning and salary. In other words, this write) in his terms, neither overestimate nor
professional group is relatively highly edu- underestimate his ability to understand, show
cated, their position is usually in or very close acceptance for his need for factual information,
to the top of the organisation, they earn high learn to see the relativity of your own interest
salaries and they are relatively influential. They and have some change on you (concessions,
are no mere technicians (Dozier, 1992: 333), alternatives). Be constructive. Bring in amend-
but professionals that are relatively influential ments. Show that you understand legislation’.
in shaping the reality, both inside and outside ‘Perhaps women are in a number of ways
their organisations. better equipped for this profession than men’,
Also high personality standards are laid down said one of the PA theorists, a well-known
for these practitioners. Wilbers reported about scholar in this field, during a focus group in our
research among 150 top civil servants who were previous research (de Lange, 1997). Because,
at the receiving end of the PA process. These according to him, women are more friendly,
officials were questioned about factors that led more patient, more charming and have more
to success or failure, frequent mistakes and traits empathy than men. He found this especially
that are characteristic for successful lobbyists. important for what he called the ‘fieldwork’ of
As most important traits were mentioned ‘excel- public affairs.
lent interactive skills and presentation, cogency, Also life experience is deemed important.
acuteness, intelligence, tact, entertaining and ‘One should know what it means to take the
pleasant behaviour, style, an air of incorrupt- blows’ said another expert. Sense of humour,
ibility, a well-developed moral code, discretion social skills, the absence of vanity, being a good
and modesty, openness and honesty, commit- listener and not talking too much, empathic
ment, a sense of reality, an eye and respect for skills are some of the capacities that were
the needs and interest of others, well-developed mentioned in de Lange’s study (idem 76).
critical skills’ (Wilbers in Bennis et al., 1992). Other important clusters of personal traits
that were mentioned are ‘social and interactive
What one needs is up-to-date knowledge of skills, communicative skills, analytical capaci-
the facts of the political market and its ties, intelligence, trustworthiness and integrity’
workings, writes van Schendelen, and an (idem 36).
unprejudiced attitude towards it (in Bennis During a presentation at our institute Lin-
et al., 1992: 17). ning, an experienced international lobbyist in
Worm points at the need for empathy and Brussels, gave us a long list with practical tips
reciprocity: ‘A good consultant teaches his (Linning, 1998). We will just mention a few:
clients to look at themselves through the eyes
of other people’ (idem 96). By that he means ‘Be patient. Fitting in with your contact’s
especially the eyes of politicians or officials. timetable is one way of acknowledging his
Making one’s own point of view absolute will importance. Recognise that decisions are
soon turn out to be counter productive. the result of compromise. Best to select your
Bennis stresses prudence and tact: ‘You shall own solution; but always let someone else
not overplay your hand, that is about the first propose it. Don’t forget you have two ears
commandment in professional lobby . . . ’, he and one mouth and they should be used in
writes (idem 111). ‘( . . . ) address the right man, that proportion’.
in the right tone of voice, at the right time, If we add this all up, the ideal PA practi-
know his agenda, his portfolio, his priorities, tioners would almost be too good to be true.
know what interests he has to balance, know In short, for a substantive part, public affairs
who your partners are, your competitors, your is the art of ‘reading the signs’, of knowing what

Copyright # 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Journal of Public Affairs, May 2006
DOI 10.1002/pa
134 Rob de Lange and Paul Linders

the views, intentions and possibilities of your other words, reality is to a high degree a mental
contacts are, of how to tune-in with that, of construction.
how to enter their reality and reshape it It is remarkable that, although these authors
according to your own or your organisation’s had no knowledge of it, their basic ideas are
objectives. This is especially challenging if the strongly supported in recent research on the
positions and perspectives are far apart. relation between the structure and working of
According to Oberman and in contrast to the the brain and all kinds of mental processes,
popular belief, it is not true that lobbyists focus such as perception and consciousness.4 Con-
their efforts mainly on politicians already on trary to what we usually assume, Llinas claims
their side. Rather the opposite is true. ‘There is that ‘the brain makes images that become
evidence that lobbyists target legislators hostile reality through the information entering
to their position and only speak to friendly ones through the eyes’.5 Similar processes go on in
to counter the lobbying of opposing groups’ other senses.6 The central message is, over and
(Oberman, 2005: 58–59). over again, that on all levels we construct the
Because of the ever-repeated references to reality that we perceive.
empathic interaction in public affairs, together Construction processes usually don’t occur
with the intention to share one’s point of view in social isolation. On the contrary, human
with others in order to construct a common sense making and reality construction practi-
reality or to influence other people’s views, the cally always take place in a social context. Since
approach that became known under the name birth humans are placed in a social constella-
of constructionism seems to be one of the most tion that determines their view on the world or,
promising. It will provide us with a set of better, their world as such. When individuals
theoretical tools that enables us to ask relevant grow up, the social context remains an
questions for empirical research and also for influential mediator of the thus created reality.
the practice, and will help us to interpret the That is why Berger and Luckmann speak of the
outcomes. social construction of reality.
In the following text we will try to present a What is referred to here with the single
number of theoretical notions that seem concept social is in reality a very complex
especially relevant for this purpose. phenomenon, in which all kinds of different
specific aspects and processes may be identi-
Constructionism fied. Interaction with others is crucial, espe-
cially interaction with so-called significant
One of the founding texts about construction- others. Also tradition, history, culture, institu-
ism was written by Peter Berger en Thomas tions and especially language, are all powerful
Luckmann, with the title The Social Construc- factors in the reality construction.
tion of Reality (Berger and Luckmann, 1975).
According to these authors, reality is often
not the objective, external entity which it ————

See, among others, Dennett (1991), Damasio (1995),
seems to be for the subjective observer and Dennett (1995), LeDoux (1996).
which, as it were, is discovered by an obser- Rodolfo Llinas is one of the leading brain physiologists
ving human being. There is an in principle working in this field. This quote was taken from a
documentary broadcasted by Dutch national television on
meaningless world, that is endowed with 22 July 2003. What happens within the brain, he said, is
meaning by the sense-giving observer.3 In more important than what happens outside the brain. In
— his words, the brain is a ‘dream machine’ that is constantly
Some go so far as to state that there is no such thing as checked and related to what the senses report.
objective reality. In itself this is an interesting philosophical An illustrative example is a study by Critchlow (1986),
question, but for our purpose such a far-reaching discussion which showed that people who drink alcohol-free
would lead us too far, given the framework of this study. beverages, but who are convinced by the experimenters
The notion that what we experience as reality is at least to a that they drink alcohol, actually did show behaviour of
high degree a human mental construction, is practically people who are slightly drunk (cited by Merckelbach
undisputed in the social sciences at this moment. c.s.,2002: 676).

Copyright # 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Journal of Public Affairs, May 2006
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Public affairs as reality construction 135

The unprejudiced person is usually not at Background or habitus

all aware of these processes. People regard
the world often as given and objectively Searle is one of the scholars in recent times that
existent. This is not only true for physical picked up the constructionist theme. And one
objects outside the self, but also for non- of the concepts that he introduces in this
physical objects, which are even more perspective is background. It refers to indivi-
obviously the product of psycho-social con- dual characteristics, and thus we enter the
struction processes.7 sphere of the individual PA practitioner and his
This led us to the conclusion that, also in PA or her interactions. Searle defines background
processes, reality as people experience it, is as ‘the set of non-intentional or pre-intentional
the product of mental construction processes capacities that enable intentional states of fun-
that are to a high degree social. Most of the ction’. By capacities he means abilities, tenden-
time the PA practitioners involved are una- cies and causal structures in general (Searle,
ware of this. Often, facts and circumstances 1995: 129). He gives some telling examples.8 In
are regarded as independent, objective and other words, we have a certain understanding
concrete matters and not as mental construc- of how the world works.
tions. Also in our own research (de Lange and Searle sees a clear similarity between his
Linders, 2003) this was confirmed repeatedly. concept background and Bourdieu’s concept
Overall, the respondents assume one undi- habitus. Habitus, according to Bourdieu, ‘is a
vided ‘objective reality’ that ‘exists concre- socialized form of subjectivity’9 (Bourdieu and
tely’; things were as they ‘really happened’. Wacquant, 1992: 81). It is formed through an
‘Facts are facts’. incorporation of the volume and content of
As social scientists, however, we have cultural and economic capital. To this belong
learned to be cautious with the proclamation the kind of schools that one attended and the
of facts. After his thorough analysis of what he social networks, the region and religion in
calls ‘sensemaking’ in organisational settings, which one grew up. It is the automatic and
Weick concludes: ‘Facts give way to values, unconscious by which a person is character-
computation gives way to judgment, and ized and through which one is immediately
sensation is displaced by ideology, all without recognized as a member of his or her social
the member being any the wiser to these shifts’ class, region, sub-culture etc. The habitus is
(Weick, 1995: 115). expressed in a characteristic way within a field.
We have laid out some of the basic principles The different kinds of capital (economic,
of constructionism. In the next sections we will political, cultural) are defined by Bourdieu in
have a brief look at some aspects that may be relation to what he calls a field (champ).10
relevant to public affairs, such as personal
background of the actors, symbolic interaction, ————

In English the verb to cut is used in expressions such as
the use of deliberately constructed symbolic cut the grass and cut the cake. It is the same verb, but if I
reality through storytelling, issues as con- ask somebody to cut the cake and he attacks the cake with
structed social problems and the role of mass a lawn mower, we would at least be surprised. One knows
media, respectively. (or ought to know) which meaning is meant in what
situation. Another example is the sentence ‘She gave him
the key and he opened the door’. We assume that the
— listener understands immediately that he opens the door
Berger and Luckmann calls this reification. They with the key in the usual way. We would not expect him
illustrate the more or less ‘treacherous’ characteristics to knock down the door with a key that weighs 10 kilos.
of reification as follows: ‘Typically, the real relationship This formulation (socialized form of subjectivity) per-
between man and his world is reversed in consciousness. fectly fits our ambition, which we preferably describe as
Man, the producer of a world, is apprehended as its social scientific. As will be shown next, the whole field
product ( . . . ) Even while apprehending the world in ranging from a individual-psychological, through social-
reified terms, man continues to produce it. That is, man is psychological to a macro-sociological approach.
capable of producing a reality that denies him’ (Berger and In English we would probably translate this concept as
Luckmann, 1975: 106/107). ‘world’, as in the world of sports, the business world.

Copyright # 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Journal of Public Affairs, May 2006
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136 Rob de Lange and Paul Linders

‘Every time when the habitus meets objective that a potential client was so different
conditions equal to those from which the from himself in intentions, appearance and
person originates, one is completely adjusted demeanour that he referred him to another
without any effort’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, consultancy. Others, however, saw it as their
1992: 84). professional ambition just to bridge these kinds
For instance, we have no problem at all in of differences, and gathered relevant informa-
recognising a person as someone from the tion about the personal background of the
upper-middle class in the South, who has individuals they deal with. But still this is all on a
studied law at St. X University, who likes to rather conscious level, as it was by definition
play cricket, was or maybe still is a member of impossible to talk with our interviewees about
St. X Student Club, wears a special tie or ring, their sub-conscious or unconscious images.
wears these typical shoes and speaks in this The social-scientific literature is full of evidence
typical tone of voice etc. He is ‘one of us’ or that especially the unconscious believes and
maybe the opposite, or anything in between. expectations strongly influence human percep-
We like her for that or not, we fill in all the tion and behaviour, sometimes leading to
thousands of little traits that we don’t see, but full-blown self-fulfilling prophecies (de Lange,
assume. In short, a person’s habitus triggers in 1986).
us a myriad of mostly unconscious reactions In other words, there is a large amount of
that influence our interactions and our mutual knowledge about how a person’s background
reality construction. or habitus influences his or her own view on
Because the PA practitioner is someone the world, the interaction with other actors
who often functions in a one-on-one personal and the ensuing mental constructions that are
encounter with other people in situations thus produced. The ideal PA practitioner
where much is at stake, it seems not too far- would be conscious of that and capable of
fetched to state that habitus plays an important using this self-consciousness and the con-
role, and sometimes a decisive one. sciousness of others as an instrument in his
Sometimes this works out in a very practical or her work.
sense. Showalter and Fleisher observe how
‘Lobbyist who coalesce philosophically with
certain legislators are also called upon to help Symbolism, power and reality
draft legislation, amendments and public policy
pronouncements’ (Showalter and Fleisher,
2005: 110). In the interaction of different actors the
In our own research, this aspect was also definitions of reality that are brought to the
not immediately and clearly recognized by our scene may match. But it is more likely that these
respondents and sometimes even rejected (de reality definitions do not match, or even that
Lange and Linders, 2003). They claimed that they are conflicting. Who or what determines
they would treat everybody in the same way, what is the truth or reality and what is not?
without fear or favour. When we persisted, Berger and Luckmann already stated: ‘He who
some of them were willing to admit that what has the bigger stick has the better chance of
we described as habitus played an important imposing his definitions of reality’ (Berger and
role in their encounters with other actors. Luckmann, 1975: 127). He who has most
Some of them acknowledged that interaction power determines more than the other partici-
with people with more or less the same pants what will be the dominant definition of
background as their own, for instance in terms reality. This argument can also be turned
of formal education, party affiliation and around: he who is able to determine the
political views, was in general easier and more definition of reality, obviously has power. It
natural. Some also gave examples of the reminds us of the questions posed by Foucault
reverse, like the PA consultant who noticed (1971) in his famous essay L’ordre du discours:

Copyright # 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Journal of Public Affairs, May 2006
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Public affairs as reality construction 137

who speaks, in what situation, with what between teachers and students are for a
authority and what consequences? Foucault’s substantial part interpretable as negotiations
questions seem to have been produced mainly for power in the school situation. The most
for the analysis of the formal scientific or important implication of Esland’s analysis is
political discourse. But they also apply for the that the outcome of the negotiation codeter-
informal conversation between friends, family mines the process of exchange of knowledge.
members or business relations. Also there we Instead of an abstract academic exercise, this
find many subtle mechanisms determining who kind of analysis immediately touches on the
sets the order of the conversation and, by the core of what educational institutions are all
same token, its consequences.11 The PA or about.
lobby conversation is no exception to this rule Heugens observes in business an increase
and becomes thus a potential object for such a in what he calls ‘a shift from substantive
discourse analysis. In that perspective, the towards symbolic competition’ . . . ‘Economic
following remarks can be made. competition more and more takes the form
If we talk about power, in last instance we of competition for intangible and symbolic
talk about concrete, physical, military or assets, especially reputation’ (Heugens, 2005:
political power. But in the daily course of 486–487). Human interaction in general is
things—and also in PA—we mostly deal with symbolic interaction.
symbolic power (Bourdieu, 1991). That is, of There are all sorts of symbolic power, largely
course, the whole point of the social-scientific invisible to the untrained eye. We can still learn
approach that we know under the name of from the classical study by French and Raven
symbolic interactionism, and it is central to (1959), in which they distinguish five types of
constructionism. social power, of which especially the more
Power is often not recognised as such and is, concealed, symbolic forms such as referent
intentionally or unintentionally, concealed.12 power and expert power would correspond to
People negotiate over power, although this is what we mean here.
often done unconsciously and in a symbolic But also the French structuralists (e.g.
form. In one of the earlier constructionist Foucault, 1971, 1975; Bourdieu, 1979, 1984,
studies Esland (1973) give many examples of 1991) are among the first who have taught us
this in school situations.13 The interactions to look through the often subtle but effective
power arrangements, such as official titles
— and positions, but also personal appearance,
For our students we often use the trivial example of the dress, gender, age, diction and the architec-
family party, where uncle Charles always succeeds to lead
the conversation into mortgages and house prices. In one
ture of the physical environment (prisons,
way or another he succeeds to determine the order of hospitals, lecture rooms or any other man-
the discourse and, in doing so, the world views of his made surrounding).
listeners. Also communication means, especially lan-
According to Searle, one of the great illusions of the era
is that ‘Power grows out of the barrel of a gun’. ‘The real guage, are studied and analysed as instruments
power resides with the person who sits at a desk and of power relations. As far as communication
makes noises through his or her mouth and marks on itself is object of study, according to Bourdieu,
paper . . . The unfortunate person with a gun is likely to be
among the least powerful and the most exposed to it must be, in its turn, analysed as an instrument
danger’ (Searle, 1995: 117–118). Such constructions are of power and not, as is too often the case in
much more robust than one would expect at first sight. communication theory, as a more or less
This collective intentionality, as Searle calls it, forms the
backbone of our society.
independent, neutral phenomenon. Linguistic
They use the terms negotiation and bargaining for relations are always also symbolic power
control: teachers do not openly negotiate and probably relations. Every linguistic exchange virtually
not even consciously with their students over power in contains some form of power exchange. This
the classroom situation, but many of their actions can be
interpreted as such. (‘If you promise to study chapters 1 will become stronger as the actors involved
through 4 thoroughly, I will drop chapter 5’.) hold asymmetric positions in the division of the

Copyright # 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Journal of Public Affairs, May 2006
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138 Rob de Lange and Paul Linders

relevant capital (Bourdieu and Wacquant, power’ (Miller, 1990), attend boardroom meet-
1992: 95–98).14 ings and that their advices are valued and
French and Raven (1959) defined social listened to. They often speak, dress and behave
power as ‘the capacity to exert influence over in ways that are not distinguishable from those
others’. Some go further and define power as of the top managers.
the capacity to make others do things against This would be an example of referent power
their will. In general, and by definition, power (French and Raven, 1959).
is an important factor in any human activity. Many of the concepts that we discuss here,
The constructionist approach, in a way, goes such as personal characteristics, framing, nar-
beyond that and claims that there are thousands rative devices etc., when strategically and
of hidden, subtle mechanisms that not only adequately brought into the process by the
influence people or make them do things, but skilled PA practitioner, will represent and
shape their very reality through symbolic support symbolic power and will, by the same
interaction. token, influence the exchange of knowledge
In the usual PA studies, nothing is said about and the reality definition of the targeted
the more implicit, symbolic forms of power. party.
In our research (de Lange and Linders, 2003)
it appeared that the PA practitioners involved Narrative construction
had hardly any idea about this, and mostly
assumed that ‘what you see is what you get’ and ‘Present two or three pictures, or descriptive
held rather naive opinions about ‘honesty’, phrases, to a person and he or she will connect
‘openness’ and ‘reciprocity’. them to form a story, an account that relates the
But as we dug deeper we found that the pictures or the phrases in some patterned way’
world of PA is full of symbolic power. (Sarbin, 1986: 8). The inclination to construct
Consultancy firms, for instance, dwell in or reconstruct the reality surrounding us in the
prestigious (and very expensive) buildings in form of a story is apparently deeply rooted in
the administrative centre of Brussels or The human nature.
Hague. They socialise on first-name basis with Sarbin gives the following definition. ‘A story
cabinet ministers and MPs, whom they invite, is a symbolized account of actions of human
preferably together with the representatives of beings that has a temporal dimension. The
the media and other common folk, on their story has a beginning, a middle and an end-
New Year’s party. Many PA managers men- ing . . . The story is held together by recogniz-
tioned their social networks as their most able patterns of events called plots. Central to
important tool in their work (de Lange, 1997, the plot structure are human predicaments and
2000a; de Lange and Linders, 2003). Some gave attempted resolutions’ (idem 3). Heugens
us examples of how they brought people of provides a dozen definitions of (corporate)
high esteem (for instance scholars of interna- story (Heugens, 2002: 59).
tional fame) into the arena in order to make use The tendency to storytelling is omnipresent
of the symbolic power of their reputation. in daily life. Gergen and Gergen (1986)
Most of the PA managers that we spoke to searched for the essence of stories and story-
made clear that they interact on a daily basis telling (idem 25–31). The most essential
with their CEOs, that they ‘walk the corridors of characteristic is that stories structure events
in such a way that, firstly, a certain amount of
connection and coherence develops and,
— secondly, a feeling of direction and movement
Here, Bourdieu refers to the work of the American
linguist Labov. Already at the end of the sixties, this through time.
scholar became famous for his critical studies in which he In order to be a story, an account must
showed how profoundly the social situation not only
determines the amount but also the structure of the establish the feeling of a valued goal state: for
communication. example, the happiness of the protagonist, the

Copyright # 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Journal of Public Affairs, May 2006
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Public affairs as reality construction 139

destruction of evil, the victory of the favoured vice versa.’ (Bruner, 1990: 345). Bovenkerk and
group, the discovery of the treasure. Husken (2005) give an excellent illustration by
Also scientific research and theories can be showing how gangsters, all over the world,
typified with the help of these general narrative have imitated the mafia lifestyle that originally
criteria. According to these authors, at least sprang from Mario Puzo’s fantasy as put in
part of the popularity of certain theories words in his novel The Godfather and visua-
(Freud, Piaget15) can be ascribed to their lised in Francis Ford Coppola’s screen-version
undeniable dramatic impact. ‘As we find, of it.
developmental theories in the sciences seem Bandler, the inventor of neuro linguistic
to approximate and to derive their sensemak- programming (NLP), gives a striking and
ing capacity largely from existing narrative hilarious account of some developments in
structures’ (idem 39). the images of some dramatic psychiatric
The story of somebody’s own life, also diseases.17 But construction is not the only
known as self-narrative, appears to play a thing that is going on. In the scientific, social or
crucial role in the construction of the individual political debate existing realities are de-con-
identity (see a.o. Scheibe, 1986). Like any story, structed, as well.18
also this story tends to become better as it is Essential for our purpose is how stories, self-
retold more often.16 narratives included, work through in everyday
On a different, more collective-cultural level, life and in public affairs in particular. We
psychological theories (or their historical want to discuss three aspects here: narrative as
equivalents) about who or what man is play an instrument to construct reality, its con-
an influential role. Bruner writes: ‘I believe that sequences for human action and the possibi-
human beings immersed in culture have a way lities to influence human action through
of fulfilling Oscar Wilde’s dictum that life stories.
imitates art, including psychology, for Freud’s
image of humanity shaped the generations
after him as much as Homer’s shaped the
Three implications of narrative
classic Greek mind. Even symptoms imitate construction
art—yesterday’s neurosis, today’s acting out, Firstly, stories form a cognitive scheme work-
tomorrow’s multiple personality disorder, per- ing as an effective filter for perception: what fits
haps as much a gift of therapists to patients as into the story is perceived, what does not fit is


Freud follows a tragic, pessimistic storyline: the end ————

state is the successful repression of spontaneous instincts ‘Schizophrenia is a very prestigious way to be broken,
and impulses, regression is always lurking. Piaget follows catatonia is a very quiet one. Although hysterical paralysis
a optimistic storyline: the end state is the total command was very popular during World War I, it’s out of style now;
of the developing human being of formal logic operations. you only find it occasionally in very poor-educated
Besides, Piaget’s story is more aesthetic (and in that sense immigrants who are out of touch with the times. You’re
more catching), because Freud’s story leaves an ‘ugly’ lucky if you can find one now. ‘‘Borderline’’ is a very
void in the so-called latency phase in child development. popular way to be broken right now. That means you’re
According to Bosi, this explains the pleasure with which not quite nuts, but not quite normal, either—as if anyone
seniors talk so much about their youth (in: Scheibe, 1986: isn’t. Back in the fifties, after The Three Faces of Eve,
145). Dennett (1991) describes identity as: ‘artifacts of the multiple personalities always had three. But since Sybil,
social processes that create us.’ (1991: 423) . . . ‘the who had 17 personalities, we’re seeing more multiples,
Center of Narrative Gravity of the living body’ (idem and they all have more than three’ (Bandler, 1985: 14).
427). ‘Our tales are spun, but for the most part we don’t The ‘primitive forms’ of multiple personality disorders,
spin them, they spin us. Our human consciousness and Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde and Hitchcock’s Psycho, are based
our narrative selfhood, is their product, not their source’ on two personalities living in one individual. After the
(idem 418). Weick regards identity as an active construc- time in which Bandler wrote this, there have been case
tion that comes about through actions and interactions. descriptions of over more than 20, but it seems that
He writes: ‘How can I know what I think until I hear what I borderline and m.p.’s are in decline, now.
say’ and ‘How can I know who I am until I see what I do?’ 18
A good example in present-day psychiatry is Blom’s
(Weick, 1995: 18). Deconstructing schizophrenia (2004).

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140 Rob de Lange and Paul Linders

often ignored, and what does fit but is not true events in their own youth (see Wessel and
perceived, is often invented. People are con- Wolters, 2002: 392; Wolters, 2002: 398).20
stantly looking for the causal structure that lies But there are also illustrations of narrative
at the base of social events, because without it power in public affairs. In an analysis of the
we would be lost. ‘Nothing is more lost than a interactions of interests, groups and organisa-
loose fact’ (van Koppen and Hessing, 2002: 27). tions, Oberman writes ‘People with similar
So, for the PA practice it may be important to preferences, collective interest, exist only as a
explore and analyse one’s own story as well as potential group until an organizer . . . invests in
that of others. the selective benefits necessary to attract them
Secondly, it is important to realize that to an organization’ (Oberman, 2005: 63).
stories have practical consequences. This There is a movement that, under the name
involves not only the mental construction of of story telling, aims at changing practices
reality of the actors, but also the actions that through the development and application of
they and the people they interact with base stories. A good example is the work of Denning
on it. (2001). In his own working practice he
This is shown quite clearly in the legal discovered how stories—better than numbers,
practice. Crombag et al. (2002) discuss the diagrams, analytical discourse, multi-media
role of ‘the story’ in the argumentation in legal presentation etc.—were able to make complex
cases. ‘Each proof is a story. As long as the judge matters clear and acceptable for a potentially
does not believe in it, he has to dig deeper into indifferent or unwilling audience. Denning
the hierarchy of nested stories forming a case coined the term springboard story, by which
together’ (idem 286). The strongest defence, he means ‘a story that enables a leap in
they argue, is an alternative story for the understanding by the audience so as to grasp
indictment that fits the presented proof equally how an organization or community or complex
well (idem 291). system may change’ (idem XVIII).
But also in other fields, for example in social The latter perspective of narrative construc-
assistance, stories have specific consequences. tion—a means to actively influence other
The character of the call for help determines to people’s reality construction—makes story
a high degree who will receive support and telling an excellent tool for the PA practice.
what will be the quality of the support.19 So, Heugens concludes: ‘If stories are indeed the
stories have sometimes far reaching conse- preferred sense-making currency of human
quences. relationships among internal and external
Thirdly, stories are connection points for the stakeholders ( . . . ), then one of the primary
targeted influencing of the reality construction functions of public affairs management is to
of other people, and by the same token for present the corporate story as favourably as
their concrete outcomes. Well-known are the possible to those external audiences the
experiments by Loftus in which self-narratives organisation critically depends upon’. His
of respondents were altered surprisingly easily own empirical research about the antagonism
by letting them produce stories about them- over genetically modified food ingredients
selves. The experimenter intentionally but revealed the more or less successful stories
secretly inserted new elements. Later the used by the protagonist life sciences compa-
respondents ‘remembered’ these elements as nies, but also the not less successful stories of
the NGOs that opposed them, using the same
sort of narrative strategy with a different
In Straatnieuws, a magazine by and for homeless content, of course (Heugens, 2002: 60–61).
people, Hoogenboezem tells about her research that
shows how welfare workers work harder for people who ————

can deliver a coherent story about their life. ‘Those who Horselenberg et al., claim that ‘memory is more
are too confused have to sort things out on their own’ reconstructive than reproductive’ Horselenberg et al.
(Pronk, 2003). (2002: 447).

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Public affairs as reality construction 141

The Dutch word for ‘story’ (verhaal) make claims about them’ (Best, 1995: 6). From
emerged surprisingly often in our interviews a constructionist perspective social or societal
with both practitioners and their superiors (de problems are inevitably social constructions.
Lange and Linders, 2003). But they had never This implies that this approach concentrates
heard of narrative construction or its theore- less on the ‘objective’ content of the problem
tical equivalents as presented in construction- than on the social construction processes
ist or related literature. They used it in its through which a situation is identified as
everyday meaning of clear and captive argu- problematic. Best’s model of the logical struc-
mentation. They indicated regularly that ture governing this kind of processes contains
‘a good story’ was an effective way to gain three components: ground statements, norma-
access to other people, to exchange facts and tive judgements and conclusive actions.21
emotions, and to convince them. It is just as if We found a telling example of claims-making
the story was already there and ‘told itself’. that follows this three-stage sequence with the
There was no proof that they applied narrative Dutch anti-smoke foundation STIVORO. They
forms intentionally and strategically in order to claim that most smokers start between the
change other people’s definition of reality. ages of 12 and 16. Within this age groups the
number of smokers rise from 4% to 42%. At
the age of 19 45% of the young people smoke
Issues as constructions
(ground statements). They also claim that
Public affairs often involve issues, more or less smoking is very unhealthy if not lethal, and
problematic matters that sometimes may that it is immoral to expose our youth to this
develop surprisingly fast and dominate the threat (normative judgements). They initiate
agenda. Heugens places issues management at strong multi-media, government-supported
the centre of public affairs. ‘Issues manage- anti-smoke campaigns (conclusive actions).
ment is then best perceived as one of the Typification is an important part of claims-
constitutive parts of the public affairs disci- making.22 We found an example of typification
pline, more specifically the part that focuses on in a recent television interview with the
the management of concrete events, trends, outspoken Dutch parliamentarian Hirshi Ali.
and developments that could have a significant The issue was female circumcision as practised
impact on the ability of the organization to among African immigrants. But Ali, who is
reach its objectives if they were left unat- herself a recent immigrant from Africa, did not
tended’ (Heugens, 2005: 496). In that case, talk about it in terms of tradition, religion or
he prefers to use the term ‘strategic issues’ even the rather neutral term circumcision, but
(idem 490). kept referring to the practice as ‘genital
We found illustrative examples of a con- mutilation’, thereby creating a strong negative
structionist approach of issues in a study by connotation.
Best (1995) called Images of Issues. Typifying
Contemporary Social Problems. Social pro- ————

He gives an example about the sexual abuse of children.
blems are social constructions, they argue. The ground statements typically contain numbers from
One of the central mechanisms in this official research institutions, preferably clear, round,
striking numbers (‘a national survey shows that 60% of
construction process is claims-making. ‘When all children . . . ’). The normative judgements contain
activists hold a demonstration to attract atten- claims, for example about the vulnerability of young
tion to some social condition, when investiga- children and the decline of family values. The third
component may contain a call for heavier punishment and
tive reporters publish stories that expose new more control.
aspects of the condition, or when legislators 22
It makes quite a difference, according to Loseke, if one
introduce bills to do something about the typifies the phenomenon of street people as ‘the problem
condition, they are constructing a social of the homeless mentally ill’ or as ‘the problem of a lack of
proper housing’. Another telling example is the difference
problem’ . . . ‘It does not matter whether the between ‘teenager promiscuity’ and ‘teenager pregnan-
conditions exist; it matters only that people cies’ (Loseke, 1995).

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142 Rob de Lange and Paul Linders

In general, it is appropriate to say that claims- Mass media as influential

makers will be more successful in creating constructors of reality
acknowledgment as a social problem and
treatment for certain situations when they In our society, mass media increasingly deter-
coincide with dominant political, economical mine the particular and public reality. The
or religious ideologies (Luckenbill, 1995: 303). public at large, but also politicians and PA
Experienced PA practitioners or consultants practitioners, are to a great extent dependent
will make use of this insight. In the ideal case on mass media that play an important role in
they are constantly aware of the relevant monitoring reality.
actions of claims-makers. They sometimes A current analysis of the role of the media
redefine their own claims in order to adjust from a constructionist point of view can be
them better to the dominant opinions at the found in Weimann (2000). In his theoretical
time and thus increase their chances for concepts we find instruments that are also
success. We see here a clear link with van useful for us.
Schendelen’s concept of issue manipulation. Three central concepts that are relevant in
He gives a few examples: the question of ‘the this perspective are: agenda setting, priming
import of cheap textiles’ may change into the and framing (Weimann, 2000: 314–316).
question of ‘child labour’, ‘oil storage’ into Weimann defines agenda setting as ‘the
‘safety’, ‘the hazards of smoking’ into ‘personal ability of the news media to define the
freedom’ etc. (van Schendelen, 2002: 210). significant issues of the day’. The exact mean-
Oberman points out that successful expan- ing is concisely described in this classical
sion of support for an issue requires that it is quote from Cohen (1963): ‘The press may not
defined ‘in a manner that that convinces a be successful much of the time in telling people
politically significant number of people that what to think, but it is stunningly successful in
something must be done ( . . . . . . ). Conversely, telling its readers what to think about’ (in
opponents will seek to contain the issue, Weimann, 2000: 33).
denying agenda status by promoting the Priming can be described as the process
narrowest possible definition of the issue’ through which people are unconsciously sub-
(Oberman, 2005: 65–66). ject to information, which in turn influences
To summarise, social problems, claims-mak- the ensuing perception and decision making
ing, typification and their context lie at the processes. This is shown, for example, in the
heart of public affairs. Whether it is in Brussels, increasing speed or accuracy with which
London or any other arena, whether it is about decisions are made, because the person
the European Commission or a non-govern- involved was previously exposed to certain
mental organization (NGO), they will all elements of the context.23
experience the profound impact of these With reference to the media Weimann
phenomena or make use of them, themselves. describes priming as ‘the relationship between
Convincing claims and motivating representa- the patterns of news coverage and the criteria
tions are not mere facts, or maybe even no facts with which the public evaluates politicians’. He
at all, but fabrications or social constructions illustrates this with the following example. At
that were fabricated more or less intentionally the public evaluation of president Bush Sr. after
and consciously. the Gulf War, foreign issues played an exces-
This has direct implications for public sive role. Before that time, the president was
affairs. PA is usually set in an arena with often mainly evaluated on the basis of economical
competing claims and typifications. The PA —————
practitioner will have to identify these mechan- For example, in a test where the respondent is asked to
isms, analyse them and, if possible, confront recognize mutilated words (for instance: d-c- -r), those
who have previously seen the word nurse will sooner
them with his or her own constructions. This recognize the word doctor than those who have not seen
struggle is to a large extent symbolic. this word previously.

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Public affairs as reality construction 143

issues and criminality. The media pay dispro- One of our interviewees pointed out to us
portional attention to certain issues at the cost how our national railway company no longer
of others and so influence the judgement announced train delays at stations in terms of
criteria of the public. delay, but in terms of in how many minutes the
We found a slight variation on the priming train will arrive.
theme and how it can work out in the lobbying Talking about trains; in our country the
practice in a contribution by Harris: ‘ . . . he recent debate over the railway connecting the
who writes the first paper sets the course of the Port of Rotterdam to the German Ruhrgebiet
forces before you. After that you are in the provides us with a classic example of bad
business of trying to amend effectively an framing. The railway runs through a part of the
established position and that is more difficult’ country that is known as Betuwe. It is a large
(Harris, 2005: 96). agricultural, fruit producing area that is espe-
Framing is related to priming. Framing cially loved for its blossoms in Spring. By calling
mainly concerns judgements or evaluations the railway the Betuwe line, it became forever
that are influenced by the way in which they are associated with the repelling image of ugly
formulated. A good example that we encoun- trains cutting through this Garden of Eden. It is
tered is the argument about the cost of believed that this name contributed consider-
education, whereby one party refers to the ably to the fierce opposition that emerged over
expenses of education, whereas the other party this project, and that things would have turned
consequently talks about the investments in out differently had it been called the Rotterdam
education. Track or Ruhrgebiet Railway.
With reference to the media, Weimann
quotes research showing that people who
frequently watched television during the Gulf
War favoured military over diplomatic solu- We could not offer an exhaustive inquiry into
tions. the possibly mutual productive relation
In psychology, many experiments were between constructionist theory and the prac-
done to investigate the influence of artificially tice of public affairs and lobbying. Nor do we
applied frames. Famous is the experiment by believe that constructionism would be the one
Kahneman and Tversky (1979) who manipu- and only fruitful theoretical instrument in this
lated respondents to favour one of two realm. As always, this depends also on the goals,
scenarios that both led to exactly the same the research question, the phenomena under
outcomes.24 study and the context of the intended research.
The media, as important agenda setters, but But we maintain that the constructionist
also as sources of priming and framing may play approach offers a useful contribution to the
a decisive role in PA processes. Although they study and practice of public affairs and lobby-
did not know the terms nor the research behind ing. In the scientific and professional literature
it, our respondents seemed, in general, sensi- on public affairs, as well as in our own research,
tive to these crucial context variables. thorough knowledge of the dossier at stake,
together with the maintenance of an adequate
— network of relevant relations and strategic
They let respondents choose between two programs
that were designed to fight a deadly disease. Although communication are mentioned as the key
execution of the two programs would lead to exactly the factors in good public affairs and lobbying.
same outcomes, 75% chose the program that mentioned
with certainty the number of survivors. The clearly less-
These factors, and their interconnections (that
favoured scenario mentioned the number of casualties. In is, issue-based networks, network-related
the words of the researchers, the respondents in the first knowledge, communication and intelligence
group were, by means of the wording of the problem, etc.) together seem to form the playground par
intentionally brought in a so-called gain frame, whereas
those in the second group were brought in a loss frame excellence for social reality construction with
(quoted in ten Kate and van Koppen, 2002: 51). very practical consequences.

Copyright # 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Journal of Public Affairs, May 2006
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144 Rob de Lange and Paul Linders

The perspective presented here opens new Bennis WJ, Pauw BMJ, van Schendelen MPCM.
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enhance their skills in analysing the social and and political strategy: opportunities, opportu-
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relatively new field on the compass of a
Amsterdamse Beleidsterreinen. Thesis Publish-
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Biographical notes Gruyter: New York.
Rob de Lange is senior lecturer at the Depart- Blom JD. 2004. Deconstructing Schizophrenia. An
ment of Communication Studies at the Universi- Analysis of the Epistemic and Non-Epistemic
teit van Amsterdam and the Educational Faculty Values That Govern the Biomedical Schizophre-
at the Hogeschool Utrecht, the Netherlands. He nia Concept. Boom Publishers: Amsterdam.
was trained as social-scientist. He worked at Bourdieu P, Wacquant LJD. 1992. Argumenten.
different universities and did research in diverse Voor een reflexieve maatschappijwetenschap.
SUA: Amsterdam.
sub-fields of the social sciences, ranging from
Bourdieu P. 1979. La Distinction. Critique sociale
ethnic and immigrant studies to communication
du jugement. Les Editions de Minuit: Paris.
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Copyright # 2006 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Journal of Public Affairs, May 2006
DOI 10.1002/pa