Methods of Public Policy

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Research Profile

The study of public policy faces a multiplicity of methodological challenges: it lacks the methodological focus of the other social sciences, it combines an analytical with a normative perspective. Indeed, in many ways, 'public policy' lies outside of traditional social scientific disciplinarity with its canonical methodologies, clear-cut objects of study, and claims to its specific form of scientific objectivity.

Although methodology has played a defining role for the social sciences since their disciplinary emergence in the nineteenth century, they ended up largely following the path of the natural sciences in becoming ever more differentiated, methodologically formalised and institutionally self-centered. The meta-theoretical reflection on methods has thereby been pushed to the background: inter-disciplinarity is all too often relegated to being an empty buzz-word and the bridging of theory and practice is frequently exhausted by functional issue networks superficially linking together the university with the policy-making process.

Being a synthetic meta-discipline within the social sciences, public policy research is an inherently methodological form of inquiry and the integration of different perspectives on social reality as well as the merging together of theoretical understanding and practical engagement is its primary object. As such, it has the potential both to re-energize the social sciences as a whole, and to reconceive the relationship between knowledge and politics.

Curiously, however, methodology as a distinct field of inquiry has been relatively neglected within the public policy research community, a gap this Research Area seeks to address. It explores core research questions on, amongst others, the methodological foundations of applied social sciences, new structural phenomena such as network knowledge or e-governance, and the didactics of teaching public policy in new and innovative ways.

The Brandt School core faculty specialize in the following methods:

  • Comparative Case Studies
  • Econometric Methods
  • Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA)
  • Multi-Method-Research

Focal Area: Fundamentals of Public Policy

The Focal Area on the ‘Fundamentals of Public Policy’ seeks to explore the basic concepts and perspectives which make up the field of public policy. Drawing on relevant social science and (some) humanities disciplines, it aims to reconstruct a systematic methodology for public policy as field at the interface between theory and practice, academia and activism.

Theme A: Methodological Foundations of Applied Social Sciences

Under the thematic heading of ‘Methodological Foundations of Applied Social Sciences’, a number of projects revisit the key debates on social science methodology, from the latter’s inception and methodological differentiation as of the nineteenth century to the postmodern turn. The aim is to reach to the inter-disciplinary bottom of the field and construct an integrated methodology and  distinctive vocabulary apt to provide a basis for the understanding of and engagement in the public political sphere.

Theme C: The New Public Policy Environment – Knowledge Networks and E-Governance

Today’s policy environment is marked by seemingly unbounded complexity: the organizational setup of the modern nation state has become diluted through globalization, the policy-making process is shared between governments and different types of non-state actors, the public-private divide is increasingly hazy, and rationalities and functional logics have become culturally contingent. In sum, the two fundamental categories of public policy, namely knowledge and action have dramatically shifted their meaning in recent years. A conceptual paradigm-change is under way which calls for a rethink of the basic categories and concepts of the public policy arena. Among the most discussed new phenomena are knowledge networks which re-define knowledge as a dynamic process of horizontal integration of disparate inputs, and e-governance, which re-conceives public action in the information society. This thematic focus seeks to explore the ontological and epistemological foundations of this environment, with a view to contribute to the development of a plausible and applicable vocabulary for contemporary public policy.

Focal Area: Teaching & Learning Public Policy

The didactics of teaching public policy is a key element of this emerging (meta-)discipline. With students of the field having diverse disciplinary backgrounds and a focus on practice-oriented knowledge, a dedicated teaching methodology is called for. The latter must be built on the linkage of  academic reflection and pratical experience. It must, therefore, combine research-based academic study with training in the pratical skills involved in analysing and formulating policy. It must mix traditional with new and experimental teaching formats, foster interactivity and collaborative learning, and provide students with both the intellectual horizon and the tools to address any public policy problem anywhere in the world. Within the framework of the Focal Area on 'Teaching and Learning Public Policy', new teaching methods and materials are being developed with a view to addressing the specific demands of the field.



  • Mello, P. A. (2021). Qualitative Comparative Analysis: An Introduction to Research Design and Application. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Workshops and Conferences

2019: DVPW Workshop “Methods of Foreign Policy Analysis” (September 26/27, Erfurt)




Students from Dr. habil. Patrick A. Mello’s project group “The Politics of UN Sanctions” participated in a well attended academic panel at the General Conference of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) on August 24th, 2020.

On September 26/27, 2019, Brandt School Visiting Scholar Dr. Patrick A. Mello co-organized a two-day workshop on “Methods of Foreign Policy Analysis”, together with Dr. Falk Ostermann of Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen.