Assessing the Role of Discourse in Influencing Water Quality Policy in Lake Erie Basin
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This research examines the usefulness of a discourse approach to better understand freshwater policy and governance, with a specific focus on the involvement of non-state actors in the policy making process. Previous research has shown that these actors greatly differ in their capacities to influence policy. One capacity that has not been the subject of much research in the context of freshwater policy is the discursive capacity of actors. Discourse – the various ways people make sense of their environments and ascribe meaning to social and physical phenomena – has been shown to be an important element in the environmental policy process. However, its exact role and its relationship with actors and the institutional contexts have not been well understood. This thesis contributes to a better understanding of discourse in freshwater policy process and its relationship to the institutional context of resource governance. By adopting an interpretivist approach, I apply a ‘discourse institutional’ perspective to better understand policy process in addressing eutrophication problems in Lake Erie basin. I developed a conceptual framework to guide this research focused on the development of Domestic Action Plans (DAP) in both Ontario and Ohio with the aim of reducing phosphorus runoff to Lake Erie by 40% by 2025 from 2008 levels. I collected and analyzed data gathered through document reviews, news media reports, interviews, and participant observation as well as other relevant sources. The main findings in this study can be seen in three aspects of the role of discourse in the policy process. The first aspect is seen in how groups of actors are brought together in ‘discourse coalitions’, and how they promote specific narratives or storylines so as to construct a broad issue into a policy ‘problem’ with an identifiable cause-effect relationship. I identified two storylines in each region that provide specific conceptualizations of the eutrophication problem in Lake Erie, promote certain responses as the most appropriate, and assign responsibilities to actors. Other storylines deflect the focus away from any single actor as the main source of the problem and put the blame on a web of complex relationships among biophysical and climatic factors that act externally to the governance system. These storylines offer different accounts of the extent and level of urgency with which policy actors may need to respond to the eutrophication issue. This has been reflected in how they shaped the substantive content of the DAPs in both regions. The second aspect of discourse examined in this study relates to the specific practices that a single major policy actor engages in while influencing policy discursively. I find that the material, organizational and discursive capacities of some actors complement and support each other in helping them engage in continuous and persistent information exchange activities with key policy actors before and during the policy process. I show this with the case of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture and the Ohio Farm Bureau, two major actors in the eutrophication related policy process. I observe that their multi-faceted efforts have been instrumental in helping these actors maintain legitimacy in the eyes of the public as well as to keep a ‘social license’ to operate. I find that both agricultural organizations made persistent attempts to frame the nutrient reduction policy by attaching it to broadly held ideas, such as the need for continuous and viable food production, and feeding an ever-growing global population. Such framing practices are often complemented with careful management of public images to provide an appearance of environmental stewardship, as well as by efforts to define the concept of sustainability in a way that presumes the harmonious coexistence of food production and environmental protection. This finding directly relates to the level of effectiveness of environmental sustainability policy efforts. The last aspect of the influence of discourse on policy is seen in how broader and more enduring constitutional and other formal institutional structures in Canada and the United States may have affected the nature of nutrient runoff related discourse in Ontario and Ohio. I provide insights into how discourse coalitions and other major policy actors engaged in discursive practices are either enabled or constrained by the broad institutional contexts within which they act. I find that in Ontario important formal institutional structures that bring together relevant actors at the provincial and federal levels seem to have provided a conducive environment for a more collaborative policymaking style as compared to that of Ohio. This research makes several significant and original contributions to the academic literature. The first theoretical contribution relates to the conceptual elaboration of storylines and the exercise of discursive influence by actors in the context of policy development for water quality at a basin and regional levels. This study provides key insights into the importance of the process of defining broad issues into specific problems and how this may affect the kind of solutions that are deemed appropriate in light of those definitions. It also highlights how the nature of the problems that modern societies are facing in this age are becoming difficult to define with many ‘environmental’ issues also having social, political and economic dimensions. The study underscores that the struggle over whose problem definition eventually prevails directly impacts the allocation of responsibilities and resources in addressing those issues. The second conceptual contribution relates to broadening the scope of institutional approaches, especially the Institutional Analysis and Development framework based approaches, by incorporating the important role of discourse. In particular, this study has illuminated the interactions between actors and their discourses, and the institutional frameworks that act as the context for the policy process. It provides supporting evidence to the argument that discourses and institutions operate in a spiraling, dialectical fashion. Thus, discourses may give rise to new institutional structures that, in turn, may shape the nature of discourse along a temporal scale. This research also points out that in addition to material resources, actors also employ linguistic and other discursive resources that the new institutionalism literature has generally disregarded. Thirdly, this research provides methodological insights on the use of critical discourse analysis and framing theory to study discourse and its power effects. By combining both approaches, the researcher is able to make explicit links between individual words and phrases in texts of policy documents with their significance in the broader network of social relations. This enables well-rounded analyses and understanding of variety of influences by actors on policy. Finally, this research provides a new empirical social scientific account of the interaction between discourse and institutions in the case of eutrophication issues in Lake Erie basin, thus providing important insights into similar problems in other parts of the world. This is especially the case with environmental issues where the policy emphasis might have been on further enhancing the scientific basis for decision making at the expense of a thorough appreciation of the highly contentious and value-laden nature of both the issue and any potential solutions.
Cite this version of the work
Bereket Negasi Isaac (2020). Assessing the Role of Discourse in Influencing Water Quality Policy in Lake Erie Basin. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/15586