Discourse networks and German pension politics

Leifeld, P.
XXIII, 507 pages. Konstanz, Universität Konstanz (2011)


Policy debates between political actors can facilitate, constrain, or change the direction of future policy-making. However, existing measurement approaches do not tap the full potential of discursive-institutionalist explanations of policy outcomes. Based on social network analysis, this dissertation therefore develops a formal methodology for the dynamic analysis of political discourse using text data. Discourse Network Analysis places special emphasis on the connection between political actors and the contents of a discourse and is thus able to operationalize core aspects of prominent policy theories. All algorithms proposed in the dissertation have been implemented in a Java-based software package called Discourse Network Analyzer and a complementary R package called rDNA. As a showcase, the German politics of old-age security in the 1990s are analyzed in detail. The literature offers several ideational explanations for the 2001 Riester reform, a major policy innovation that breaks with previous incrementalist descriptions of pension policy-making. Most importantly and supporting some of the theoretical conjectures, a closed and stable policy community of advocates of the traditional pay-as-you-go system erodes over the course of the 1990s when it is confronted with ambiguous evidence about the state of the pension system and the feasibility of solution concepts. The status-quo-oriented policy community is gradually replaced by an advocacy coalition of actors from the financial sector and relevant decision-makers, thus giving leeway to a path-breaking reform. Several generalizations about policy debates are drawn in a formal way. An exponential random graph model is used to pinpoint discursive contagion between political actors. Among other findings, regular information exchange between political actors makes them adopt each others’ claims in the debate – independent of actual preference similarity, institutional roles, and network effects –, and interest groups are demonstrated to exert a significant influence on the development of the discourse, while governmental actors are shown to be easy adopters of other actors’ claims. Finally, the empirical findings are used to theorize about the mechanisms underlying any political discourse. An agent-based computational model is used to reproduce the discourse network structures found in the pension debate. Only if both exogenous ideology and endogenous mechanisms of opinion formation are combined in the utility functions of interest groups and governmental actors, discourses can be adequately modeled, while each of the mechanisms separately is unrealistic. The dissertation thus provides a comprehensive treatment of political discourse: at the methodological, empirical, and theoretical level.

The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.